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 single 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 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 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 of 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 one 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):


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.


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

  1. As the semi-fictional character, or possibly characterizer, referred to in Ms Barron’s opening paragraph, I must point out to her readers — and to the NSA — that the adjective homophilic, which she places within inverted commas, never appeared in our personal correspondence. The word I used was the very neutral, non-pejorative technical term “homophily.” An inadvertent misreading would indeed have resulted in bafflement [” … inexplicably…”], as would plain old ignorance of its meaning.

    And the latter error would be quite forgivable. It is after all a scientific neologism that belongs, arguably, exactly where it started: in the laboratories of socio-anthropology. I’m a tiny bit worried that the NSA’s spooks will fail to take the trouble of riffling through the pages of Wikipedia for clarification on the concept of homophily; my faith in Ms Barron, on the other hand, is great.

    In any case the comment occurred within a series of emails between us in which I avowed bubbling thanks for her having referred me to the ProPublica website (to which I then immediately, and enthusiastically, subscribed). Nothing in my remark even remotely smacked of derision. Quite the opposite. It’s true that in the same correspondence I referred to the Guardian as a “steaming shit pile” and to Rusbridger himself as a … I forget — middling piano player, let’s say. I suppose some pervading tone of invective may have reverberated — inexplicably so — right across the page.

  2. Your guess about ‘plain old ignorance’ was spot-on, dear A.A.. Homophily. Homophilia. Those would reasonably be understood to have the same meaning by over 99 per cent of the population — at a wild guess. … But having looked up your welcome addition to our puny vocabulary …

    Homophily (i.e., “love of the same”) is the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others.

    … we must ask, whatever makes you think that it applies only to the ProPublica writers and readers? Or haven’t you heard the jokes about the standard-issue sandal-wearing, veggie-chomping Guardian reader?

    Though there is a a wide gap, to say the least, between your characterisation of that paper and p-G‘s … ahem … you might be just as interested in a hair-raising calibration of the extent of the bodacious Ur-Mother’s
    spying on her readers: ‘How The Guardian is Quietly and Repeatedly Spying on You’ … :)

  3. Did you really mean to say technical, A.A.?
    According to the fossilised entrails of an old NYT piece … sorry, that should have been, archived magazine article, ‘homophily’ was just an artificial neologism cooked up by a gaggle of sociologists in the ’50s (no secret wisdom from your enviable life as a classicist, alas …):

    Extract New York Times magazine contribution from Aaron Retica
    December 10, 2006

    ‘In the 1950s, sociologists coined the term “homophily” — love of the same — to explain our inexorable tendency to link up with one another in ways that confirm rather than test our core beliefs. Those who liked Ike, in other words, liked each other. The term didn’t catch on, but the concept is now enjoying a renaissance, in part because it has been repeatedly invoked to explain the American electorate’s apparent polarization into equally self-regarding camps.’

    Then we found this — curiouser and curiouser.
    Homophily. Homophilia … and here’s Homophile:

    English-Word Information

    philo-, phil-, -phile, -philia, -philic, -philous, -phily, -philiac, -philist, -philism

    (Greek: love, loving, friendly to, fondness for, attraction to; strong tendency toward, affinity for; no hate, hatred, dislike, or negative responses)

    1. Actually, this combination of Greek elements means, “A fondness for doing the same thing over and over, or for repetition”.
    2. Gay or homosexual.
    3. Being actively concerned about the rights and the welfare of gay or homosexual people.
    4. Another term for a homosexual.

  4. I suppose that, like any technical term, this particular technical term is merely a non-technical term pretending to be a … technical term. In that instance the scientist in question — unless my dimming memory has further dimmed — was Miller McPherson, a serious man with serious observational discipline. However odious the coinage, the idea is an interesting one that relates in an interesting way to other similar overlapping concepts, such as Confirmation Bias (Peter Wason, possibly?) and Attitude Polarization (no idea, Wikipedia must know). Laziness resumes.

  5. … half-wondered if it mightn’t have been some species of insider joke. But with your mention of a slightly boffinish name like Miller McPherson … Hmm.

    Will drop a footnote into the first paragraph later, when less rushed.

    Thank you, that was an intriguing contribution, A.A..

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