Good Guardian, bad Guardian, and two more censored comments

The transatlantic conversation about the future of the media: growls of thunder answering across the sky

…[A]ny failure of the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry therefore may be one simple question – who guards the guardians?

Lord Justice Leveson, opening an official enquiry into the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’, 14 November 2011

Audience reactions expressed as ‘comments’ on the internet have found their way into a literary novel, certainly for the first time in my reading. In Alan Hollinghurst’s tragicomedy, The Stranger’s Child, published earlier this year, he writes:

Raymond and his computer lived together in intense codependency, … On Houndvoice Raymond posted eerie little videos of long-dead poets reading authentic sound recordings emerging from the mouths of digitally animated photographs. It was clear from the Comments that some viewers thought they were really seeing Alfred Noyes read ‘The Highwayman,’ while even those who weren’t taken in were apparently impressed by the fish-like gaping of the poet’s lips …

I have recently heard journalists and editors in four countries say how much they detest comments sections, but these responses from the other side of the footlights are rightly classified by the Wikipedia as a category of citizen journalism. You can see reader reactions drawing our attention to matters of the greatest importance – as in a discussion last week on the web site of the Columbia Journalism Review, the journal of the Columbia Journalism School, a well-established institution in New York. A commenter, H. Barca, had a brief exchange with Emily Bell, who joined the Columbia faculty after some years as an editor at The Guardian.

Ms. Bell: […] [P]erhaps you can inform us how much you are getting from Alden Global Capital, the owners of Digital First, to “consult” on the vulture fund’s dismantling of a large part of the media landscape. Since Alden owns large shares in just about every major newspaper company in the country, your paid-for-view will be necessary reading for thousands of soon to be unemployed journalists.

#1 Posted by H. Barca on Thu 10 Nov 2011 at 12:43 PM 

I was offered a spot on the digital advisory board by John Paton the chief executive of JRC in September 2010. The post is one which is not contracted, it is fully disclosed (I make a point of this) and editorially focused – it is not strategic in terms of deals or decisions on investment. My views though have been fairly consistent, and pre-date my arrival in the US.

#2 Posted by Emily Bell on Thu 10 Nov 2011 at 01:15 PM

Emily Bell: Your “editorially focused” work is the driver for Alden Global Capital to gut what’s left of its news operations and to spread the disease to the rest of the “distressed properties” it plans to gobble up. It’s at the heart of its “strategic” investment. I don’t care that you are willing to soil your own reputation. But you are dragging Columbia down with you. If Nicholas Lehman had any sense, he would ask you to pick one or the other.

#5 Posted by H. Barca on Sun 13 Nov 2011 at 12:16 AM

Lemann, not Lehman. My apologies, Dean.

Perhaps Emily Bell is right and there is no conflict of interest in working for a media conglomerate while she teaches at Columbia. I do not understand the distinctions she is making in her reply to H. Barca. I do not know what her use of the word ‘contracted’ means, or why she contrasts it with ‘disclosed’ and ‘editorial,’ or what any opinions she formed before she went to the  U.S. have to do with H. Barca’s objections.

Perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with a professional journalist and journalism instructor serving a capitalist enterprise apparently playing a dual role as asset-stripper and saviour of failing newspapers – a puzzling combination I gleaned from an article in Monday’s New York Times.

But those of us brought up to believe in a 4th Estate serving, as Judge Leveson said this week, as ‘an essential check on all aspects of public life,’  are finding it hard to see how this responsibility can be met by a member of the profession paid a good salary to work in the ivory tower, yet seeking further profit from selling advice that should surely be given free of charge – for the good of the profession, if that really is Alden Capital’s mission.

Perhaps such idealism is now fogeyish and irrelevant. If it is, and journalism is just another business, the press has forfeited both the aura and special privileges of a high calling — just as the toil of scribes in the scriptoria of the Catholic Church lost its odour of sanctity in an earlier technological shift, the advent of printing.

Some questions for Dean Lemman to consider are:

• What is the likelihood that a journalism professor paid consulting fees by a corporation will draw students’ attention to  the ways in which companies can and do distort the coverage of certain industries — for instance, Steve Jobs’s effect on the record of who did what in computer research?

• What are the chances of such a teacher encouraging discussion of, for instance, the warning by the  ombudsman of The New York Times about the possibility that a section of the paper was getting too close to the financial industry?

• If, as in this case, the professor is a specialist in instructing students about the shift from print to digital publishing, how objective is she likely to be in weighing the relative pros and cons of future ownership structures — the most crucial topic in discussions of journalism’s future? Would not-for-profit or co-operative publishing models be treated reflexively as impractical and unrealistic by a paid consultant to a conventional capitalist enterprise?

What an Emily Bell does in America might seem to have nothing to do with a judicial enquiry into press regulation in Britain. In practice, her dialogue with H. Barca is part of a single conversation about the future of journalism in the English-speaking world – growls of thunder answering each other across a vast sky.

