The Guardian’s ‘moderation,’ again – and reader-commenters on newspaper sites correcting the unbalanced coverage of mass surveillance

Nikki de Saint Phalle’s one-tonne L’Ange Protecteur (Guardian Angel): could there be a more perfect emblem of The Guardian’s institutional persona? photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Nikki de Saint Phalle’s one-tonne L’Ange Protecteur (Guardian Angel): could there be a more perfect emblem of The Guardian’s institutional persona?
photograph: Wikimedia Commons

No, we do not dislike The Guardian at post-Gutenberg. It is a newspaper that meets a vital need. With its unstinting support of every vulnerable or marginalised social group – immigrants, same-sex lovers, the transgendered, disabled and poor – it is the only internationally famous old media name backed by a supremely feminine sensibility. It is a sort of zaftig, mammoth-breasted Ur-Mother angel, in spite of being led by a male editor, Alan Rusbridger. We arrived at this thought indirectly, after a male critic of p-G inexplicably characterised as ‘homophilic’** the excellent ProPublica site that has been The Guardian’s co-publisher (with The NY  Times) of Glenn Greenwald’s reports on mass surveillance by governments.

Yes, in our post on that subject last week, we were indeed criticising The Guardian – but only for the reason we have in the past, on many occasions. (See ‘Good Guardian, bad Guardian …’) It censors reader comments in the Comment-is-Free section of its web site. Not, as you’d expect a priori, contributions by readers swearing or resorting to scatology, personal attacks or childish insults – most of which are allowed, to support the appearance of encouraging free speech and debate.

All over the net, there are groups of people complaining that The Guardian shuts down too many sharp, well-informed commenters who persistently disagree with certain of its cherished political positions and beliefs, or conventional wisdom that, in its view, should not be challenged. Type such strings as ‘comment moderation censorship Guardian’ into any good search engine from time to time, and you will find intelligent folk who write clearly and grammatically but are opposed to vaccinating children; do not believe that global warming is an actual phenomenon; or support Israel and have some objection to Palestinians.

Whatever the demerits of those stances might be, we believe that to support its boasts about fostering free expression, The Guardian should leave the job of opposing or condemning them to other reader-commenters.Its heavy-handed Mother Knows Best interventions are dismaying enough in these cases, but disgraceful when it deletes comments by — and sometimes bans — writers of posts that expose weaknesses in the research or arguments of its reporters and writers. (See ‘Should ordinary citizens be shut out of the debate about the media’s future?’)  As we said last week, the most disturbing instances of such censorship virtually shut down reader commentary on the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, practices and behaviour. (See: ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?‘)

Interference with comments on the Leveson Inquiry on other newspaper sites, too, could partially account for the public’s low opinion of the press. The latest post on INFORRM (International Forum for Responsible Media) notes:

The [...] anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, which publishes a Global Corruption Barometer every year [...] asked 114,000 people in 107 countries which of 12 institutions in their countries they considered most corrupt.

Only in Britain, Egypt and Australia did the media top the table of perceived corruption. In Britain 69 per cent of respondents said the media were the most corrupt, up from 39 per cent three years ago.

Anyone scrolling through the archive for this blog can see that p-G is politically neutral. So there is only a vanishingly small risk of being identified with raving on the political right when we say that most of the press coverage of the understandable rage about mass surveillance by governments is so one-sided that a space alien might conclude, first, that ‘special intelligence’ from spying is devoid of all value; secondly, that the west no longer has any enemies that need watching.

We are just as alarmed by the deadly possibilities of government spying – by our own or hostile foreign authorities — being used to control us. Stores of information, once they are gathered, can acquire new owners. Unfortunately, good intelligence is one key to strong defence. The library for books dedicated to this subject would be immense. When we tried looking up the role of spies in Spanish conquests of the Americas, a dim memory, possibly from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, we stumbled on a fascinating account by Zhenja La Rosa of human beings actually kidnapped as military intelligence tools.  Extract from ‘Language and Empire’:

The Spanish presence in America got its authority from language acts, such as that of taking possession and naming; it derived part of its military advantage through the control of interpreters, and therefore, of information; … Columbus […] initiated the practice of kidnapping natives to serve as interpreters for the Spanish conquistadors. Interpreters were an indispensable instrument in the military conquest of the Americas. […] As stated in Columbus’s record of the first encounter with the natives in the Caribbean, one of the first things Columbus did was “take” six of them in order to teach them Spanish. [...] Greenblatt comments that: ‘The radically unequal distribution of power that lies at the heart of almost all language learning in the New World is most perfectly realized in the explorers’ preferred method for dealing with the language problem… From the very first day in 1492, the principal means chosen by the Europeans to establish linguistic contact was kidnapping.’

