Thursday, 25 March 2010

Andrew Brown. A legend in his own mind.

So, a week has passed since ‘Summerislegate’, and, quite rightly, his Lordship has now been allowed back to CiF, and in many ways, the dust seems to have settled on what was quite an interesting, yet ultimately brief episode in the grander scheme of The Guardian website and its history.

Having maintained my non-posting stand over the last seven days, and after enjoying the period of cool, considered reflection this afforded me, I began to re-consider my own ‘flouncing off’. After the ‘break’ from a 14 year relationship, I’d even started to imagine what might constitute an online newspapers version of ‘make-up’ sex.

Then I saw this beauty from everyone’s favourite columnist, Andrew Brown:

I have been sitting quite hard on the comments in the last few posts on the Catholic scandals, and I wanted to thank everybody who played along, and to point out exactly what has been gained as a result. I could say that the comments have been much more interesting and pleasurable to read if they weren't full of expressions of disgust and accusations of complicity in paedophilia or its cover-up. That's true so far as it goes, but you might object that there are plenty of people who delight in abuse and love to breakfast off a cappucino of hot frothing outrage on a base of acid bitterness. Why should those poor souls have to go elsewhere for nourishment? Because we don't learn anything from them, that's why.
The great thing that comments can supply is contact with the people who do know better than the writer does about the story, either because they are smarter, nicer, better informed, or more experienced, or have spent longer thinking about it. These aren't always the people they think they are.
Like any decent journalist, I am confident that I know more about any particular story than 98% of the readers. This may sound horrendously arrogant, but that's the nature of news. The person who has it does think themselves better informed than the one who hasn't.
I am also conscious that I know a lot less about any given subject than the remaining 2% of the readers. These figures are of course adjustable up and down to taste, and depending on the subject involved. If I were to write about piano music, or football, the novels of Charles Dickens, or East Enders, almost anyone interested in the subject would know a lot more than me. But on religion and some sorts of science I do know a decent amount. I am correspondingly grateful to the people who know more and point out the errors. Certainly I have learned a lot from the discussions of the last few blogs, and been forced to think a lot. Thanks.
This sounds as if it is all about me, but it isn't. It's for the benefit of everyone who reads the site. But it won't work without reasonably strict moderation, because it's much harder to think clearly when you're being called an ignorant idiot and the accomplice of criminals. I don't believe that expressing sheer naked contempt changes anyone's mind; it certainly doesn't work on the despised object. With a subject like this, where sentiment runs all the way from Old Bathrobe to Stevhep it really matters that we play the balls and not the men.
This isn't a plea for agreement. A good thrash will often sharpen and widen disagreement especially when it's on a subject of real importance, as this one has been. But that happens only when the participants think they are being listened to and there's no quicker way to kill off that feeling than angry pre-packaged responses. Whether these are personal abuse or trolling, they are clearly banned in the talk policy and that is quite strictly enforced here.

Now, this is something a bit special, for several reasons, but particularly in the context of events last week.

Indeed, one of the ‘strikes’ accrued by Lord S, prior to the third that led to his banning, was a result of comment he made on an Andrew Brown thread, after AB had made some quite erroneous claims about Terry Sanderson and the NSS ATL, that were widely disputed and criticised by many BTL, and after Brown had then himself joined the debate to casually mention that he thought the ‘majority of those below the line had a mental age of less than 10’.

Therefore, to me at least, this would seem to fly right in the face of Andrew Brown’s claim to know more than 98% of readers (who were, on this occasion, more than willing to show Andrew his errors, even using proper links, facts and quotes and that, which for us non-journo types, was surely a very challenging business).

Likewise, the episode would also seem to undermine Brown’s stand against personal abuse, what with his original errors amounting to a personal attack on someone by, at best, deliberately twisting and mis-representing their position to suit his own ends.
I mean, I’m no expert, but making unjust, unsubstantiated claims against a ‘person’, in an attempt to vilify them, would seem to me like quite a good example of personal abuse, would it not?!

Finally, Andrew Brown’s own BTL salvo, embarked upon with the purpose of calling us all mentally retarded, would, again, seem to be an almost textbook definition of the ‘trolling’ phenomenon that he seems so keen to take a stand on, right!?

Seriously, you couldn’t make this shit up!!

But wait, just when I thought that I could never possibly agree with Andrew Brown, on anything, ever, he then joins in Below the Line too, offering us this little gem:

It may sound arrogant, but finding out about stuff quickly is one of the core skills of journalism, and if I'm no good at it by now, I might as well give in.

