Tag Archives: Censorship and moderation of The Guardian’s books blog

Mysteries of modern poetry: are poets still free spirits?

Off with their heads!

Drawing by John Tenniel

Continuing our inspection of censorship at the Guardian, here’s a surprising suppressor of free speech — that is, if you are used to thinking of poets and other artists as passionate believers in unfettered communication.

Could that honestly be said of Carol Rumens, a published poet, university lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger for that newspaper? Her electronic column — when written by her predecessor in that space — was a quick, open-ended introduction to a poem chosen for discussion by all comers. Under Rumens, the blog has taken on a directive and teacherly tone that some of her readers enjoy.

This week, an extended argument with commenters keen to lift the dead hand of academic analysis from modern poetry – affecting not just its criticism but writing – grew intense. Guardian moderators slashed comments by Rumens’ opponents so wildly and in such quantities that at least one onlooker wondered about the possibility of unhinged combat rage (think My Lai and Green Berets.)

The butchery was justified on the grounds that commenters had been attacking a living poet – the author of this week’s poem, Vona Groarke. Actually – as is clear from careful inspection of the unexpurgated record, there were no personal attacks on the poet, with the exception of a childish remark about her name by someone notoriously infantile. It was the opinions and judgment of Rumens herself that came under fire and, in a scant few posts, the poem itself.

At the end of the cull, Rumens made an ominous announcement in her comments section:

[…] I have emailed the mods via Sarah […] and they will watching the blog extra carefully.

@Einsloth, a delightfully whimsical commenter known to be an accomplished poet himself, was singled out for a special rap on the knuckles. Why? Because he had begun his critique by referring to ‘this precious pearl of a poem’. Comparisons with other samples of acid wit in the annals of literary criticism would reveal that to be mild – as intended.

But Rumens said,

He begins with a sneer. That is NOT doing what we should all do here. [her caps.]

Should. Shouldn’t. … Hmm … Now, this particular Guardian blogger has been a teacher for decades. We must allow her the tics of the more dictatorial members of her profession. But what was a newspaper doing, denying its commenters their right to disagree with her?

This post on acciaccatura is aimed at those moderators and constructed to honour the old maxim, ‘Do as you would be done by.’ I would like to see the Guardian simply highlight all comments it finds questionable – except for libel – and let readers reflect on them and draw their own conclusions. How? Just as I’m setting out these excerpts from the blogs and comments-section remarks of Carol Rumens – neutrally, and in a spirit of enquiry.

LITERARY STYLE

Can a prose style like this, introducing poems, earn poetry more readers – and stimulate new interest in the most graceful literary form?

It’s a strong poem that inhabits a slightly uncharacteristic lyric angle, off-road to the central preoccupations of this septuagenarian poet’s spacious, modernist imagination. Yet I feel it reveals the emotional forces implicit in those preoccupations.

… when the same ideas could have been stated like this:

It’s a strong poem, with an uncharacteristic touch of lyricism, a departure from the usual preoccupations of this septuagenarian modernist. Yet, to me, it reveals the passion behind those preoccupations.

APPROACH TO CRITICISM

Is this a helpful interpretation of a cheerful short poem? Lines that describe an athletic woman diving into the sea?

In an understated way (provided we allow that the poet is the protagonist of her own poem) “Pier” seems a feminist work. Exposed in bathing-togs as she “flip-flops” past the fishermen, the woman here is untroubled about body-image. There’s no shrinking from either visibility or danger. Next time, in fact, she’ll claim even more visibility, and take a bigger risk: she’ll dive from the pier head-first, and she’ll shout. While not as blissfully at one with the environment as her project at first suggested, the speaker embraces the growing sense of power and liberation her risk-taking gains her. We might also infer that, where Church and state attempt to control women’s bodies, rebellious leaps and shouts may be fun but are also more significant politically than they may first appear.

N.B. A controller critical of controlling?

SELF-EXPRESSION

Should a blogger cooperating with censors of free speech be calling her own employers at her university ‘you bastards’ in public – on a Guardian blog? Carol Rumens was gently reprimanded by a kind commenter: shouldn’t she extend the same kind consideration to the impassioned comments of others?