Nasty, indeed. … We recommend reading the only objective consideration of mass surveillance we have so far found in old media  – in a Canadian magazine, Maclean’s, posing the essential question: how and where do we draw the line on surveillance?

… Otherwise, in our usual haunts, we have found only reader-commenters supplying the essential balance to press coverage on this subject. A sample:

(from a reader of The Economist):

CA-Oxonian

Aug 15th, 16:09

Obama’s problem is purely political: if he reduces in any way the current measures and if some terrorist incident occurs that claims the lives of US citizens, then as sure as night follows day the Republicans will crucify him for sacrificing American lives on the altar of “liberal” values. Although there may be no plausible connection between an actual terrorist incident and the extraordinary intrusions of the NSA, such a link would undoubtedly be made by political opponents. So to keep himself safe (if not the rest of us) Obama will maintain the Bush-era over-reach and in the spirit of McCarthyism yet more of the Constitution’s supposedly guaranteed freedoms will be lost. But who cares so long as iStuff is available, movies on demand are cheap, and McDonalds continues to churn out its gut-busting fare?

** post-Gutenberg made a curious mistake in transcribing this single word from our lively critic’s email. He actually used the word ‘homophily’ — and, in the comments section below, explains that ‘homophilic’ means something else altogether.  Read our brief exchange for proof of how much we enjoyed what we learnt from our inadvertent sloppiness. … The error makes no difference to what we say about The Guardian. Thanks to A. A. for sparking a conscious realisation of where on the gender spectrum we have always placed the newspaper.

 

How Lord Justice #Leveson let down everyone who cares about the practice of journalism ‘without fear or favour’

Partisan press = blinkered view + distorted facts photograph: postgutenberg@gmail.com

Partisan press = blinkered vision + distorted facts
Reichenau Island, 2011, by postgutenberg@gmail.com

A few days ago, The New York Times columnist David Brooks, arguing from first principles, made the case against a partisan press incontrovertibly. Like all the best essayists, he did this by also constructing the best possible case for the opposing side, listing all the disadvantages of detachment.

That was not long after a Leeds scholar, Paul Wragg – speaking at a workshop of Oxford’s Foundation for Law, Justice and Society on the 12th of April –  expressed his dismay at Lord Justice Leveson’s failure, in his report, to explain or justify adequately his support of press partisanship. This, said Wragg, was inconsistent with the judge’s own repeated reminders of his mission — to find ways to stop the  ‘real harm caused to real people’ resulting from the ‘cultural indifference to individual privacy and dignity’ on the part of the British press.

This blog’s worst fears for the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and behaviour were expressed in a headline last May:

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th estate?

We had not quite given up hope before our earlier blog entry on the same subject, in February, when we had begun to sense — but not believe — the drift of the judge’s sentiments on partisanship, from his remarks during the hearings:

Leveson hearings: can a “blind and unreasoning” or partisan press censoring citizen-journalists be good for democracy?

We are dismayed by the proof that our pessimism was so fully justified. At the Inquiry’s inception, a speech by the Lord Chief Justice – who selected Leveson LJ for the job – had given us every reason to hope for a diametrically opposite outcome:

Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?

Everyone should have a chance to weigh what David Brooks said about the virtues of detachment – of non-partisan journalism:

… The detached writer also starts with a worldview. If you don’t have a philosophic worldview, your essays won’t even rise to the status of being wrong. They won’t be anything.

But the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. She is progressive but not Democratic, conservative but not Republican. She fears the team mentality will blinker her views. She wants to remain mentally independent because she sees politics as a competition between partial truths, and she wants the liberty to find the proper balance between them, issue by issue.

The detached writer believes that writing is more like teaching than activism. Her essays are generally not about winning short-term influence. (Realistically, how many times can an outside writer shape the short-term strategies of the insider politicians?) She would rather have an impact upstream, shaping people’s perceptions of underlying reality and hoping that she can provide a context in which other people can think. She sometimes gets passionate about her views, but she distrusts her passions. She takes notes with emotion, but aims to write with a regulated sobriety.

There are trade-offs, no matter what spot on the continuum you ultimately choose. The engaged writer enjoys a tight community and a powerful sense of commitment. The detached writer enjoys more freedom and objectivity. The engaged writer emphasizes loyalty, while the detached writer emphasizes honesty. At his worst, the engaged writer slips into rabid extremism and simple-minded brutalism. At her worst, the detached writer slips into a sanguine, pox-on-all-your-houses complacency and an unearned sense of superiority. The engaged writer might become predictable. The detached writer might become irrelevant, ignored at both ends.

