Comment is (not quite) free

How a leading newspaper restricted my access to its ‘open-ended space’


You may be familiar with the Guardian newspaper’s website and with that website’s “Comment is Free” section.

Comment is Free takes its name from the famous dictum of C P Scott, the legendary owner and editor of the then Manchester Guardian, in 1921. “Comment is free, but facts are sacred,” Scott declared.

Through CiF, all manner of persons can post articles and leave comments on those posted by others. All articles posted must be agreed in advance with CiF’s editorial staff. Comments on posts, on the other hand, do not usually need such agreement, since CiF operates a “post-moderation” policy, that is to say that comments are reviewed only after they have appeared publicly, on-line.

From The Guardian’s point of view, this is a high-risk strategy, making it possible, for example, for defamatory and personally abusive comments to appear, albeit briefly, in public before they are removed by CiF’s in-house moderators.

The fact is, the anti-Zionist contributions far outweigh the pro-Zionist ones

The world of CiF is indeed a harsh one. My own contributions to it have ranged widely in their subject-matter, reflecting my own special interests. Until now, I have been one of the few CiF comment contributors to have posted under his own name rather than under a pseudonym.

The result of this has been that, in terms of public exposure, I have paid a price. But it was a price I believed was worth paying. “Our aim” — boasts CiF — “is to host an open-ended space for debate, dispute, argument and agreement in which users are able to comment on everything they read. The blog [ie, the website] … exists to provide instant commentary on current events while exploring the main preoccupations of a progressive, liberal newspaper.”

These are bold words. I used to believe that they were printed for a truly liberal purpose. Now, however, I am not so sure.

For some time, some of us have been concerned at the anti-Zionist content of CiF contributions. As a matter of principle, I believe it to be right that CiF should host articles critical of Israel. But it should do so in a measured and moderate way.

The fact is that the anti-Zionist contributions to CiF far outweigh the pro-Zionist ones.

This is not something of which C P Scott, who was a committed Zionist, would have approved. But my own worries extend beyond the sheer inequity of the material to the actual content of what is written.

Slowly but surely, CiF (and I am concerned here primarily with the articles, not with the post-moderated comments on them) has become a platform for the crudest propaganda that can only have been intended to foster a hatred of the Jewish state.

To take a recent example, on January 22 CiF ran a piece by its star Jewish critic of Israel, Seth Freedman, entitled “Israel’s double standards over Haiti,” in which Israel’s magnificent (dare I say disproportionate?) relief efforts in Haiti were contrasted with its alleged “indifference” to sufferings in Gaza.

Mr Freedman appears to delight in turning good-news stories about Israel into bad-news stories. But in citing the unspeakable suffering of the Haitians to make his point, this particular essay was surely in the worst possible taste.

Last August, “CiF Watch” was launched. Its primary aim is to monitor anti-Jewish content appearing on CiF.

In November, I accepted an invitation to write for CiF Watch a piece on Peter Oborne’s Channel 4 documentary Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby and on Tony Lerman’s defence of it on CiF.

I can now reveal that, within days of the publication of my critique, I received an email from the Guardian telling me that, if I dared to continue writing for CiF Watch, I would no longer be able to contribute to CiF. It was, I was summarily warned, “an either/or choice”.

I can further reveal that I have now been placed on a special list of persons whose CiF comments will be reviewed in advance of their online publication.

Well, I have never taken kindly to threats. I have certainly never been deterred by them. I can additionally reveal that I intend to continue posting on CiF but — regrettably —under an alias.

As for C P Scott; he must surely be turning in his grave.

Last updated: 11:08pm, April 24 2010

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