CarolRumens
Comment No. 1200270
July 2 18:41

To my Employers (the National Institute for Excellence in the Creative Industries, University of Bangor)

Nasty
Idiotic
Emetic
Crap
Innit

Sorry but they are trying to get me to do some extra teaching that forces a younger colleague out of a job. Hope you’re reading this, you bastards.

stoneofsilence
Comment No. 1203154
July 4 8:57

Never slag off an employer on
Impulse, especially in forums
Everyone can be a voyeur on
Carol Rumens, Oh Carol Rumens
Ire will misfire- its – hire or fire

Seriously, Carol I think it is best that these matters be resolved using the appropriate channels. If you believe there is a case, then take it to the union or whoever represents you, and take it up with the boards. If it is a Dean or Director who has made this decision then go to the head of the college. If you have already exhausted those channels then you can use this blog to vent off your anger, but not until then. I do not personally think it is useful to make fun of your employer’s strategy which is one that is typical of all those humanities departments that had to reinvent themselves in the 1990’s so as to be more attractive to business. …

Readers, I’ll let you decide …

29 Comments

Filed under Censorship, Editors and editing, Poetry, The Guardian

We few, we happy few … bloggers vs. The Guardian (which has a lesson to learn from computer geeks)

Old Media contemplating the leap into the New (Huma Mulji's 'High Rise'; Ozier Muhammad)

Old Media contemplating the leap into the New (Huma Mulji's 'High Rise'; Ozier Muhammad)


Dear Comrades
, including those of you who once blogged with me on the books site of The Guardian – whether or not we’re still on speaking terms,

…The signs point to a victory over Goliath. . . Yes, we few, we happy band of bloggers … have won, by refusing to let that newspaper shut us up — behaving just like Tony Benn resisting the BBC’s attempt to silence him in this riveting clip @Hazlitt posted here.

The incontrovertible proof of our triumph? That the moderators on that site can no longer openly ban us.

Because they couldn’t ban for instance, me, in the last half of August, they stooped to imitating Richard Nixon’s Dirty Tricks Department – remember Watergate? — to keep me out.

Why? Because we have taught the Guardian’s managers that a banned blogger quickly becomes a cause célèbre – not least because this site, with one or two others, initiated a tradition of publishing any comments censored by the newspaper’s trigger-happy moderators. (see Salvage Operation, part 1 and part 2.)

It would have been hard for The Guardian to ban me outright. Far from attacking or abusing anyone in my only two attempts at posting there as @wordnerd7 since last winter, I wrote a comment praising a piece on the newspaper’s site.

Before I tidy all that out of sight — and to ensure that the newspaper’s editors will never be able to dismiss the incidents as paranoid and imaginary — I’m summarising the sequence of happenings in this spot. On August 22, I had an automated message informing me that a comment warmly supporting an article by Aaron Akinyemi on the books blog had been siphoned off into ‘pre-moderation’. While I waited, mystified and with misgivings, I pasted in a draft of that comment on this site. On August 26, four days after it disappeared into the bowels of the online Guardian, it reappeared heavily edited – with links to two articles on this site agreeing with Aaron’s argument lopped off. Sentences of mine were slyly inserted under the screen name ‘@wordnerd’ – and not ‘@wordnerd7’, as they should have been. At the bottom of the butchered comment, a remark addressed to ‘@nuges’ was added to my words – a remark never made by me.

When I saw that on August 27, I immediately wrote a new comment, protesting about the censoring, blatant distortion and additions to my original comment — asking the Guardian’s moderators for an explanation. This attempt at posting also vanished into pre-moderation, never to be seen again. I put an exact replica of that post here.

Another wait. Then, on August 28, a comment of which I never wrote a single line appeared in the Akinyemi thread under ‘@wordnerd’. The post attributed to me amounts to a simple-minded and crass statement about racial differences at the furthest extreme from my own beliefs (……………as anyone interested will discover in reading these threads: Will Barack Obama bring back heroism? and A bit more on heroes: Barack Obama’s odyssey, part 2)

Just to be perfectly clear about what must be obvious, The Guardian has never answered my question about why the first post was censored and doctored – and it prevented my enquiry from ever appearing on its site. (I have a copy of the second pre-moderation notice.)

So that’s what I mean by ‘dirty tricks’, and I’m creating this careful record of the incidents for anyone else who might encounter the same behaviour by the authorities responsible for that site.

Now this, mark you, is a newspaper that has a whole segment of its website labelled Liberty Central, advertising the image it likes to project – and can sometimes justify, in other spheres – as a friend of freedom and the oppressed.

As I pointed out at the time, it’s clear that The Guardian is severely rattled by bloggers questioning its authority with substantive objections. There is other – constructive and heartening — proof of our arrows finding their mark. Over the last few weeks, there have been several articles on the Guardian’s books blog objecting to the commercialisation of book publishing – for instance, this one about promotional author-videos and another about Margaret Atwood.

They make a striking contrast with the prevailing opinion of the editors on that site two years ago, when they ran piece after piece endorsing book publishing’s increasing dominance by marketing executives (at the expense of literary quality) – starting with one titled Selling Yourself as a Writer. As recently as last November, strong – but politely worded — objections to that unbridled philistinism were deleted by Guardian moderators.

An entry in this blog spelling out those objections in detail seems to have been heeded: Since when was a newspaper strictly a mercantilist tool?

In effectively banning me in late August, though, the authorities concerned appeared to have had a fit of acute irrationality – spiced with malice.

