Last March The Guardian established its Comment is Free site, and I've read the site's content and watched its progress with interest. The site, edited by the newspaper's deputy editor Georgina Henry, was intended as a group blog representing a wide variety of views and engaging the newspaper's online readers in debate. Here are my observations about it after six months.
I'm a fan of The Guardian newspaper, share its values and admire the relaunch of the print version earlier this year. Launching CiF seems to me to have been a good and imaginative idea, and I enjoy reading it. (A few of its contributors are listed in the links section of this blog.) I think that in general it works, and adds something valuable to public debate. I particularly like the way that regular Guardian writers (e.g. the political editor Michael White, whose subject I am interested in) post comments that are a little more immediate and impressionistic than their newspaper journalism.
But there are serious drawbacks to the site also. Some of those weaknesses are to do with the blogging medium itself, of which I am broadly sceptical (as I've written here). Others are to do with the heavy bias of its contributors towards some subjects but not others (e.g. not much on the elections in Congo). But there is one characteristic specific to CiF that I doubt Ms Henry and her colleagues can have foreseen. The intention of drawing readers into the conversation has had consistently appalling consequences, at least in the posts that I have followed. The threads below the posts have been skewed, and in some cases dominated, by contributors who hold exceptionally peculiar ideas and appear susceptible to anti-Jewish notions. The site invites readers to alert the editors to offensive or otherwise unsuitable comments, but this appears to work only partially, owing to the volume of material. In general, as well as being inadequately moderated (which is not a criticism of the newspaper: I don't see how it's possible even in principle for the editors to keep up with the constant flow of bile), the threads contain much personal abuse and poor English. Full marks to The Guardian for providing the facility, and all sympathy to it for trying to resolve the problem. But there definitely is a problem, and it's one that other newspapers will have to consider carefully before expanding into the blogging medium.
I am not a CiF blogger (my blog is the personal site you are reading now), but I have contributed two Comment pieces for the newspaper in the last few months, and these have appeared on the CiF site also. The first was published when CiF had just begun, and comments from readers were not at that time added to articles in the newspaper's Comment section. The second was my article today on Israel's intervention in Lebanon.
The first article, defending the Iraq War, elicited a large volume of reader emails directly to me. Almost all of them were hostile, many were abusive (not just about me; some were crudely racist and sexist about the US Secretary of State), and some of them were borderline deranged. I doubt that the authors of these messages were traditional Guardian readers.
Interestingly, the second article, also giving a view that many readers of the Guardian website would find controversial, has produced fewer emails sent directly to me. They are almost evenly balanced between those who agree with me and those who don't. Most of the critical comments are reasonable; the exceptions include those from 'RchFitzgera@aol.com' ('Undoubtedly as a Zionist Jew you vetted this piece through the Israeli embassy. Did they pay you to write it as well') and Stanley Tann ('The western powers have a duty to disarm the Jews and put them back to the 1967 line. Unfortunately there is too much finacial influence by them in America and in this country. Remember Kieth Joseph - Thatchers guru and the damage by greed he caused here'). There is a lone American academic who over several emails has expressed his anger and perplexity that I avoided criticising Tony Blair's foreign policies, so I have endeavoured to explain that my reason for that omission is that I support the PM's foreign policies. It is customary (and I know for a fact that this is true of US newspapers as well as British ones) that opinion columnists use the space given to them to express their opinions.
The great mass of emails expressing more animated disagreement, such as I received in March, now appears to have been deposited on the Comment is Free site instead of in my in-box. I'm happy about this, but it does seem to me to compound the problem the newspaper has with the integrity of its site. The site's contributors - who include many informed commentators and talented writers - offer a wide range of views, if not necessarily on a wide range of subjects. The comments threads contain much that is disturbing. Let me just illustrate this with a few comments from the thread attached to my own article, and a post partly responding to me by Brian Whitaker, the Guardian's Middle East editor. As I write, there are 166 comments attached to my article, though at least three others (one of which began 'Hey it's oliver kamm the Hitler fan!', and another of which disputed the historicity of the Holocaust) have been removed from the site (though not at my request). Brian Whitaker's post has 30 comments attached. Let me give one or two quotations from these:
1. 'As a worshiper of power Kamm approvingly swallows Israeli hawks' simplistic take on Hez - that they are SIMPLY Iran's advance army. But that's far too simplistic. Kamm's reheated neo-con drivel reeks of Bushite bloodsoaked failure.'
