The current – and frankly bizarre even by recent standards – Guardian campaign “the web we want” seems to be driven by two main agendas. The first, and probably the major one is the long-simmering plan to “regulate” (i.e. control and censor) free speech on the Web. That the Graun’s effort is part of a co-ordinated new offensive in that department is pretty conclusively illustrated by the fact the ex minister for “equality”, Maria Miller delivered her own diatribe agains the “problem” of internet “abuse” just days after the Guardian’s new campaign took off. The similarity between her invective and that employed by the Guardian’s tame journos puts it beyond question that this is an Establishment-wide move. A concerted plan to use exaggerated claims of “abuse” and its alleged impact on minorities, to mobilise well-meaning liberals in support of internet censorship.
In fact, unlike the feeble Apologists at Graun HQ, Miller at least has the guts to pretty much say so out loud:
“We need better laws and we need better enforcement. Government needs to stop allowing internet providers from(sic) hiding behind arguments about the protection of free speech,”
Right there we have it. The plan they formulated in their focus groups and policy committees. The best way to get the internet censorship they have wanted for so long is to pretend it isn’t censorship at all, but protection! And most particularly protection of those sections of society we all know need it most. The ethnic minorities, the LGBT communities – and women. The mere mention of these groups will be enough to rally many well-meaning but naive liberals to support their own gagging. “I’m happy to have my right to anonymity abolished if it helps stamp out racial abuse” they’ll say. “I’m happy to see comments sections closed if it helps women columnists avoid harassment”, they’ll say. There’ll probably be a social media campaign with a catchy soundbite and the same soft focus unthreatening images of “diversity” they pull up at the Graun. And people will sign up to be silenced.
But of course it won’t end racism or sexism or homophobia. Because it’s not intended to. The people behind this couldn’t give a flying feck for the wellbeing of minorities or anyone else beyond their own narrow class of super-privilege. That’s just window dressing. A lure for the gullible. It’s the Child Catcher prancing about in borrowed gaudy, his cage draped in pictures of candy.
The truth is they want to kill the internet and all its unparalleled power to monitor them and their variously greedy, stupid, paranoid antics. And they know they can’t do that unless they can persuade most ordinary people it’s a good idea.
This is why over the coming weeks and months you’ll see Owen Jones and other unscrupulous hacks (yes, we’re sorry, but Jones deserves no better descriptor after his recent ghastly display), trying to repackage free speech as “elitist” and using tortured pseudo-logic to “prove” that censorship is the only way to have truly open debate.
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The second part of the Guardian agenda is to try to roll back the massive damage being done to its reputation by the current CiF debacle.
Since its inception in 2006, CiF (“Comment is Free”) was hailed as the Guardian’s flagship of credibility, their pledge of openness and inclusiveness. And for a while it was. Most stories were open for discussion. Moderation was decorous. If it was politically motivated sometimes, it was discreet enough to have only minimal impact (mostly on stories about Israel). By and large CiF at that time was a real place for the sharing of information and opinion. All was reasonably well.
But somewhere around 2012-13 things began to change. Did the Government losing the Syria vote and the widespread opposition to a war against Assad signal to the PTB that open discussion of vital news stories was beginning to have unexpected consequences for their control of the narrative? Did the Snowden issue persuade people they’d rather get inline than risk their pension plans?
In any event moderation became more insistent. Not – whatever the official line may be – because the trolls were more prolific or persistent. They weren’t. Trolls are to the internet what rats are to cities. They are always there, but their impact on most of us is minimal. Civilised discussion proceeds above and around them. Trolls are trolls and never really change. No, what changed was that for maybe the first time there was a noticeable tendency to censor for opinion. Not racist opinion, or sexist opinion. Just anti-government opinion. Or minority opinion. At first it was relatively minor. – But then in February 2014 the West decided to go insane and provoke WW3 in Ukraine and everything changed forever.
News outlets like the Guardian and the BBC stood by and vaguely cheered this act of insanity, as if too lobotomised to even understand what was going on. We saw Shaun Walker making facile jokes about vodka and potatoes. Luke Harding, off his meds and off his leash squealing Russophobic paranoia. We saw crazed old NATO generals foaming at the mouth for war, and slick intelligence types citing reams of easily disproven statistics to “prove” Russia was the problem. What we didn’t see – anywhere – in the Establishment media was any voice of sanity, warning that this was a new Cuban Missile crisis and that more was required of us than xenophobia and soundbites.