Well, Andrew, to be fair, you’ll get no argument from me on that one....

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Bobby Kennedy and the Guardian Fiasco

"Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice."

These words, from Robert Kennedy, have stayed with me since I first read them, and have, I hope, influenced and shaped my actions and my approach to life.

Most recently, the sentiment has been at the forefront of my mind in a ‘row’ over moderation and censorship on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ website. OK, no law had been flouted, but other than that, the Kennedy quote seemed apt.

I first read the quote in a book lent to me by a great teacher, who also, when I was about 14 years old, used to let me read his copy of The Guardian at lunch. At the time, I instantly felt drawn to the ‘worldview’ offered me by the paper, and recognised that, perhaps for the first time, I seemed to be seeing important events through a lens that addressed the questions and concerns that I myself had, from a position that closely reflected my own.

Like another Bobby quote:

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”

The Guardian seemed to me, to be standing up for the ideals and values that I too held, and sending out the ripples that I thought the world most needed.

I stuck with the paper, through the changes in my own life, and through more seismic ones in the ‘real world’ until, upon relocating to ‘abroad’, I naturally honed in on the newspapers website as a link to the land I’d left, and onto the CiF part in particular, as both a way to compensate for a distinct lack of friends/social life, and to provide a source of entertainment, humour, and at times, wisdom, that reminded me of friends and family back home.

In the relatively short period of my own participation, however, I have noticed a drift from the very things that drew me to the Guardian all those years ago. I don’t intend to make a huge list of their faults, but generally (in my opinion), there has been a very biased approach to articles around particular subjects, a very capricious and inconsistent approach to moderation, and, perhaps most worryingly, a definite hint of contempt for those posting ‘Below the Line’ on the website.

All three of my concerns were highlighted and proven true, in the recent Lord Summerisle case.

An article was posted, by an uber-feminist lesbian, who seemed to be making some quite outrageous and derogatory claims about a certain celeb, who had been unfaithful, and then, by extension, most men who cheat, claiming to offer an authoritative view into the minds and psyches of ‘offenders’.

Lord S questioned whether the authors experience, sexuality, lifestyle etc, put her in such a position of authority as to be able to make such broad, sweeping claims, and asked if he, writing as a heterosexual male, made similar assertions about females in same sex relationships, it would have been accepted and published by the Guardian.

When this comment was deleted, LordS then asked, why, and, whether, had he written the above article, such a question of him would have been justified, and indeed, allowed to stand. After a small debate on the ‘What Do You Want to Talk About’ thread, news reached us that Lord S had been banned from CiF, and given that this was his ‘third strike’, it was to be permanent.

This caused a bit of a furore, and many posters, myself included, took issue with The Guardian, and its moderation/editorial policy. After considerable backlash, and vocal opposition over a couple of days, The Guardian eventually sent out the troops, who, although I’m paraphrasing, came up with some variation of ‘yeah, well, if you don’t like it, fuck off, or ‘the moderation issue again– boring – get over yourselves, everyone else thinks we’re great’.

Now, this response, I suppose, was slightly better than no response (which had until that point, been the stock policy with regards to calls for a discussion on/clarification of moderation policy, and the one they rapidly re-adopted after being called on the many problems with how they had responded), but, for me at least, it offered a definitive insight into how The Guardian views those who comment on ‘their’ website, and how much of a flying fuck they give about us Below the Line, who, ultimately, make the site something more than a collection of pseudo-intellectual journo buddies, writing to each other on a social networking page.

After hanging around for a little while, in a futile and final attempt to prompt a debate, I made the decision to leave the site, for the foreseeable future at least.

Now, this was by no means, an easy decision. Regardless of how sad this may be, the absence of CiF in my life, leaves a pretty gaping hole, with not many other options with which to fill it.

Consequently, the end of my fourteen year relationship with The Guardian has, lest things there change substantially and rapidly, come to a sudden, and for me, bitter end. And while I’m certain that they themselves don’t give a shit, and though I fully acknowledge that my walking away will ‘leave no ripples’, I have done it anyway.

Once again, this decision, this course of action, knowingly adopted despite its futility, can also perhaps best be expressed by Robert Kennedy, a person whose words, at one time, thanks to a twist of fate, were synonymous in my mind with the once great Guardian, but which now provide me with the incentive and desire to walk away from it....

“First, is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills - against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world's great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man”.