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Comment’s less free

This is a guest post by Sarka

The Guardian/Obs. has very recently announced that it will be heavily restricting comment on articles dealing with three “sensitive” subjects – race, immigration and Islam, on the grounds that there has been “a change in mainstream public opinion and language that we do not wish to see reflected or supported on the site” and those subjects in particular attract too much “toxic” comment.

Most pieces on those themes will not now not be open for comment. Occasional selected pieces will be open, but for a shorter period than the usual three days, and only when it is judged that enough moderation resources can be deployed there and that it is possible to have a “constructive” discussion on them, whatever that means.  Naturally, this announcement, which at least was open to comment, unleashed a long and acrimonious discussion BTL.

Before criticising the decision, it is worth taking on board the genuine problems presented by running an open comment site, above all one as successful as CIF. Some moderation is essential, primarily because “bad comment” (the crudely abusive, the deliberately disruptive and thread-hogging) in sufficient quantities will drive out “good comment”. This seems to have been happening recently at the Spectator, for example, where an infestation of tin-foil far-right antisemites has been disrupting what used to be intelligent centre-right discussion on only lightly moderated threads.

But moderation is obviously a time-consuming and expensive as well as a rather thankless task since there is no simple mechanical way in which a moderator can operate, and his/her decisions will almost always annoy people one way or the other. CIF may to some extent be a victim of its own success in this context, for while I have never seen any information on how much manpower it puts into moderation, if you are getting thousands of comments on, say, two or three simultaneously open threads, we are talking quite a lot of man-hours. The extreme financial pressure that the Guardian and Observer are under at present – reportedly requiring 20% cuts in terms of staffing – may be a factor in the decision.

Well, that’s a half-way reasonable explanation, but it is not the one that the Guardian/Obs gives. Instead, in standard moralising terms, they refer to some overall “toxicity” of public debate on the sensitive subjects in question. Now, certainly I would agree that these subjects are matters of very impassioned public debate, so by definition subjects on which moderation will be more necessary to prevent BTL discussions getting out of hand. Yet in fact it is not my impression – and I have been commenting on CIF since 2006 – that opinions have recently been becoming very much more impassioned than they already were, although it is true that the migrant crisis and emergence of ISIS have multiplied occasions for discussion. Instead, the more salient difference since 2006, as regards CIF, is that these are subjects on which the BTL tendency has been diverging strikingly from most Guardian ATLs, and by no means just because of some invasion of new commenters.

What is more, these are subjects on which the Guardian has had form for some time when it comes to highly aggressive moderating, including of polite, detailed posts (for some time, for example, posts from the Council of Ex-Muslims were routinely moderated despite impeccably non-abusive wording) and many posts a little less polite, but to most reasonable people well within the norms of acceptable polemic. Even allowing for problems like unthinking reliance on numbers of abuse-reports, or divergences in the habits of individual mods, it has looked very much as though the mods were and are often keener on policing credible challenges to what is broadly the Guardian line on the topics in question, than on removal of the disruptive and abusive.

And other questions arise too. Race, immigration and Islam are not in fact the only themes that generate huge and impassioned threads (including what some here would definitely consider some “toxic” comments). Feminist-related themes often do, Corbyn-related threads do, and so, notoriously, do Israel/Palestine threads. It’s a question whether the latter will be held to come under the “sensitive issue” ban (it involves Islam, and race too) but I rather think that it will not…Why not? Because though there has been a certain shift of BTL opinion in recent years, on the whole the Guardian line has simply not been as thoroughly challenged in that context as over Islam and immigration.

Finally, in a sense the Guardian is trying to avoid reaping what it has sown. It has put its money on developing light-weight comment journalism (“click bait”), some would say at the expense of more solidly based journalism and column-writing, and promoted as writers people with callow, dogmatic but supremely righteously expressed views on the “sensitive” issues in question, and now it purses its lips and moralises and shuts down part of discussion because it dislikes the storm of criticism that it has invited from its punters.

The Guardian would appear to be now invincibly blind to the relationship between poor-quality and often actually inflammatory ATLs and angry and jeering responses BTL. Apart from the principle of bad comment driving out good, there is another principle: solid, well-argued ATLs generate better and more civilised BTL discussion than weak, posturing, “virtue signalling” ATLs.  The nut jobs on all sides are usually put off by really thought-provoking, knowledgeable pieces and space opens out for interesting debate. Less click-bait, more solid fare. Less preaching, more analysis.

But I fear that hell will freeze over before the Guardian heeds such advice. This is partly because its stance here is of a piece with the progressive lib/left “thinking” on Islam and immigration that it has done so much to encourage and frame as unshakeable dogma – i.e. in the face of the tremendous dilemmas posed by the connected problems of migration and Islamic identity politics, it has decided to blame the public, and as far as possible to turn its back on it.  In the light of the Guardian decision apparently one of the last articles available for comment on the “sensitive subjects” was a feeble piece by Kenan Malik. It recommended that in a situation where European publics were just taking a wrong and immoral view of immigration, the solution was some form of elite-led “re-education” of the idiot and deluded populace. The Guardian’s newly swinging “don’t talk back to teacher” policy would seem to reflect this recipe.