These days most writers land on the engaged side of the continuum. Look at most think tanks. They used to look like detached quasi universities; now some are more like rapid response teams for their partisan masters. If you ever want to get a political appointment, you have to be engaged, working on political campaigns and serving the team.

But I would still urge you to slide over toward the detached side of the scale. First, there is the matter of mental hygiene. You may think you can become a political partisan without becoming rigid and stale, and we all know people who achieve this, but the risk is high.

Engaged writers gravitate toward topics where they can do the most damage to the other side. These are topics where the battle lines are clearly drawn, not topics where there is a great deal of uncertainty. Engaged writers develop a talent for muzzle velocity, not curiosity. Just as in life, our manners end up dictating our morals. So, in writing our prose, styles end up shaping our mentalities. If you write in a way that suggests combative certitude, you may gradually smother the inner chaos that will be the source of lifelong freshness and creativity.

Also, detached writers have more realistic goals. Detached writers generally understand that they are not going to succeed in telling people what to think. It is enough to prod people to think …

[ … Read the whole column here … ]

How Swiss audience inclusion and a certain sort of nudity might be the key to success for post-Gutenberg media

Diccon Bewes, a member of Swissinfo.ch's five-man Public Council

Diccon Bewes, a member of Swissinfo.ch’s five-man Public Council

Swiss Watching NEW ED

Naked hiking is alarmingly popular, even in winter … Public nudity is not a trauma in Switzerland. Many Swiss bathing areas have FKK (Freikörper-kultur or free body culture; that is, nudist) sections … It’s still not on the German scale, where you never know when the next naked person might appear. Have a picnic in the wrong section of Munich’s English Garden and you’ll never eat another Scotch egg.

Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and MoneyDiccon Bewes, (2010)

The dispenser of advice on hazardous unclothing, Diccon Bewes, has written the wittiest, most elegantly informative and indispensable manual on today’s Switzerland for English-speaking foreigners. His whirling outline of Swiss history at the start of his book is spliced into an account of a winding walk chosen for historical associations, which gives a reader mnemonic imagery for its highlights. Bewes knows better than to frighten the Swiss, restraining what the glowing review in the Zurich paper Tages-Anzeiger called ‘typically black English humour.’

Yet encoded in his skipping prose is the style of such unforgettable thought-capsules, in 1066 and All That — the unsurpassed (1930) parody of history text-books – as, ‘[King] Alfred noticed that the Danes had very long ships, so he built a great many more much longer ones, thus cleverly founding the British Navy.’ This is specially admirable in a practical guide so astute at gauging what outsiders need to know to survive in a place where English is missing even from multilingual train announcements and museum placards, that every new visitor touching down on a Swiss tarmac could use a Bewes-on-CH (Confoederatio Helvetica) mobile app spun off from Swiss Watching.

Our overview of the visible talents of Diccon Bewes is not offered from any interest in boosting Swiss tourism, or encouraging expatriation to the Alps. He has caught our attention for an entirely unrelated reason. What we outside CH most need from him is a detailed, step-by-step education by an insider in how the Swiss make extreme democracy work, or what Beppe Grillo and the Occupy movements must do to realise their dreams. Specifically, it is media of the Gutenberg era baffled by — and resisting the transition to — post-Gutenberg inclusiveness who most need his assistance. As we have said before –

Techno-optimists are sure that our egalitarian internet that brought you to this blog will flatten power structures in organisations, both online and offline, and usher in an age of extreme democracy. Cynics say that they are wrong. Whisper to them tentatively about, for instance, reorganising the media to make readers and viewers part-owners and managers, and they will roar at you, “Ridiculous! Disastrous! It could never work!’

You must then reply in calming tones, ‘True, if you do it like California, but not if you copy Switzerland.’

So, how exactly do you copy CH? Few English-speakers have either Bewes’s hands-on experience of working with Swiss colleagues inside Switzerland – his home for the last eight years – or gift for cross-cultural explanation, backed by a degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

What would make his counsel particularly valuable to future-focused media people is his experience as the English-language specialist on the five-man Publikumsrat or Public Council of Swissinfo.ch – the internet adjunct of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) founded in 1999 that specialises in news about, and of special interest to the Swiss, and crisply-written features that illuminate foreigners. All this, every day, is translated into ten languages.

The style of government that makes Switzerland the world’s most democratic democracy is replicated in organisations of every size and kind in CH – including its many businesses run as cooperatives, two of which make the list of the world’s top twenty-five in sales.

