Yesterday I decided to remove my story Media bias threatens democracy. The reason is quite simple: most of the comments below the story were also a threat to democracy.
Before you howl “censorship”, let’s look at what democracy consists of: 1) Freedom of speech. 2) The rule of law. 3) The presumption of innocence. There is more, of course.
I used censorship yesterday – no doubt about it. I will not apologise for it and I’d like to tell you why.
For two days after posting my story (ironically titled Media bias threatens democracy) I stewed over the irrelevant, legally dangerous and ultimately idiotic comments that were posted below. And not for the first time.
This happened in the same week that Migs, the site operator, posted a disclaimer warning that some form of censorship was now a possibility. Offences included:
3. Comments containing language or concepts that could be deemed offensive.
4. Comments that attack a person individually.
5. Comments posted with the clear intention of diverting or disrupting the topic.
In spite of the disclaimer, the bad habits that some posters have brought to this site continued. One dispute that rages on this fairly new site has a history going back two years, I believe.
At first I decided to remove (“Trash” is the WordPress term) those comments that were personal, inflammatory and off the topic anyway. I don’t believe that writers, journalists, citizen journos, the Fifth Estate, bloggers, whatever, go to the trouble of writing something they hope will be informative and interesting just so others can dump their crap on the end of it. I know I don’t.
Comments ought to be on topic, relevant, informative, helpful or correct misinformation if that’s necessary. I think that’s what readers expect. It’s not what we’re getting. I’m finding that the first three or four comments are relevant, then commenters begin wandering, get right off track, start arguing, become abusive and then downright insulting.
What we are seeing on this site is the sort of garbage that ultimately destroyed the freedom to comment on news stories appearing on Yahoo!7 and in other places. Debates on internet freedom are often headlined Freedom of Speech! Our Democratic Rights Threatened and the like. When you think it through, what passes for internet freedom in some cases is little more than Fascism in disguise.
Some things that relate to 2) The Rule of Law are missing from Migs’ Disclaimer. He does not refer to “defamation”, “libel” or “sub judice”, but I will. The rule of sub judice (pronounced sub jood-i-kay and meaning the matter is undergoing trial, or is before the court) was seriously breached in a large number of the comments that appeared below my story. The comments were related to what I’ll call The Thomson Affair, and I don’t even know how that line of discussion got started.
The Thomson Affair is sub judice – it is before the court. The affair should not be discussed in public because such discussion could prejudice Mr Thomson’s legal rights, which include the right to the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. If you want to preserve your right to freedom of speech, please respect Mr Thomson’s right to a fair trial, at least.
Claiming that the matter has been discussed elsewhere, or claiming you were unaware of sub judice (ignorance of the law) WILL NOT get you off the hook.
Comments on the Thomson Affair had nothing to do with the story I wrote as an introduction to remarks that were made in Parliament by the former Speaker, Mr Peter Slipper.
Mr Slipper’s remarks (http://bit.ly/XVAJq5) concerned the threat to democracy (and possibly your freedom of speech) posed by the lack of diversity and the concentration of ownership of news media in Australia. I can’t recall many comments that addressed Mr Slipper’s concerns.
Mr Slipper has been the victim of news media bias and there hasn’t been much public discussion about what happened to him and how it was allowed to happen – precisely because of news media bias and lack of diversity. That was the whole point of my writing and posting the story and it turned out to be a waste of time.
I don’t know to what degree the average Australian citizen is aware of the extent of news media bias in this country at present. I don’t know to what extent they care about such things because the news media, including the ABC, is not telling us. All we are hearing is that the federal Labor government is terrible and the Opposition Leader, Mr Abbott, is wonderful and will fix everything.
So I censored you yesterday. Boo hoo. I hope it served as a wake-up call – that was the purpose (that, and protecting Mr Thomson’s legal rights). A bit of shock and awe to get some of you thinking. It might not change anything because if some of you were thinking you would not be doing what you’re doing.
With the newspaper industry on its knees, the NBN under threat, the ABC taken over by Conservative interests and in danger of being sold off, with Tony Abbott and his Catholic DLP/Tea Party agenda possibly gaining office in September, there is a very real threat to your freedom.
At the same time you now have at your fingertips the greatest tool for democratic freedom and protest since the invention of the pitchfork. Please treat your new Social Media with the respect it deserves. Otherwise, you might find it has been taken away from you.
To reinforce what I am saying I will apply the principle that the CIA refers to as “extreme prejudice”. Any comments appearing below will be “trashed”, regardless. You will then be able to experience censorship and the loss of freedom for real. I hope you gain enlightenment from the experience.
In future, I will continue to censor whatever appears below anything I write. That shouldn’t be a problem for you – just keep it relevant and polite.
PS: If you are interested in learning more about the legalities of publishing you will find it here, in The News Manual, a textbook for journalists: