Monday, 11 July 2011

Why are the Guardian stifling debate over phone hacking?

In the wake of the phone hacking scandal I came across an interesting article by Jeff Jarvis on the Guardian website about regulation of the media in which he asked four questions. I wrote a response for the comments section however when I clicked publish comment I received a notification that comments had been turned off. Here is the comment that I was prevented from posting.
To answer your questions

1. First, what activities are to be regulated? The rules should state that the owners, executives and chief editor of media organisations will be held accountable if staff are proven to have broken the law. There should be some legal clarification of what is a justifiable "invasion of privacy", legal protection for proper investigative journalism (to prevent lawsuits against people that question medical evidence for example). There should also be strict compliance rules and hefty punishments for organisations that are proven to have wilfully obstructed any kind of investigation, (misleading the regulator, withholding information from police investigations or lying to Parliamentary select committees or the courts).

2. What should a regulator do in the case of violations. Fine the offender into submission? Close the publication? Does that not give your government the same weapon used by dictators elsewhere against journalists? The first two questions are reasonable, the third is just a pathetic piece of weasel wordage trying to taint the whole concept of regulation as some kind of fascism. Yes the independent regulator should have the power to inflict enormous fines on media organisations that repeatedly break the law, they should also have the power to shut down organisations that have been found to be corrupt (making payments to the police, widespread illegal activities, extensive cover-ups, misleading statements to Parliament, perjury etc.). None of this equates to fascism or dictatorship, in almost any other industry widespread illegal activity would/should be punished by the regulator.

3. Third, who is the proper regulator? You offer a false dichotomy as an answer, pathetic self regulation (PCC) or Government control (A concept you have already tainted with comparisons to dictatorship). How about a proper independent regulator taking employees from a cross section of society, rather than just a bunch of industry insiders (with vested interests) as so many other regulators do.

4. Finally, who is to be regulated? In other words, who is the press? I agree that this is the key question.  Obviously the papers, TV and radio broadcasters are media that should be regulated. The difficulty comes when you try to establish which websites should be regulated. Clearly stuff like the Guardian website and the BBC would already fall under regulation aimed at newspapers/broadcasters, however what about personal blogs or blogs hosted on other services such as blogger? What can be done to protect peoples rights to express their own personal opinion? What can be done to stop the routine dissemination of lies across the blogosphere?
 Upon refreshing the page I found this comment from one of the Guardian editorial staff:
"Sorry, we were meant to launch this with comments off, and will be turning them off in a minute. Please use our Open Thread to post all comments relating to hacking. Thanks"
It seems absolutely absurd that an article that asks specific questions of its readers should have it's comments function deliberately and retrospectively disabled. The Guardian began their policy of diverting comments from all vaguely hacking related articles to these gigantic lumbering open threads over the weekend of the final News of the World, however they didn't bother to open a new thread on Monday morning meaning that by then they were insisting that any comments relating to the specific issue of media regulation should be thrown to the bottom of Sunday's pit of over 2,800 other general comments about the phone hacking scandal, mainly consisting of various shades of outrage. Jeff Jarvis happens to be one of the few columnists that has the courtesy to read through the below-the-line comments and respond to them, how the hell is he going to find them if they are subsumed into thread with 58 pages of responses? The one guy that got his response in on the media regulation thread before comments were shut down stated it is "very difficult to have a nuanced debate pertaining to the specific issues raised in disparate articles in one uber-thread" (a view that was later moderated out of existence by Guardian staff).

He is of course right, this editorial decision is an obstruction to nuanced debate. The Guardian have taken the decision to redirect comments from all articles that even mention phone hacking to their comments black hole, including comments on regular opinion pieces from contributors such as Charlie Brooker and Polly Toynbee that always have open comments and always generate large numbers of responses. It has also had a serious impact on the Comment is Free section of the website, creating the absurd situation where it is impossible to comment on several of the Comment is Free articles.

The Guardian deserve a lot of credit for their persistence in pursuing the News of the World phone hacking scandal but they are seriously letting themselves down with this open thread nonsense. It seems like a deliberate attempt to stifle debate by lumping all of the separate issues together into one enormous thread. Restricting comment on any article that even mentions phone-hacking in a week absolutely dominated by the phone hacking scandal would be the equivalent of redirecting all comments that make mention of sports to an open thread that rapidly becomes gigantic impenetrable jumble of sports related themes leaving regular readers of Guardian Football confused and annoyed as well as obstructing people who like to read and comment on the work of a particular sports writer.

There is no harm in having an open thread on the phone-hacking scandal, however redirecting comments from myriad other articles into it seems like a ludicrous decision. It is hard to even guess at the motivation for such a strategy however I'm certain that it is absolutely nothing to do with their statement "You asked for open threads. Here they are", nobody asked for comments to be shut down on Charlie Brooker's weekly rant and redirected to an open thread. Here are some of the possibilities:
  •  Costs: There have been several dozen articles related to phone hacking, and before the open thread redirect policy was put in place they were all attracting large numbers of comments, perhaps the decision to obstruct discussion was an attempt to reduce bandwidth costs. 
  • By request: After it was announced by News International that News of the World was to be closed I noticed a few right-wing "trolls" complaining along the lines of "not another artilce on CiF about phone-hacking". It is hard to imagine that the Guardian create editorial policy that would annoy so many of their regular readers based on the complaints of a few right wing whingers.
  • Legal issues: The Guardian could be trying to limit debate on the subject out for fear of legal issues such as lawsuits from News International, however several other leading UK based media organisations (BBC, Telegraph & Daily Mail) maintained multiple open threads on the subject over the same period. I am sceptical of this reason because I find it extremely difficult to imagine a legal basis for holding an organisation legally responsible for readers' comments below the line. Especially given the Guadian's exhaustive list of community standards and often harsh moderation regime.
  • The Guardian genuinely wants to stifle debate about phone hacking. It seems absurd that the organisation that did so much to break the scandal would want to shut down debate about the issue but it is what they are doing with the redirecting of comments policy, so the possibility that it is deliberate shouldn't be excluded. 
I have no intention of posting my response to Jeff Jarvis on an open thread that the Guardian can't even be bothered to renew on a daily basis because there is absolutely no chance that he, or anyone else that read his article would ever sift through nearly 3,000 unrelated comments to find it. One thing that struck me is that the Jarvis article has the word "openness" in it's URL, however the Guardian's decision to prevent me from making a specific response to his questions is pretty much the opposite of openness.

1 comment:

V said...

Agree with everything you say. Can't understand why. Its ridiculous trying to trawl through such a huge thread.