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.

 

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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?

Murdoch’s end shows why the 4th Estate needs competition, power-sharing, and watchdogs as astute as Lord Justice Leveson — on permanent duty

Rupert the piteously wronged: it should not have taken 30 years to see him flushed down the sewer of history

Questions that came to mind, watching segments of Rupert Murdoch’s testimony last week at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press:

Why did it take over three decades — the lifespan of some loyal readers here — for the outing of Rupert Murdoch as the most pernicious influence on British journalism for at least a century?

Max Hastings, who was for some years the editor of The Daily Telegraph — but has voted for both Labour and the Tories, in different elections — is almost the last man standing at the profession’s summit who deserves deepest respect. His account of competing with Murdoch and his newspapers in a memoir published ten years ago, Editor: An Inside Story of Newspapers, reveals why the man went unchallenged for so long, and offered a deft portrait of him:

… Murdoch, as always when I encountered him, cut a curiously joyless figure. He appeared to have no life beyond his business, no cultural or aesthetic interests. [… He] will leave this planet having added precious little to the store of decency, culture, humanity …

[…]

One of the most sensitive issues for many British newspapers is that of how they treat their rivals in print. There is a shameless, self-serving compact between companies, that the personal embarrassments of newspaper owners are not reported by competitors. Anyone who attempts to write about Rupert Murdoch’s or his family’s domestic arrangements for another publication is likely to receive  a call (or, more likely, his editor or managing director will do so) from one of the great tycoon’s senior stooges at News International, drawing attention to the proprietors’ pact, and warning without much subtlety about the inevitability of retaliation if the convention is breached. The preposterous Barclay brothers ruthlessly assert their right to be spared personal publicity of any kind, even about the fortress they have constructed in the Channel Islands, and even though they have chosen to become newspaper owners.

It always seems pretty rich, that titles which derive most of their income from laying bare the private lives of others should show no embarrassment about protecting their own proprietors from scrutiny, through what amounts to a system of social nuclear deterrence.

All that being known on Fleet Street, why are none of the newspaper chieftains conceding, as they analyse the implications of Murdoch’s toppling, that he and they were all in the same club? … Why are none of them explaining the wider consequences of that to their readers? … For instance, that staffers on their papers were as entangled with politicians as Murdoch and his lieutenants were – so much so, that the two most important scoops of the last decade about power in Britain came not from staffers but freelance journalists?

As far as I can tell, there has been just one noble exception to this selective blindness. An Observer columnist, Henry Porter, wrote at the weekend:

The point of regulations and institutions is to defend the relatively fragile democratic process from people like Murdoch. The fact that none of the safeguards worked and we came within a whisker of allowing his near total dominance of the marketplace further erodes our faith in the political class to act in the interests of the public. Let’s not forget that it was largely accident, and the dedication of a very few journalists, that exposed the cover-up, of which Murdoch now claims, with eye-watering hypocrisy, that he was a victim.

Actually, it was one dogged and intuitive reporter – Nick Davies, working as an outside contributor to a broadsheet newspaper, who was able to capitalise on the ‘accident’ that exposed the extent of phone hacking by Murdoch’s minions.

Why did staff journalists anywhere fail to publish that ugliness hidden in plain sight, or break the political horror story of 2009, the MPs’ expenses scandal – the revelations about members of parliament misusing allowances and expense accounts to pay for pornography and cleaning their castle moats, among other fraudulent acts?

This scoop was also the triumph of a freelance journalist, Heather Brooke – operating outside the cosy club in which the country’s leading parliamentary correspondents wined and cuddled politicians.

The inescapable conclusion?

The club walls need tearing down. It is time for the long reign of 4th Estate journalism to give way to the 5th Estate, in which new rules and conventions will allow for the full participation of outsiders, including citizen-journalists.

Like everyone else who cares about making democracy work, David Puttnam, a genuinely idealistic politician and activist who is also a hugely successful film producer – of Chariots of Fire, for one – perceives a clear need for media reform:

In the House of Lords and elsewhere, I have repeatedly called for a comprehensive cross-media impact study – so far to no avail. At the end of his session with Lord Justice Leveson, Rupert Murdoch described the digital landscape, which we have now entered, as one in which tablets and GPS-enabled smartphones are displacing newsprint. The potential of this technology to engender even greater competitive diversity in an intelligently regulated democracy ought to be very welcome. It should result in a broadening of the lens through which we see the world, not a narrowing of it.

But that requires a clear regulatory framework that encourages, in fact enables, media plurality to flourish. We cannot, for example, legislate for good journalism, but we can legislate for the conditions under which the very best journalism is nurtured and sustained.

There were some hostile early reactions to the Leveson Inquiry from the 4th Estate — when it was not ignoring it altogether — like this bit of ludicrous exaggeration by the Guardian columnist and former editor of two newspapers, Simon Jenkins: ‘As with a military occupation, the longer Leveson’s tanks stay on Fleet Street’s lawn, the less benign they seem.’  But lately, some leaders there have apparently begun to hope that the judiciary’s interest in their doings might be used to protect them from being overrun by the 5th Estate.

A Guardian editorial last week adopted a surprising new tone:

The other revealing moment in Murdoch’s testimony last week was when he launched into an incoherent rant about – and against – the internet. […] As Murdoch rambled, waving his arms despairingly and pounding the table, it was difficult to determine what point he was trying to make, other than the unfairness of governments regulating newspapers while the wild west web remains untamed. Was it just that he senses his powers ebbing away, flowing towards the new masters of the digital universe – the Sergey Brins, Larry Pages and Mark Zuckerbergs of this world?

Will they turn out to be any better than the media moguls who preceded them? And who will play Lord Justice Leveson’s role if they don’t?

As this blog pointed out, when newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic were doing their best to ignore the judicial probe, the two-man team of Lord Justice Leveson and Robert Jay has been giving us an astonishing demonstration of judicial skill and insight. This is British justice at its dazzling best.

David Cameron would do well to put these same men at the head of the organisation that replaces the disgraced Press Complaints Commission – at least, for the first few years of its existence.

Above all, let us hope that in his recommendations at the Inquiry’s end, this Lord Justice spotlights the need for the media to adapt for the future, in a reinvention guided by maximising inclusiveness and transparency – through, for instance, co-ownership. See:

(for an explanation of why the old order has to give way to the new: )

Good Guardian, bad Guardian, and two more censored comments

https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/11/15/good-guardian-bad-guardian-and-two-more-censored-comments/

Also:

Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media

https://post-gutenberg.com/2012/02/21/why-a-keiretsu-cooperative-is-a-gentle-transition-for-old-media-and-how-about-saying-an-exaltation-of-bloggers/

Co-owning media is on the horizon — and press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry shows why we need this

https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/12/06/co-owning-media-with-audiences-is-on-the-horizon-and-press-coverage-of-the-leveson-inquiry-shows-why-we-need-this/

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

https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/11/07/why-is-the-guardian-censoring-discussion-of-press-restructuring-and-ignoring-the-top-judges-support-for-citizen-journalism/