Britain’s government ‘moderates’ The Guardian as a commenter on its surveillance policies, and The New York Times hides ex-General James Cartwright

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After the horror of thought police, the most terrifying aspect of the society George Orwell anticipates so brilliantly in 1984 is that almost nothing about its regulations or the behaviour of the people running it makes any sense.

Why was The Guardian so unembarrassed by the inconsistency of making such a fuss about being forbidden by Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to publish any more revelations about the extent of UK and US government spying on the public – when this newspaper also shuts down disclosures about and discussion of matters it considers sensitive?

For instance – what? For instance, reader commentary on the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and conduct. As more than one commenter pointed out, on the same web page as the newspaper’s unconvincing attempt to justify its censorship, Lord Justice Leveson himself had been permitting far more revealing accusations and evidence to be aired at his hearings. guardian notice Complaint by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger:

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

As a reader identified as ‘Dr. Gabriel Mayer’ on the site of The New York Times pointed out, about the tunnel vision in condemnations of surveillance focused exclusively on the National Security Agency:

What really surprises me is this universal alarm regarding the NSA and a possible sinister utilization of data should something unpredictable and Orwellian take place.

If …… and when …

But right now this comment is being monitored by Google and Apple (I am on one of their products) for sure, and probably a few other bloodthirsty corporate entities.

Where are the op-eds about this reality?

Well, Dr. Mayer, how can the newspapers be expected to attack round-the-clock commercial surveillance when they themselves plant spy cookies on our devices every time we read articles on their sites? Looking for a ray of light in this chilling scene, we were pleased, at first, to read a paragraph in David Carr’s Media Equation column in The New York Times last week. He deftly summarised recent leaks by whistle-blowers and other disseminators of vital information outside mainstream journalism:

Because of the leaks and the stories they generated, we have learned that in the name of tracking terrorists, the N.S.A. has been logging phone calls and e-mails for years, recorded the metadata of correspondence between Americans, and in some instances, dived right into the content of e-mails. The WikiLeaks documents revealed that the United States turned a blind eye on the use of torture by our Iraqi allies, and that an airstrike was ordered to cover up the execution of civilians. WikiLeaks also published a video showing a United States Army helicopter opening fire on a group of civilians, including two Reuters journalists.

But then his characterisation of the leakers being punished conveyed an impression of raffish, marginal and faintly unreliable figures:

Perhaps they got what’s coming to them. They knew, or should have known, the risks of revealing information entrusted to them, and decided to proceed. Like almost all whistle-blowers, they are difficult people with complicated motives.

So, too, are the journalists who aid them. It’s not surprising that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who brokered the publishing of Private Manning’s documents, and Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian who has led the Snowden revelations, have also come under intense criticism.

But why was there no mention at all, in his column, of possibly the most distinguished leaker of all – a retired four-star general who was vice-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff? He is generally believed to have been the chief source for the story last year about an American cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, a report that appeared in … well, The New York Times. A blogger explained:

In the flood of news surrounding Edward Snowden’s revelations about the surveillance operations of the National Security Agency, another equally consequential development in the crisis of the security state has gone largely unnoticed. This is the news that retired general James Cartwright, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is under investigation by the Justice Department in relation to the leaking of secret information about the 2010 Stuxnet virus attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

To understand the significance of this, it’s important to observe that, as with the revelations of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, this alleged “leak” did not reveal anything that was not known to the enemies of the United States. In all these cases, the leaks only confirmed what any member of the general public who had bothered to follow the story could reasonably infer.

A New York Times article from June 2012, which allegedly relied on leaks from Cartwright, revealed that Stuxnet was part of a U.S. program initiated by the Bush administration and carried on under Obama.

How did Orwell know? How did he see so far ahead, with 20/20 vision?

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

'Censor' was a Roman invention, but 'censorship' was virtually co-invented with the Gutenberg press -- Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

[ Addendum, 23 February:

Although The Guardian has unquestionably deleted courteous posts about proposals for press reform and media evolution from the Comment-is-free section of its site, as recorded on this blog on 7 November and 15 November, I might owe that newspaper an apology for suggesting in the entry below that its moderators broke links to post-gutenberg.com posted on its site in January. Please see the footnote** for details.  ]

A remarkable statement went unnoticed by the few commentators on a morning of superb theatre at the Leveson hearings on press practices, culture and ethics in Britain on 31 January.