2. 'What a load of cobblers the article is, straight from Mossad.'
3. 'So, what do you think to decent people having their own label for the nasty, pernicious mush that excretes from the new Nazis? Is neofantasy a suitable label? Can anyone help with a definition for Wikipedia?'
4. 'Oliver "Mein" Kampf cant answer the same question that Israel itself cant answer... Kampf thinks that Israel should not have stopped massacring civilians when it did; he evidently thirsts for more masscres, for thousands more dead Arabs. He is a 'socialist' in the manner Hitler was a 'socialist' - a bloodthirsty monster by any other name. '
5. 'Blair is the greatest war criminal this country has ever produced. . He brings shame on Britons everywhere. Brown-skinned human life has no value for him whatsoever. May he rot in hell. And you as well, Kamm.'
6. 'In relative terms, I think even the Nazi would have been a little embarrassed to be given such a licence to continue the unnecessary slaughter and wanton destruction we’ve seen on our screen... So you did your bit in the Zionist plot to demonise the Muslims (German press vs. Jews in 1930s??), hence democratic Hamas/liberation movement Hezbollah being tarnished and the Muslim world set up as a bogeyman, no wonder you get paid back from a Zionist run paper [this is the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten] with a ‘nice‘ review. What will you get for this article, I wonder?'
7. 'I wonder if people are truly aware how much Israel controls the USA. This is from one article from the NY times that gives some indication of how thoroughly jewish people control America.... As anyone can see, what they have in the United States is jewish people in the media discussing what the jewish people in politcs should do so that the USA, the country these men are supposed to be elected oficials of, can do whatever is best for the jewish people in Isreal. If the media or politicians are not jewish themselves, their websites and actions show that they fawn over jewish people for approval. The only non jewish politicians are the ones that are sychophants to the jewish politicians. It is all facts. It is all right there in front of your face. You can scream about hate or anti this or that. Nothing detracts from the facts that are listed above.' [The oddest thing about this comment, variants of which you can find all over the Internet, is the author's use of the genteelism 'Jewish people' in preference to 'Jews'. Perhaps he fears that using the blunter term might be taken as prejudiced.]
8. 'Dear Anti-Zionists, To learn how criminal-minded Jews influence US foreign policy, please read "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy" [the controversial recent paper by the academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt]... This paper is the best piece of work written in recent times, where two top academics have been branded 'anti-Semites' by sick-minded Jews who can't accept TRUTH, as they never did with Moses or Jesus!'
9. 'Maybe, just maybe, popular outrage, and the tattered remnants of Labour's conscience, will stop Blair from taking Britain into Bush's next war. If not, the horrific consequences of the course they are steering may make us wish one day, as has often been wished by decent people about Hitler, that they had been assassinated.'
10. 'Come on Brian no need to react to Oliver Kamm, he's been widely discredited and proven to be a pawn and mouthpiece for the pro-zionist movement and pulls a healthy wage pack from AIPAC [the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee] to boot.'
As you can see, these go from legitimate if unfalsifiable criticism, through charges of racism and Nazism, thence to overt prejudice, on to approving anticipation of the assassination of the Prime Minister, and finally to a claim that its pseudonymous author cannot possibly substantiate about my supposed undeclared financial interests. I have enormous sympathy with Georgina Henry and her colleagues. I have given examples just from two posts today that I followed because I wrote the first and was referred to in the second. At the very minimum, the comments threads on CiF compromise The Guardian's standards, merely by being there and being of the character that they are. At the extreme, they get more problematic than that; they may encompass xenophobia, and in the case of the last two comments I've quoted they extend arguably to incitement to crime and certainly to defamation. (I should add that of course I would never dream of taking legal action because of a comment on CiF, and can't imagine realistic circumstances in which I would seek to initiate proceedings against any blogger.)
These are my observations as a reader and fan of CiF. There is a problem. The site in one important respect does not work as it must have been intended to. Other newspapers need to be aware of this experience if they form similar plans.