Arbitrary and punishing authoritarianism is out of temper with the times, dear Guardian. We know how difficult it must be for Old Media to adjust to online publishing, which needs new rules for all sorts of processes and procedures, including the correction of errors, as I demonstrated last month.

Look to the technocrats who gave us these magnificent new communication tools to see how you should be making every facet of your modus operandi more egalitarian. Power structures are flattening out. You don’t seem to have noticed, but they aren’t shaped like pyramids any more. Last March, Scott Rosenberg, who has just published a history of blogging, Say Everything, received a grant of $335,000 from the American Knight Foundation to explore a system for correcting errors in the media that mimics the cheerfully collaborative spirit in which coders of open-source software have debugged each other’s work for decades.

Instead of getting huffy and defensive about the mistakes they make when these are pointed out by readers, in Rosenberg’s vision, newspapers and other media will respond with a collegial graciousness. As he has explained, about his test site:

We’re a place on the Web (independent and not-for-profit) where you can bring specific errors, issues and problems you’ve found in media coverage in your community and try to get them fixed.

[…]

Q: Why should I bother?

A: Because you know that good public information is the lifeblood of democracy. And that journalists are human beings who sometimes make mistakes. And that they work for institutions that don’t always respond to criticism. Instead of posting an angry rant on your blog or just shrugging your shoulders, MediaBugs will give you and those journalists a chance to have civil exchanges about the inevitable errors and problems that crop up in their work.

… As for my fellow-bloggers, with whom I began. Make sure that you have your own blog. I’d have been beside myself if I’d had no way to expose the behaviour of the Guardian’s moderators over the last two weeks. Get your own site, and think hard about commenting on newspaper articles there, not on the newspapers’ sites – to ensure that you will always own the words you write, and can make up your own rules about what you can and can’t say.

Withhold your clicks from their sites, if necessary, and put your weight behind the thrilling new democracy that the new communication technologies have brought us. And do not doubt for a second that our words are being read where it matters.

. . . We few, we happy few, we band of bloggers;
For we today who save our clicks for freedom
Shall e’er be comrades; be we ne’er so vile
Our band shall speed the media revolution:
And Grauniad moderators in their cups
Shall cry themselves a river they were so foul,
And took for monkeys commenters loyal and fair
Who looked for thanks and justice, all in vain.

50 Comments

Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian, Visual art & artists

Postscript to Censorship at The Guardian (part 2)

There’s been an unfortunate confusion of categories in conversations about posts made to vaporise on the Guardian‘s books blog. For one group of blogging comrades, it’s all about GU banning particular bloggers.

At the risk of boring careful readers of earlier posts witless, by repetition, . . . the problem I’m most disturbed by is rather larger. It has to do with the Guardian’s refusal to explain or discuss its reasons for censoring this post of mine — supporting Margaret Drabble’s criticism of the excessive commercialisation of book publishing, and objecting to secretive deletions of earlier complaints on the same theme. I’ve explained some of my reasons here.

A message to bloggers from a Guardian Community Moderator on October 27 could be partly responsible for the confusion. It didn’t so much as mention my many requests, on the books blog site, for enlightenment about censoring policy. It only stated that the blogging privileges of banned bloggers couldn’t be reinstated — and attempted to make a case for limiting ‘off-topic’ discussions between bloggers that, in practice, are always perfectly okay except when critical of heavy-handed moderation.

This isn’t to say that I have no sympathy for our banned comrades. Or that I agree with the Guardian’s reasons for and methods of locking people out of the site. More than once, I’ve joined other bloggers in protesting about these policies and suggesting that they need reconsideration.

What our separate objections do have in common is (i) the surreptitious and unacknowledged deletion of posts by GU; (ii) the Guardian’s refusal to discuss the evolution of censorship and moderation of the books blog with bloggers, whose posts are the lifeblood of that site.

Trying to stifle criticism of an ever-slicker and more mercantile book publishing business by conflating it with policing bloggers’ behaviour – and crushing all forms of disagreement under the same indiscriminate censor’s boot – seems to have an unfortunate parallel.

Isn’t it rather like the subject of so many recent Guardian blogs and editorials warning us that with the excuse of protecting us from terrorists, the government is vastly over-extending surveillance and stripping us of every last shred of privacy?

Yes that’s a bit of a stretch, on the surface. But in each case, controlling the unusual behaviour of particular individuals (murderous militants, as opposed to nonconformist literary bloggers) is being used as an excuse to deprive entire populations (the British people in one case; a blogging community in the other) of what our Enlightenment culture deems basic rights.. . . Incidentally, I can’t help but wonder whether the Guardian’s curious treatment of Jo Glanville’s article about Western software companies doing the actual work of censorship for repressive governments might have had something to do with this part of John Ozimek’s blog, to which I’ve linked in the last paragraph:

Recently, the home office informed me that “the government has been working … to develop filtering software [to protect] against illegal material that promotes or encourages terrorism”.