As noted earlier on this blog, press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry has been scant. It has focused on tabloid phone-hacking and emphasised paeans to press freedom by well-known witnesses, but under-reported criticism of the media (for instance, the excoriating but mostly well-founded testimony of the former journalist and prime ministerial communications adviser Alastair Campbell.)

Giving evidence last week, Christopher Meyer, the former chairman of the Press Complaints Commission – a body roundly criticised for being too close to newspaper editors to handle accusations against them objectively — said in a fleeting aside that the press is free to be partisan in a democracy. He said that as if stating a self-evident truth, accepted as such. I could not find any record of his remark in the transcript of the proceedings, but there was this exchange between the ex-chairman and his surgically incisive interrogator, Robert Jay QC.

Q: … I think the point you’re making there is that the press is free to comment and be partisan and it’s not the role of the PCC in a democracy to seek to curb that democratic activity?

A:  Yeah, that’s fair enough.

That could stand as a marker for the extent of the shift from the last century’s ideal of a neutral press to one in which the media openly take sides – or, as The Economist put it last July, are becoming ‘more opinionated, polarised and partisan’.  Not the faintest note of doubt intruded on the former PCC chairman’s declaration or confirmation of his position on partisanship, even though media bias is not what the public wants, if we can take as representative the 73 per cent of 2,700-odd Economist readers who have so far voted ‘yes’ in answer to the question, ‘Should news organisations always remain impartial?’. Bias has rightly been worrying experts like this political scientist, who asked in 2010 on ‘a plain blog about politics‘:

Will we have a robust, vigorous, and almost completely partisan press?  Will there still be a place for neutrality?  How will this play out for state and local politics?  What kinds of norms will the partisan press develop?

Some of us who have noticed the British and American press grow more aggressively one-sided in recent years cannot help wondering whether that has meant getting fewer of the objective reports and facts that a democracy needs to make good decisions about policies and politicians.

Partisanship is disturbing in itself, when you consider the dictionary definition of ‘partisan’ as ‘adherent, esp. a blind or unreasoning adherent’ (Chambers, 2006).  How can it be consistent with this classic list of guidelines for journalists doing their ‘duty of providing the people with the information they need to be free and self-governing’ – from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.

2. Its first loyalty is to the citizens.

3. Its essence is discipline of verification.

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

7. It must strive to make the significant interesting, and relevant.

8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

Some of us have noticed ways in which partisan has begun to mean punitive – as in censoring healthy disagreement and opposition.

If we accept that a newspaper has the right to push a particular agenda at us, does that give it the right to stifle dissent about that agenda – from, for instance, citizen journalists, which all of us become when we react to articles in the comments sections of the online press? Moderators at online sites attached to famously liberal and left-wing mastheads unhesitatingly delete comments that challenge the biases of those newspapers, even when phrased cautiously and politely. (See ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?’)

There is proof that I am not alone in wondering about this in the Wikipedia entry for ‘Media democracy’ – a concept that elicited a curious response from an editor at the New York Times, mentioned in this spot last month.

The concept of “democratizing the media” has no real meaning within the terms of political discourse in Western society. In fact, the phrase has a paradoxical or even vaguely subversive ring to it. Citizen participation would be considered an infringement on freedom of the press, a blow struck against the independence of the media that would distort the mission they have undertaken to inform the public without fear or favor… this is because the general public must be reduced to its traditional apathy and obedience, and frightened away from the arena of political debate and action.

Addressing the Alpach Technology Forum in Germany last August, William Dutton, the outgoing director of the Oxford Internet Institute, identified ‘Journalists and the Mass Media – imitating, co-opting, competing,’ as one collective enemy of  the 5th Estate, which includes citizen-journalists. (See ‘The Future of the Internet for Networked Individuals of the Fifth Estate’.)