Many a seemingly trivial move in today’s chaotic media landscape demands a closer look. Friends of mine have been incredulous, reading through the comments censored by The Guardian that I posted here last week. They and I were accustomed to thinking of this newspaper as firmly on the side of the angels. But the true character of both individuals and institutions often emerges when they feel most threatened.

Alan Rusbridger told a story at his own expense in a lecture at the awards ceremony for the Orwell Prize in London last week, sounding like the ideal editor of the endearing, liberal Guardian. He mentioned someone’s description of him as looking ‘like Harry Potter’s lonely uncle’.

What would George Orwell make of the Guardian’s deletion of comment after comment filling in what has been missing from the debate about media reform – specific proposals for change, reflecting the new digital realities, other than the introduction of paywalls?

Because of its annoyance about a post here asking, ‘Will the calls for press reform during Britain’s Hackgate lead to action — or business as usual?‘, the paper’s site moderators have indiscriminately been deleting other, unrelated comments, like an enraged axe murderer. In this extension of last week’s selection of deletions by the Guardian on 30 October, the motive for censoring the second comment — a reply to several other commenters — is particularly incomprehensible:


Cynics’ distrust of e-petitions no longer serves democracy

Jackie Ashley


23 October 2011 8:56PM

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:


23 October 2011 8:56PM

Arguments against e-petitions range from the high-mindedly constitutional to the cynical. Ever since Edmund Burke, MPs have fiercely defended their role as independent-minded consciences, free to vote as they see fit, rather than as the mandated human tools of their electorates. Plenty would argue that the slow-moving, formal nature of parliamentary politics has saved Britain from foolish populist spasms and barbarities.

True about the value of moving slowly, but in the age of the internet, everything moves fast … so there is no really alternative to change.

Important to do it the right way:

Extreme democracy is not an impossible dream, but make sure you copy Switzerland, not California


23 October 2011 8:58PM

… sorry, that should be, ‘so there is really no alternative to change’ …


The deification of Steve Jobs is Apple’s greatest marketing triumph to date

Tanya Gold

‘postgutenberg‘s comment 22 October 2011 3:35AM

This comment has been removed by a moderator.’

What the censored comment said:


22 October 2011 3:35AM

mismeasure, 12.59 pm – a brilliant post all the way. TheCalifornia historian Kevin Starr has made the same point, in a closely related context. Indeed,

The apple product is experienced as an extension of the body. A prosthetic. […] I am my iphone: sleek, elegant, effective. I experience myself through a commodity– i.e., I am an object; this object has human qualities.

It’s reality turned upside down.


Your article has merit when it comes to the first graphical interface. But let’s take a broader view. After leaving Apple, Jobs founded NeXT Computer. NeXT Software, Inc. released WebObjects, ..]

NeXT was a disaster, as everyone paying attention knows. … Okay, he founded a string of companies, two of which were successful. So what? That supports summing up his achievements as: shrewd businessman with excellent taste in design.

He does not belong remotely – I mean, from galaxies away – in the same class as Johannes Gutenberg.

Gutenberg invented the first European printing press. His printing press has, over and over again, been voted – by Guardian readers, too, if I am remembering right, the single most important invention in history.

What he did and what his work accomplished need no qualification, no further explanation. … and needs no, ‘But let’s take a broader view,’ as you suggest for SJ.

And I am astounded to see you try to reduce Xerox PARC’s list of inventions to the graphical user interface. Here is the actual list (from the Wiki entry) :

Xerox PARC has been responsible for such well known and important developments as …laser printing,


…the modern personal computer,

…graphical user interface (GUI) — designed to work with the mouse (something else not invented by Jobs)

…object-oriented programming,

…ubiquitous computing,

…amorphous silicon (a-Si) applications,

…and advancing very-large-scale-integration (VLSI) for semiconductors.

Why am I posting here when I should be working? Because I am always defending the internet as a spreader of lies and half-truths by pointing out that when someone spouts nonsense, it will be corrected with the facts – sooner or later.

And yet, .. and yet ,… in spite of the net’s ability to set things straight, important people who should know better are as ill-informed as you are – David Cameron, Barack Obama … and with the Wikipedia under their noses.

The most effective marketing is indistinguishable from witchcraft. Well done for making that your subject, here, Tanya Gold.


Steve Jobs was not a super-rationalist. That would apply if he were a scientist. He was, like most talented marketing entrepreneurs, an intuitive psychologist.

Reader: how is the public interest served by acts of censorship like these? The answer to Justice Leveson’s question, ‘Who guards the guardians?’ is surely, us. Surely it is time for newspaper publishers to co-own their online comments sites with the readers behind them — or at least, experiment with such an ownership structure? This needs discussing urgently: ‘ Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders’ .