The Publikumsrat gives Swissinfo’s editors and journalists detailed feedback on their choice of subjects as well as on the way these are tackled. It makes suggestions for new topics. It also defends Swissinfo from its detractors.  More than once, in the last ten years, it has led  campaigns to protect it from accountants wielding budget-slashing axes – inspiring ‘Save Swissinfo!’ petitions from as far away as New South Wales, in Australia.

Post-Gutenberg has been browsing on the Swissinfo site for three years. The experience of reading there has been hugely surprising – nothing like the teasing love-letter to CH that Swiss Watching’s tone suggests, but equipping Swiss-bashers with ammunition. Its coverage of the most embarrassing, even humiliating, topics for the Swiss is frank enough to suggest that, more than a mere pastime, nude hiking in glacial cold could be a metaphor for … well, the naked honesty in the conversational style of the Schweizerdeutsch, the German-speaking Swiss who dominate the population. In our experience, they express themselves freely and with graphic precision on almost any subject, even chatting to strangers (unless these are identified as journalists, a reviled profession in CH), as long as they respect basic standards for civility and friendliness.

Part of the reason why Swissinfo’s coverage of topics is startlingly direct is that there is no room for subtle and idiomatic expression in any text that has to scan as well, in the language of its composition, as in its Portuguese, Chinese and Russian versions. Of course, this is also true of the work of the BBC World Service – but the unflinching Schweizer style does seem to make for extra-bluntness.

Readers of this blog can wander over to Swissinfo.ch and see for themselves. We have been stunned by some reports there on the Nazi Gold scandal – in part of which Swiss banks were accused of conspiring to deny descendants of Holocaust victims access to their families’ Swiss bank accounts, or about academic studies blaming lax gun control policies for Switzerland ranking, with America, at the top of the statistics for gun-related suicides. Far from any cover-up, there is a relentless succession of articles quoting critics of gun ownership. This is especially brave in a country in which every referendum on the subject shows the Swiss refusing to be weaned off weapons ownership. (We cannot conceive of a cowardly Swissinfo blackout of news about press reform, if this had the attention of Swiss government leaders.)

Forthrightness – and audience involvement, through the Publikumusrat — could make Swissinfo a model for news coverage in the UK and US, where, as one poll after another shows, public trust in the media has never been lower.

Until recently, the point of having Swissinfo was to help Swiss nationals living abroad stay sufficiently well-informed to make the best possible decisions when they vote remotely in referendums and elections. This part of its charter is no longer as important as demystifying Switzerland for foreigners, because free online editions of so many Swiss newspapers give Swiss expatriates the facts they need.

But doing a good job of serving Swiss voters abroad meant that the information the site supplied had to be politically neutral, or carefully balanced across the spectrum of political opinions. That this approach has not changed, even after Swissinfo’s staff and budget were each cut back last year by roughly a third, only adds to the attractions of the site – since, as this blog has underlined in the past, the reading public prefers to be served news undistorted by politics.

The British press ignores this preference. Both during and since the Leveson hearings on press ethics, one editor after another insisted – invoking  time-hallowed tradition as frantically as the Catholic Church fighting for respect, in recent weeks —  that political slanting has always been part of its lifeblood.

Though mockers of the Occupy movements keep insisting that extreme democracy could never be either practical or realistic, Switzerland, the über-democracy, is proof to the contrary. With its tiny population of not quite 8 million, CH can boast of being not just one of the world’s richest countries but the one at the very top of economists’ table for individual wealth – per (adult) capita.

Here is some food for meditation from Swiss Watching’s chapter titled ‘Ask the audience’:

Walking through the centre of Bern means running the gauntlet of clipboard-thrusting pen holders wanting your name. These aren’t charity muggers desperate for your cash … And the papers are not futile petitions that will be delivered to the government without any prospect of anyone taking notice. This is not Britain. This is Switzerland, where the people have power, and they use it. Collecting signatures is the first step towards a referendum, the basic tool of the direct democracy system. Don’t like a government decision? Then collect names to change it. Want to create a new law? Then collect names to initiate it. Hate minarets? Then collect signatures to ban them [ … ]

For outsiders, it’s hard to imagine how a country can function if every law and government action is subject to a government vote. For the Swiss, it’s hard to understand how any country can be run without just that. […] The Swiss people can initiate legislation or destroy it; they can force the government into new policies or reject decisions it’s already made. No one person or party ever has complete control – the people do. Forget China and North Korea; if any country deserves to be called a People’s Republic, it is Switzerland.

Swisscellany 300 dpi for web