If not for Justice Leveson and his supremely necessary investigation, I might have been depressed by the results that came up when I typed into search boxes the once-hallowed phrase, ‘Without fear or favour’. It encapsulated a consensus among the most admirable practitioners of journalism about the importance of rising above partisanship.  When I used the English spelling of the word ‘favour’, the first Google results page brought up scarcely any links to sites unconnected with Africa, New Zealand, Australia or Malaysia. With American spelling, dropping the ‘u’, the first page of findings did supply links to sites related to the U. S., but too few of them led to anyone expressing the outrage about the increasingly hollow sound of those words that I had hoped to see.

A press that no longer sees neutrality as essential to democracy in the west would explain why some of us have been given our first visceral impressions of what samizdat resistance under the old Soviet Union felt like, as commenters repeatedly censored – improbably enough – by The Guardian, a standard-bearer for liberalism.

Since I published these posts deleted by that paper on this blog on 7 November and 15 November, interference with my comments appears to have turned covert.

In the last two weeks, every link to this site posted in comments there has been broken either by Guardian moderators or by some profoundly mysterious line of rogue code in the newspaper’s software. (Anyone curious enough to run a paranoia test can search on  ‘CheryllBarron’ beneath Peter Guillam’s contribution, ‘The capitalism debate is anaemic – it must dig deeper‘.  Compare the results from pasting the URLs I have posted there into your own browser with clicking on the same URLs on the Guardian page – which only leads to variations of ‘Oops! Page not  found’.)

‘Censor’ is a word that came to us from the Roman Empire – although it mainly alluded to a lofty being entrusted with conducting the census and guarding public morality. ‘Censorship’ was a novelty that the Gutenberg press spawned. As the historian John Hale has explained,

It was in Germany, where printing was pioneered, that censorship was first introduced. In 1475 the University of Cologne, jealous of the freelance expression of ideas, obtained from the Pope the right to grant licences for the publication of books and to punish those who published or read unauthorized ones.

[…]

By [1515] the flood of books and the realization that a new, less instructed and more excitable audience for them was being reached, moved a number of European secular authorities to insist on manuscripts being submitted to them before printing.

Who could have predicted a punitive partisan press being allowed – so far – to get away with silencing democratic opposition in our own media revolution, five centuries later?

______________________

** Links to post-gutenberg.com yielding a ‘not found’ notice

Since I reported on what appeared to be a novel form of censorship, I have discovered the identical problem on this WordPress site. Something has been – inconsistently – inserting an extra ‘http’into texts of mine where there should be only one in each URL, with results like this (the unwanted duplicate is highlighted in bold):

‘<a href=”http://http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/”><span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>

This curious repetition disables the link. A technical support specialist at WordPress has so far been unable to trace the trouble to its source – or explain it.

Until the investigation is concluded, I feel I owe The Guardian the benefit of the doubt – and an apology for an unjust accusation.

I hope to know more soon.

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

Britain’s Lord Chief Justice, Lord (earlier, Sir Igor) Judge, whose endorsement of citizen journalism in a speech on 19 October was not reported by the press

Readers who would first like to see the unimpeachably polite comments deleted by the Guardian’s moderators on 30 October – reproduced exactly as published on its site** before they were censored – can scroll down further on this page. The deletions fall into four classes:

● Comments directing readers to the post on this site titled, ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders,’ and to a paper published by the Oxford Internet Institute,  ‘The Keiretsu-Cooperative: a Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing,’ downloadable at no charge, here on the Social Science Research Network site.

● Comments pointing to a post on this site showing how the ‘business model’ the press runs on today can radically distort the truth: ‘How competition for advertising in print media let Steve Jobs warp history and steal the credit for the computer revolution.’

● Comments highlighting an addition to this site titled, ‘Will the calls for press reform during Britain’s Hackgate lead to action — or business as usual?’  It starts by quoting the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, about the need to diversify media ownership.

● Comments linked to an article on this site showing how Switzerland makes super-democracy work well: ‘Extreme democracy is not an impossible dream if you copy Switzerland, not California.’ In its first paragraph, this blog entry mentions that the Swiss experience could be a good guide for an experiment in restructuring newspaper ownership.

The Leveson enquiry convened by David Cameron’s government to investigate the British phone hacking scandal and ‘the culture, practices and ethics of the press’  will make recommendations about whether the 4th Estate should be trusted to regulate itself.

