Comment is Free is crucially, about the articles and the comments – Natalie Hanman

Drum for Buddha, Xisuangbanna. China Feb 2011.

Drum for Buddha, Xisuangbanna. China Feb 2011.

So why Ms Hanman do your moderators, rather than the editors  decide the content?

Recently and against overwhelming opposition from it’s online posters the Guardian introduced the “nesting” of posts. While I can see the reason for this opposition and fully agree with it,  to me, it does seem to allow the greater problem of who exercises editorial control to be ignored. And when a world class newspaper relinquishes editorial control to unknown moderators, it cannot be surprised when the newspaper, the champion of free speech,  is forced to observe its own decline.

A new editor for Comment is Free

In September 2010, Natalie Hanman wrote A welcome from Comment is free’s new editor , which was headlined  – Cif wouldn’t be Cif without readers’ input, and today we’re asking you to contribute your thoughts on the future direction of the site”.

Ms Hanman mentioned moderation just once in her piece but in the 1021 comments that followed her article it and the word moderators appeared 508 times. (the word mods and other derivatives like modding appeared probably another  40 or so  times).

Ms Hanman continued:

Even if some people plan never to post (or read) a comment on an article, I want everyone to feel that the potential to do so is there, and is something that enhances rather than detracts from our shared interest in quality journalism.

and

I want to emphasise that Cif is, crucially, about the articles and the comments. Together they make up the complete picture of what we publish. (my emphasis)

Has there ever been a more honest statement about the freedom of the press to appear in one of the UK’s world class newspapers?

In short : Readers have the right to contribute.

My one contribution to the thread included:

“To date on this thread the overwhelming concern is moderation, and understandably so. Yet with over 320 comments so far not one has asked about the very real conflict that exists between moderation and editorial control. The editor in the paper version has total control over what is published, short of a staff insurrection. But here on CiF, unless I’m mistaken, the “quality journalism”, to use your phrase, is decided not by the editor but by moderators, and examples of this policy abound in this thread. Your predecessor is on record as saying about both moderating comments and banning posters:”

“I’m afraid this is strictly a matter for you to negotiate with the moderators; we don’t get involved in their day-to-day operational decisions.”  (my emphasis)

Ms Hanman declined the opportunity to deny that this was still the Guardian’s policy.

She now has the opportunity to refute this.

Alan Rusbridger joins the debate

A year later in October 2011 in preparation for a speech he intended to make in Australia, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian asked posters to contribute their thoughts on the future direction of the Fourth Estate, the paper and CiF.

For some time I and other posters had expressed concern about the way some editorial control BTL had been handed over to CiF’s moderators. I had asked one of the CiF editorial assistants about this and got an answer:

ABL (Above the Line – articles) – the editors, with readers’ having a say.  BTL  (Below the Line – comments) – everyone. But the mods control the abuse. (my emphasis)

Control the abuse ?

But who decides what is abuse?  And what about the other nine categories to which anyone might object?

So while Natalie Hanman’s  complete picture includes both article and comments, that picture is obscured by the actions of moderators who are independent of editorial control.

I posted on Rushbridger’s thread, something about Google News:

…those who do use this digital facility will rapidly come to realise that the old political divide between for instance The Guardian, Independent and Telegraph which in the days of paper newspapers kept readers separated, so that a Guardian reader wouldn’t pick up a copy of the Telegraph from one year to the next, no longer exists, and readers will now select that paper at the click of a mouse, which is covering the news he or she wants to read.

In the past week alone I have twice suggested on WDYWTTA, articles to be covered ATL which have appeared in the Independent but not The Guardian.

So there’s my suggestion – make of it what you will.

I concluded:

I’ll also post later about how you have in part relinquished editorial control of your newspaper in the rush to embrace the digital medium. Your editors Natalie Hanman and Jessica Reed have chosen to ignore this warning about the damage to press freedom, but I suggest for you this will be more difficult.

Editorial Control and Moderation

And I did post later the same day about editorial control with among other things:

Now I’m not suggesting that to have the same editorial control BTL as ATL would be an easy task, but some decisions BTL are bizarre to say the least. And when this extends to contributors posting in response to their own article, it appears even more bizarre.

