Four million such calls would never change such people’s behaviour, of course, but if I were the editor of a newspaper or a website I would simply disallow comments on anything but a letters page. Sure, some readers would be annoyed – they could send in letters about it, and I’d choose which to publish, as has always happened. The current practice of allowing comments under most articles online is, I think, simply a way to garner traffic. We all like to think our views are important, and we like to think others are listening. (I have a blog, and so can pontificate about what I would do if I edited a newspaper.) When newspapers allow us to comment we feel included or, as an employer might put it, we feel we ‘share ownership’ of their material. It may be Big Important Columnist’s name up there in the byline, but our thoughts are on the same page as theirs, with potentially the same audience. TV news does this as well, as this great sketch points out.
Allowing comments draws traffic because it taps into our desire to have our views heard, but also because we can do so anonymously. This means people can say whatever’s on their mind with no fear of reprisal from those they insult, which is liberating. People also revisit an article every time they post a comment, and every time they check back to see if anyone has replied to their comments yet, and so on. If the article is about anything remotely controversial – and sometimes if it isn’t – pretty soon there will be a stream of comments and a great big slanging match and, wow, fantastic, your traffic on that article has gone through the roof.
So if I were a newspaper editor, increased traffic and therefore advertising revenue would be a strong reason for allowing anonymous comments on my site. But I think it’s short-term thinking, and it damages newspapers in the longer term, for some of the reasons Guy Walters touched on. Walters’ blog is a perfect example of this. I’ve been aware of Guy for years, because it seemed that every time I came across a piece of Second World War history that could form the backdrop to an exciting thriller, he’d been there before me. Last year I read a blog article of his about Diana Mosley on The Daily Telegraph’s site.
I agreed with every word of the article, but then made the mistake of reading some of the comments below it. One of them read:
‘Nazism and Fascism are different animals. Mr Walters please explain what is wrong with Facism.’
I’ve read more of Guy’s work since, and come to know him a little, and he’s a voice of reason in the world of Second World War history, much of which is dominated by what he rightly calls ‘junk history’. But I think allowing anonymous comments below his pieces is, on balance, unhelpful. Whenever he writes about the Second World War, which is often, the comments below frequently descend into a shouting match about, of all things, whether the Holocaust ever happened. This isn’t the BNP’s website, but a major national newspaper. Journalists aren’t responsible for their audience, of course, let alone that portion of it that chooses to comment on their work, and it’s easy to dismiss the ramblings below articles as those of the ‘green ink brigade’ finally given a voice. But they have an insidious effect nevertheless. In the case of Guy’s blog, I think they make sober and reasoned debates about very specific topics into a rendez-vous for nutters to proclaim their sometimes sinister views, and whether he refutes the comments or simply ignores them the impression is that in some way the articles are about the topics that dominate the discussions below, even when they aren’t.
‘Well, don’t read the comments then,’ is the easy answer. And many don’t, of course, and I often don’t, or just read a few in passing. But that’s also part of the problem: most people don’t have time to read hundreds of comments, but by glancing at a few an impression is inevitably formed, however fleeting. I’m singling out Guy’s blog, but this applies to all articles published with comments attached. For many people, the point being made by the writer is replaced by the debate that goes on below. Debate is good, but the newspaper in question is publishing this particular debate – and it’s usually not one they would have chosen in the editorial meeting that morning.
This isn’t just about The Daily Telegraph. The wider issue, alluded to by Guy on The Culture Show, is that this relatively new practice by newspapers undermines the discourse. The Telegraph and The Guardian are both excellent newspapers (and I’m proud to have been published by both), but both also have widely-recognized caricatures: the former the living embodiment of a Colonel Blimp stumbling about complaining that things aren’t what they used to be, the latter The Critics from Viz, smugly eating organic tofu and making lots of typos as they go along.
Both sites have allowed comments on many of their articles for some time, and I think that apart from increasing traffic, the result has been to push both sites further towards these caricatures. While both papers often cover the same stories in very similar ways, when you read the comments below you are instead subjected to the most extreme Guardianistas and Torygraphians spouting abuse, often at each other. Indeed, people who make a sensible comment on The Guardian’s site are often told in no uncertain terms (everyone is certain online) to head back to The Telegraph from whence they came, and vice versa. One comment on Guy’s Diana Mosley piece claimed he was a Guardian fifth columnist because of it. Only someone very right-wing indeed would view it as left-wing to state that the wife of the leader of The British Union of Fascists should have been interned during the war.
But most people are not especially left- or right-wing. Because the majority make up the middle ground, newspapers are not doing themselves any favours by allowing the most extreme caricatures among their readership a strong voice in their publications. It isn’t a right of readers to be published in a particular newspaper or on a particular site, any more than it’s a right of journalists. The editors decide what they feel is fit to publish. When I worked as an editor at a magazine, most of the letters and emails we received were either very dull, very insane or very offensive to someone, usually us. We published the sanest of the letters – if we’d published everything we were sent we’d have looked as rambling, mad and abusive as the writers of them. The web means that space is no longer an issue, but infinite space doesn’t mean ceding editorial control. Newspapers do moderate comments, but usually only very lightly. Outright racist abuse, for example, will get a comment removed, but even then often only after it has been published. And subtler forms of abuse are published by major newspapers every day. Papers now employ editors to read the ramblings of all the Colonel Blimps and Critics, removing only those comments that break laws.
The effect is corrosive: even the most erudite and well-reasoned article can look a little amateurish when it’s followed by pages of abuse and idiocy. And newspapers know this. That’s why some articles do not have comments below. If it’s a particularly sensitive topic, comments aren’t allowed. The paper would just look too bad if its maddest readers were allowed to run riot below certain stories, and the editors know they would if given the opportunity. But a certain level of poor image is tolerated, even encouraged, because it increases traffic.
But only in the short term, I think.
But only in the short term, I think.