Can the public be expected to trust self-regulation when a leading newspaper is going out of its way to obstruct debate about media ownership, and the question of whether the media should be restructured to include non-traditional disseminators of information?

Could this restriction of free expression be related to the omission from press reports of any mention of a clear and ringing  endorsement of ‘citizen journalism’ – and the rest of the 5th Estate – by Britain’s top judge, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord (Igor) Judge, in a speech on press regulation in mid-October? So few newspapers reported the speech at all that I learnt about it from a Twitter feed.

The Guardian, like The Sun, only mentioned what he said about the importance of a free press in a brief news item, leaving readers to find their own way to his careful qualification of that remark in a transcript of the whole speech posted on its site. It failed to draw its readers’ attention to a point he emphasised at the start of his lecture. It was about the tendency of the press to wilfully misread a famous statement in 1762 by the reformer and political activist, John Wilkes, as restricting the right to uncensored expression to the privileged minority that the 4th Estate represents. Justice Judge began by quoting Wilkes, then explained what the agitator meant:

“The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country”. 

We embrace that statement. The significance of what John Wilkes said was not, as those connected with the media sometimes suggest, that the statement is upholding the liberty of the press. That is undoubtedly a direct consequence of what John Wilkes said, but in reality on close examination what he was saying was much more profound. He was asserting that the liberty of the press is the birthright of every citizen, that is, the community as a whole. It is birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent. It is therefore not a right of one section of the community, not just a sectional right. It is the right of the community as a whole. It is, if you like, our right, the right of every citizen.

I cannot believe that The Guardian thinks its moderators should be deleting proposals for a mere experiment in co-owning part of a newspaper site with reader-citizens. But I had no reply after I tweeted the paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, an alert about the removal of a comment containing a link to my piece about the pernicious effects of advertising on the presentation of the truth. Earlier messages asking the newspaper’s moderation team for an explanation for the cuts also received no answer. This is puzzling. The editor has been giving speeches about ‘the mutualization’ of his newspaper, announcing that ‘our readers have become part of what we do. . . lending a hand with research and ideas, bringing us up short when we get things wrong.’ 

Cheryll Barron

** As we live in an age of digital forgery, I have saved not just the deleted comments by postgutenberg but the threads on which they were posted, and would willingly present them for authentication to any democratically licensed official body. Correspondence to: postgutenberg@gmail.com

THE CENSORED COMMENTS

Here is a sample of the comments by postgutenberg that were deleted by the Guardian on 30 October. Most of the censored contributions were left undisturbed for several days or weeks until I posted the first of these pointers to this site – after which there was a grand retrospective purge:

(1)

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson – review

Peter Conrad 

‘postgutenberg

30 October 2011 11:39PM

This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted. For more detail see our FAQs.’

What the censored comment said:

postgutenberg

30 October 2011 11:39PM

Read this and you can make up your own mind:

How competition for advertising in print media let Steve Jobs warp history and steal the credit for the computer revolution

https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/10/25/how-competition-for-advertising-in-print-media-let-steve-jobs-warp-history-and-steal-the-credit-for-the-computer-revolution/


(2)

A register of journalists’ interests would help readers to spot astroturfing

George Monbiot http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/29/voluntary-register-journalists-interests-astroturfing

‘postgutenberg‘s comment 29 September 2011 9:34PM

This comment has been removed by a moderator.’

What the censored comment said:

postgutenberg

29 September 2011 9:34PM

An interesting idea, but you can share the same tiny media cubicle, and never discover who your workmate knows, or what his or her true interests are. So if there were such a register, would people tell the truth?

Secrecy is so often the essence of power.

What would prevent fake transparency in declaring your interests?

Addressing Whealie‘s point, what if the Guardian were to try out an experiment in which commenters become part-owners of a section of the online newspaper and helped to decide on policies, including moderation?

More details here: Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders.

https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/09/05/wanted-a-brave-newspaper-for-an-experiment-in-which-readers-become-stakeholders/

(3)

Occupy Wall Street? These protests are not Tahrir Square but scenery

Simon Jenkins http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/occupy-wall-street-tahrir-scenery

postgutenberg‘s comment 20 October 2011 10:14PM

This comment has been removed by a moderator.’

