Archive for the ‘Comment is Free’ tag

Free speech, press accountability, and the ‘wisdom of crowds’

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This is a piece I wrote this week for the Guardian’s Comment is Free (published under the title, ‘Between the lawyers and the mob‘):

Last week was a good week for those of us who support press freedom and at the same time believe the press should be made more accountable. But it also raised difficult and rather disturbing questions about free speech and the future of press self-regulation.

The Guardian’s courageous decision to challenge the remit of the Trafigura super-injunction sparked justified outrage in the blogosphere and “Twitterverse” and led to a climbdown by Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck. Meanwhile, Jan Moir’s deeply offensive piece about the death of Stephen Gately, which alleged – with no evidence – that there was “nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death” – provoked an even greater response on Twitter. Many of those offended (more than 22,000 of them by Tuesday morning) then complained to the Press Complaints Commission, in part prompted by Stephen Fry, Derren Brown and Charlie Brooker.

The Daily Mail did not apologise, though it changed the title, and removed advertising from around the piece. Moir did not apologise either, but after the unprecedented public reaction released a disgruntled statement suggesting her piece had been misinterpreted and that the public response to it was orchestrated (which raises the question, was the public response to the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand episode not orchestrated?). The Mail also then published a follow-up piece by Janet Street-Porter that was critical of Moir. The case is now being looked at by the PCC.

Hooray, you say. Two victories in a week – one for press freedom and another for press accountability – what a result. Yet both episodes also raise worrying questions about press freedom, the current state of newspaper accountability, and the threat of mob justice.

In the Trafigura affair, it was striking that almost no newspapers (with the exception of the Guardian) spoke out strongly, despite the danger super-injunctions represent to press freedom. Indeed many newspapers remained strangely silent even after Carter-Ruck relaxed Trafigura’s super-injunction. Nor was there a substantial reaction from formal bodies. The PCC did not say anything, despite in the past promoting itself as a defender of press freedom (even though, unlike its predecessor, it is not constituted to do this). Nor, outside Index on Censorship, were other industry bodies vocal.

The outrage at the Guardian gagging came from individuals, and was remarkably spontaneous and disorganised. Twitter provided the platform for people with common views to come together. This was exciting and tremendously heartening, but showed how few formal institutions there are to protect press freedom despite the significant and growing threats it faces.

The Moir case, on the other hand, illustrates how little accountability there is at some newspapers. If you were offended and wanted to complain, what options did you have? The Daily Mail has no readers’ editor, and no formal complaints process that is publicly accessible in the newspaper or on its website. The only reference to the PCC on Mail Online is not linked to from any other page on the site and is therefore, to all intents and purposes, invisible. This is a newspaper whose editor is the chair of the PCC’s editorial code committee and who sits on the PCC’s appointments and funding body, Pressbof. Yet his newspaper lacks the most basic public accountability mechanisms.

And, if you escalated your complaint to the PCC, as thousands did, you would probably find yourself equally dissatisfied at the outcome. This is not the fault of the PCC’s secretariat, who are diligently working their way through the largest number of complaints over one article in their history. Rather it is due to the rules that artificially limit the complaints they can accept, and the limited sanctions available to them. All 22,000 of these complaints can, according to the rules laid down by the industry, be rejected – since they are considered “third party complaints” (complaints not made by someone directly referenced in the article). In this case, the PCC has said it will consider the complaints and write to the Daily Mail for a response. However, when that response is a small apology tucked inside the paper, many will feel the Daily Mail has got off considerably more lightly than, say, the BBC after the Ross/Brand affair.

This means you are left with the wisdom of the crowd – also known as mob justice. It seem appropriate and proportionate when you happen to agree with it, as in this case, but will seem decidedly unjust if you disagree.

Unless newspapers take more responsibility for their own content, give people the opportunity to complain and respond adequately to those complaints, then they – and their journalists – will come under increasing criticism and attack from the blogosphere, the Twitterverse and other social media. Similarly, unless news organisations protest about the misuse of injunctions, actions such as Trafigura’s will become even more difficult to prevent. We do not want to find ourselves in a situation where free speech is constrained by expensive lawyers, nor one where it is dictated by the mob.

Written by Martin Moore

October 23rd, 2009 at 1:26 pm

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Why do people comment?

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I’m genuinely perplexed. Why do people comment on news websites? On the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’, on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF), on the Telegraph’s View or on the various others?

The overwhelming number of comments on many of these (not all by any means) are one-sided, often aggressively one-sided, and often aggressively one-sided against the publication in which they’re commenting. Many of the community commenting on the Guardian’s CiF appear to feel little but contempt for the publication. Take a look, for example, at responses to Polly Toynbee’s piece about the ‘Miserablist’ media today. Since this is probably not a fair example – many commenters targeting their aggression at the columnist rather than the publication – have a look too at comments on David Cox’s fascinating piece a few months back, ‘Media and the Mob’.

Is it cathartic? Does leaving a comment attacking the column – or columnist – relieve some of the anger of the commenter? People have, it is true, spent so many years unable to respond in real time to opinion pieces to which they object that this may simply be a natural reaction to the many years mainstream media has filtered, censored and suppressed the public voice.

Still, there is a peculiar lack of balance that suggests big media have not yet worked out the best way to structure comment spaces. Responses to today’s Telegraph View, ‘What is the BBC for?‘, for example, though not anti-Telegraph, are overwhelmingly anti-BBC. Are Telegraph readers really that hostile to the BBC? Do the vast majority of them think the Corporation is “just another feature of the revoltingly decayed British state” (Jake). Or that its primary purpose is “Leftist propaganda” (Luke) and “the dissemination of left-wingery, political correctness and soft porn” (RS). These, by the way, are some of the more polite comments.

And yet, do an analysis of the media consumption of Telegraph readers and you find the majority of them consume significant amounts of the BBC and, in surveys at least, appear to like quite a lot of the news it provides and the programmes it makes.

Perhaps, as Jeff Jarvis told the ‘Future of Journalism’ conference, news organisations simply need to get much better at hosting debates. “We need to figure out who the smart people are – it’s not just about creating content but also curating people.” By this he means (I think) that news websites need the odd David Dimbleby to help frame a discussion and encourage those to speak who might otherwise lack a voice.

Equally, better that people vent their anger on the web than on the street. Perhaps we do need the odd Speakers’ Corner after all.

Written by Martin Moore

June 24th, 2008 at 3:20 pm

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Existential angst in Edinburgh

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A piece I’ve written for the Guardian’s Comment is Free about Jeremy Paxman’s MacTaggart lecture:

Fuelled by pipe tobacco and past experiences of mescalin, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play – Les Séquestrés d’Altona – in which one of the lead characters appeals to a court of crabs to judge his actions and his guilt. The crabs were meant to signify both his peers and posterity, and the appeal is symbolic of the ethical dilemmas we face and of our need to be judged (I think, although the exact meaning of the play is famously obtuse).

I was reminded of Sartre’s existential angst by Jeremy Paxman’s MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival – Never Mind the Scandals: What’s it All For? In an atypically reflective, but reassuringly spiky critique of the television industry, Paxman appealed to a court of his peers to “rediscover a sense of purpose”, to do “less hyperventilating and more deep breathing”. We need more cogitation and rumination, Paxman said, and less herd-like stampeding for media “impact”.

For the rest of ‘TV: fading to a dot?‘ (not my title by the way), go to http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/martin_moore/2007/08/tv_fading_to_a_dot.html

Written by Martin Moore

August 31st, 2007 at 12:09 pm

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