. . . Yes I do see that this isn’t the sort of thing we escapist books bloggers discuss ordinarily. I’m keen to move on to more lighthearted conversations on, for instance, Chris Power‘s charming reverie about getting real straw between his teeth. All I’m asking for, for the moment, is proof that the Guardian is going to stop behaving like book publishing’s drooling poodle, apparently not caring a whit about that industry’s wrecking of literary standards and culture.

23 Comments

Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, The Guardian

Censorship at The Guardian (part 2)

Am I dreaming or did the Guardian really post a hair-raising blog on internet censorship at 5 pm GMT yesterday, then whip the article off its Comment-is-free front page and into its archives less than nine hours later?

And could that be because this newspaper realised that its own bloggers would see a curious connection between the subject of the blog and its own recent behaviour?

The big business of net censorship
Clamping down on free speech on the internet has been a lucrative enterprise for software manufacturers
Comments (10)

o Jo Glanville
o guardian.co.uk, Monday November 17 2008 17.00 GMT
o Article history
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/17/censorship-internet?commentpage=1

One Cif blogger, MarchOnRome, said, ‘It’s instructive that one of the few times the Guardian has anything bad to say about censoring the internet is when they think someone might be making a profit out of it.’

But that’s the old Guardian s/he’s thinking of. To the new version of this newspaper, it’s apparently – and how I hope I’m mistaken – okay to restrict free speech as long as the job’s being done by a company, . . . for instance, a newspaper, rather than by a government.

As this very perch on WordPress noted at the weekend, quoting George Steiner,

The censorship which profit imposes on the media is as destructive, perhaps more so than that of political despotism.

. . . Some of us have also noticed a curious omission in the latest redesign of the Guardian‘s books blog. Articles about the publishing business are no longer listed as a category of archive on the blog’s home page – as in the earlier version of the site, introduced in the spring. Why not? Few of these articles have been critical of the industry, but bloggers’ comments on them are often incendiary.

Does any of this tell us about the Guardian’s future vision of itself? Does it perhaps mean to serve mainly as chief events-organiser for the Hay festival, the publishing industry’s annual self-promotion jamboree, much loathed by the newspaper’s own bloggers?

22 Comments

Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, The Guardian

The Guardian’s books blog: they do prate of freedom, but . . .

Why would a newspaper as famous as The Guardian risk losing its reputation as a champion of freedom and open debate?

Why, within the last month, did it refuse to give any reasons for surreptitiously censoring posts on its books blog condemning the ‘dumbing down’ and degradation of literature by a publishing industry that now cares far more about maximising profits than anything else? Why would it mention protests about these developments by Margaret Drabble, one of Britain’s most distinguished novelists, and do so more than once — without actually putting its strong shoulder behind her?

Bloggers’ furious posts about being deleted also vanished from the site more than once, and the newspaper’s literary editors met several requests for an explanation for their disappearance with a cold silence.

Some of those deleted comments were mine, and in my remarks about the way they were removed without any indication of their ever having been made, I found myself drawing a parallel to the Chinese government’s alarming restraints on cultural freedom.

Both my education and profession have made caution and self-doubt reflexive, which means that there’s a continuous whirl of ‘Is-saying-that-justified?’, ‘But-can-you-prove-it?’ and ‘Who-says-so?’ in the back of my head.

So of course I nearly jumped out of my skin when, a day or two ago, I came across this sentence in a riveting collection of essays, My Unwritten Books, by our most brilliant living literary scholar, George Steiner:

The censorship which profit imposes on the media is as destructive, perhaps more so than that of political despotism.

That’s near the end of a passage that reads in part,

The coercion which the police state exercises on thought and art is indeed appalling. Yet the damage done may, in the final analysis, be no greater than that caused by the absolutism of the mass market.

Apparently replying indirectly to bloggers’ criticisms, the Guardian published two additional articles referring to Margaret Drabble’s complaint.

But each of these trivialised it to the point of insult. For instance, Aida Edemariam’s asked readers to compete in a silly contest to redesign the covers of well-known novels

A few days later, Alison Flood, who (commendably) wrote the original report about Drabble’s disgust with publishing’s drift, asked bloggers for our thoughts on product merchandising tied to best-selling books.

But that’s beside the point. It’s like running pieces on whether white mice, rats or lizards make better pets for children during an outbreak of the plague — instead of addressing the devastation the disease is wreaking. The real damage being done by commercialising literature is that marketing departments rather than editors now decide what books will be put in readers’ way.

They ask for plots and nonfiction book proposals to be changed not from concern about literary quality or facts, but solely to suit their ideas about what will sell in the highest numbers.

This is nothing less than tragic.

2 Comments

Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, The Guardian