What the censored comment said:

            postgutenberg

            20 October 2011 10:14PM

There are serious gaps in the transparency of modern democracy. Between elections, the traditional mediators between electors and those in power have withered. The “customary associations and little platoons” have dwindled.

Spot-on.

But surely the press is that great traditional mediator?

… the 4th Estate that is now supposed to be sharing power with the even more democratic 5th Estate? Yet to the restructuring of media that this calls for, Simon is furiously opposed … Scroll to the end and see the quotation of OpiumEater’s sharp post, here:

Will the calls for press reform during Britain’s Hackgate lead to action — or business as usual?

https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/09/19/will-the-calls-for-press-reform-during-hackgate-lead-to-action-or-business-as-usual/

Why?

And a writer who turned to fiction to show us exactly what needs to change – whose work could easily supply a list of precise demands for Occupy Everything – has been mis-classified as a vacuous Dan Brown-equivalent:

Stieg Larsson, 5th estate forerunner, marginalised as a media critic      

https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/09/05/stieg-larsson-5th-estate-forerunner-marginalised-media-critic/

postgutenberg [this correction of the censored comment was left in place]

20 October 2011 10:19PM

Sorry, that was supposed to say, why is Simon opposed to restructuring the media for the 5th Estate? — far more democratic than the 4th Estate because of the greater inclusiveness of the internet as a medium.

(4)

Capitalism has learned to create host organisms

Zygmunt Bauman

‘postgutenberg‘s comment 18 October 2011 11:14AM

This comment has been removed by a moderator.’

What the censored comment said:

postgutenberg

18 October 2011 11:14AM

Good analysis and fresh thinking — even if it is pessimistic.

That new art – made possible by the shift from the “society of producers” to the “society of consumers”, and from the meeting of capital and labour to the meeting of commodity and client as the principal source of “added value” – profit and accumulation consists mostly of the progressive commodification of life functions, market mediation in successive needs’ satisfaction and substituting desire for need in the role of the fly-wheel of the profit-aimed economy.

But couldn’t we use the internet to reverse that shift? It has given us so many tools to become producers ourselves – and to set up our own websites to sell what we make, anything from the materialist bits ‘n’ bobs that pass through E-Bay to paintings, texts, — even shares in creative enterprises of every kind, through so-called ‘crowd-sourcing’.

And what if the media were to lead the way — showing how to co-opt capitalism’s limitless energy and inventiveness through co-ownership? … effectively, a cross between socialism and capitalism?

Most of the new co-operative ventures tried in the 1970s failed, usually because decision-making was slow and cumbersome. But with the blazing speeds at which detailed information can be communicated and votes tallied with today’s media, new co-operative ventures wouldn’t be burdened with the same difficulties as the old ones.

Yes, there would be new problems – there are always problems – but why not experiment and see what happens?

Wanted: a brave newspaper for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders

https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/09/05/wanted-a-brave-newspaper-for-an-experiment-in-which-readers-become-stakeholders/

(5)

Europe’s defunct idealism is like Munich all over again

Simon Jenkins

‘postgutenberg‘s comment 19 October 2011 2:07AM

This comment has been removed by a moderator.’

What the censored comment said:

postgutenberg

19 October 2011 2:07AM

A rare treat — constructive new thinking, actually being implemented:………………..found a few minutes ago in a NYT column by Joe Nocera:

We Can All Become Job Creators

By JOE NOCERA

Howard Schultz. God bless him.

Here we are two months later, and Schultz [founder-president of Starbucks] is back with Big Idea No. 2. It is every bit as idealistic as his first big idea, but far more practical. Starbucks is going to create a mechanism that will allow us citizens to do what the government and the banks won’t: lend money to small businesses. This mechanism is scheduled to be rolled out on Nov. 1. This time, Schultz is not tilting at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/18/opinion/nocera-we-can-all-become-job-creators.html?_r=1&ref=opinion&pagewanted=printwindmills.

Wanted: a brave newspaper for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders

https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/09/05/wanted-a-brave-newspaper-for-an-experiment-in-which-readers-become-stakeholders/