The CiF sections – naturally – erupted in shock and incredulity that the Guardian – the Guardian – could possibly be fielding such stupid, dangerous, and low-grade propaganda. The comments were something like 10-1, if not more, in opposition to the hardline editorial stance and pleading for some realisation of what madness our governments were engaged in. And that’s when the Great Cull began.
As the official Western narrative on Ukraine unraveled in the face of the Odessa massacre, the black farce of the ATO and multiple revelations of how close the new government’s ties to neo-nazis really were, so the Guardian’s own line became increasingly nakedly propagandist. It set up a network with publications such as the Kiev Post and Radio Free Europe, and disseminated their dishonest hit pieces and fake propaganda stories without question or demur. In a matter of months it had become unrecognisable to those who had formerly respected it. Either it fundamentally changed at this time, or, maybe more likely, it simply stopped pretending. Either way, it stopped being the Guardian in any sense that meant anything.
At the same time moderation in CiF became for the first time overtly politicised, if not draconian. As people reacted more and more to the changing tone ATL, so more and more censorship was required BTL to keep that reaction in check. Comments that asserted a Russian perspective, or that simply called for some sort of middle ground were many times more likely to be blocked than those that supported the NATO position. Extreme racism toward Russians became more and more acceptable both ATL and BTL, while even minor critique of the Guardian’s own authors became punishable by not just blocking but outright banning.
But even the most intense efforts to control the debate proved futile. Whenever they opened a story for comments on Ukraine, Syria, or any other NATO war zone, it would be flooded with people opposing the warmongering of our governments, or questioning the veracity of the article, or linking to different versions of the story or to other stories the Guardian was choosing not to run. Try as they might to take down links, block comments, ban accounts, they couldn’t stop this tide.
And worse, people were now commenting on the censorship of comments, requiring even more censorship in turn. They developed zero tolerance for anyone questioning why a given comment had been taken down. if you dared ask why you were blocked or banned. They began pre-emptively banning certain accounts for a given period when sensitive news stories were broken, un-blocking them again after a decent interval. They seem to have added certain websites (including this one) to lists of URLS that would be immediately removed whatever content they contained.
But the more they censored, the more they were called on for their censorship, and the harder it became to pretend – even to themselves – that they were still the lovely liberal Guardian embracing free speech. They might tell each other they were censoring “trolls” or “Putinbots”, but in their hearts they knew, and knew that their readers all knew, what was really going on.
CiF is now one of their major problems. They need to preserve it – their once proud flagship – in order to cling to the remnants of their self-image as leaders of free thought. They can rename it “Opinion”, as if that makes the absence of Free Comment somehow less real. They can censor it to the point of destruction. But they can’t close it down. Because that would be admitting what they are and admitting defeat.
“The web we want” is their own, strangely pathetic, attempt at squaring that circle. You can look at it almost like the inner dialogue of a deeply troubled psyche. Self-soothing with repetition and over-assertion.
Those bizarre and strained attempts at “explaining” their comment policy with graphs and “research” so openly bogus it proves nothing beyond their own desperation. Those weird photoshoots of confused but smiling “Best CiF Commenters” (chosen by “cross-referencing a list of the commenters who had the highest average of “recommends per comment” with a list of those with the highest percentage of “staff picks”), designed to show how comfortable they really are with their own readership, but being about as convincing as a kidnap victim reading a scrawled note to camera about how well he is being treated.
Hysterical. Hopeless. And deeply sad. Because even if this new agenda of cuddly censorship to help minorities does get enough of a claw hold to make a difference, and even if we all do lose our remaining freedoms, the Guardian is dead to most of its old readers. Its moral base has been destroyed, its reputation is irreparably shredded. It’s now just a glorified mag for clickbait and badly written agitprop. Its readership is shrinking, its income is vanishing. It’s propped up now by its bosses in Washington and London, existing on their life support until it’s been drained of all possible use, when they will turn off the machines and let it die.
The “journalists” who work for it won’t much care when that happens of course. If they cared about such things they wouldn’t be doing what they do. They’ll just be paid off and move on to different positions, where they can enjoy expense account lunches and spurious feelings of security while it lasts. But many old readers will care quite a lot. Even though it will also feel like putting a suffering animal out of its misery.