I suggest that The Guardian’s reputation is at stake here and that it has really failed to come to terms with the monumental changes that have followed it’s decision in 2006 to embrace the digital format and open the paper to its readership in this way.

The full post which can be read here, lasted all of 15 minutes before being deleted. So why this protection for Mr Rusbridger from quite independent moderators who are only looking for abuse?

Opportunites offered by the internet, and interactivity

AlanRusbridger had ventured below the line to answer some of the points made by his readers. One reader posted:

“It seems that there is now an insatiable appetite for expression and exchange which the structure of the internet makes difficult to suppress.”

To which Rusbridger replied:

Agree with that in general. Though not in China… but that takes us wildly off topic.

Knowing a little about life in China I asked:

Why not in China – and why off topic?  China is second only to the USA in internet access:

“In China there are over a million bulletin board services (BBS) and some 220 million bloggers. According to a sample survey, each day people post over three million messages via BBS, news commentary sites, blogs, etc., and over 66 percent of Chinese netizens frequently place postings to discuss various topics, and to fully express their opinions and represent their interests……By the end of 2009, the number of Chinese netizens had reached 384 million, meaning 28.9 percent of the total population had access to the Internet, higher than the world’s average level. In the same year, there were 3.23 million websites running in China.”

Surely the challenge for you is how to bring increasing numbers of those millions to The Guardian and Observer and the messages their journalists carry to the world.

The full post which can be read here, and again lasted all of a few minutes before being deleted.

The following day I returned to the thread posting that I’d responded to Alan Rusbridger’s invitation that he’d “be interested in what others think the really crucial issues are”, with a post about the editorial control of the paper in what he refers to as “the new public sphere opened up by digital technologies.”

I posted:

Interactivity has been at the very heart of the way the general public uses and benefits from computing and telecommunications and once the holy grail of a totally digital platform existed, just 20 or so years ago, there has been no limit to the development of that interactivity. The way The Guardian and Observer have developed since 2006 is but one example.

Rusbridger himself had posted:

“I can think of lots of positive examples where all kinds of valuable and exciting “journalistic” things are happening a) on their own in this space, and b) in combination with conventional journalism. More are always welcome, but I am broadly convinced that this is a new and powerful force in society and in the emerging news ecosystem.”

Clearly we held very similar if not identical views but in addition I referred back to Natalie Hanman’s article:

Of the 1021 comments that readers posted in response to Natalie Hanman’s article, the vast majority concerned the way in which their interactivity was treated, with the vast majority of these being critical.

In a master stroke of irony, the post was deleted after just a few minutes.

The full post can be read here.

What was it that prompted the moderators to delete these posts other than receiving instructions from Guardian staff trying to protect their editor?

So while it is true that the new nesting arrangement of comments has wrecked what used to be a vibrant and dynamic means of debate, it’s existence owes much to allowing the moderators to have editorial control, rather than the paper’s editors taking that responsibility.

Conclusion

The editors’ claims about the independence of moderation is false and the claim that they treasure the interactivity the new technology offers readers is somewhat suspect.

Update 1

On 07 February 2013 12:09pm Isabella Mackie, introducing the new You Tell Us Thread wrote:

 I’d really appreciate it if we could lay off the threading comments – this thread is supposed to be an ideas forum, and I’d really like to get back to that. I’m loathe to ask the moderators to delete threading comments, so I’m going to hope that the promise of a proper discussion about it will succeed instead. (my emphasis)

So what happened to the years long claim that moderators were independent of editorial staff?

Update 2

Something I found in the archives:

Stephen Glover writing in the Independent  04 OCTOBER 2010

The Guardian can’t go on like this.  The Guardian reportedly fielded 19 journalists at the Labour Party conference in Manchester

Yet I sense that senior executives on The Guardian – and members of the Scott Trust, which owns GMG – are in a sort of denial. The newspapers occupy fancy new offices in King’s Cross which are far too grand for their station in life. The Guardian reportedly fielded 19 journalists at the Labour Party conference in Manchester. Some of the paper’s executives appear to believe that The Guardian is a sort of British version of The Washington Post in its heyday, whereas, like all newspapers, it has been steadily shedding sales without making money out of its large digital investment.

 

 

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