Comment Is Free: eating the Guardian


Once upon a time, there was a left-wing newspaper. Its founder, C.P. Scott, clearly saw it as less of a paper and more of a social mission. My grandfather, a true Socialist all his life, religiously took the Guardian every day, and I would leaf through it as a teenager, mulling over its worthy appraisals of Neil Kinnock’s latest speech or Billy Bragg’s new album. Compared with other papers, it always seemed a bit more in tune with “yoof”, which I then was, and the good guys, which were Labour.

Last week a controversial new columnist, Josh Treviño, joined that newspaper. As a former advisor to the Bush administration, he was not necessarily a natural choice for the paper, but outside observers might have been pleasantly surprised to see, for once, a little compensating political balance at the newspaper.

Within days, he and the newspaper had agreed to part, officially on the pretext that he had slipped a reference into an article which had broken editorial guidelines – eighteen months previously.

While this sounds like it might be a fair explanation, it becomes a little odder when you put it in context. For the record, Treviño had also been involved in a controversy over his rather insensitive tweets regarding the Palestine flotilla; but that, too, had been over a year ago, he apologised and the Guardian had defended him.

Then, a few days ago, a group of what can only be described as far-left activists wrote to the Guardian to complain about Treviño’s hiring. Five days later, he was gone. The group included Baroness Jenny Tonge, who was earlier this year ejected by the Liberal Democrats for her unacceptable views, Stop The War Coalition’s Lindsey German, and various members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, iEngage and Middle East Monitor. Or rather, when the only MP you can get to defend your cause is Jeremy Corbyn, you know you’re operating at the margins.

The whole argument is given in detail here for and against the Guardian (in the interests of fairness I include both, but I have to say that I find that against a great deal more convincing). Whatever your view on the Treviño controversy, though, there is a rather more disturbing, and difficult-to-avoid, conclusion: that this oddball collection from the fringes of politics, who wrote the letter, clearly have some sway on the editorial and managerial decisions of a national newspaper.

There is a great deal more: some points of interest may already be known to readers of my blog, such as the printing of a puff-piece by unpleasant Holocaust cartoonist Carlos Latuff, or CiF’s running, on Holocaust Memorial Day, of an op-ed by Sheik Raed Salah, hate-preacher and convicted fundraiser for terrorism; or finally, its later op-ed in June, by someone who does not even pretend not to be a terrorist: Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of suicide-bombers Hamas in Gaza. Nice.

Where the Guardian may think it is being edgy and controversial, it is often being, at the very least, offensive to the sensibilities of ordinary people not known for their over-sensitivity. At worst it is laid open to not unreasonable charges of racism. The supremely rational Emeritus Professor of Politics in Manchester, Norman Geras, wrote this piece ten days ago, touching on the Toulouse killings, briefly thought to be the work of a neo-fascist:

“Two days later, however, once it was known that the killer was Mohammed Merah, an Islamist jihadist who had said he wanted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children, a second editorial…then added precisely nothing about the kind of ideas which might have been influential in Merah’s willingness – not as a Muslim but as an Islamist and jihadist – to slaughter three Jewish children… But the killing of Jewish children is antisemitism of the most unadulterated kind. Those children were guilty of nothing and were killed by Merah because they were Jewish.

A liberal newspaper, committed to the fact that racism is never acceptable anywhere, can find the words to name the poison that is rightwing anti-immigrant xenophobia, but not the word for hatred of Jews.” 

It was as if the words “anti-Semitism” had strangely got stuck in the newspaper’s throat.

It’s not as if the phenomenon is unknown by the editorial staff, either. Indeed, its decent and well-intentioned Letters Editor Chris Elliott last year wrote this piece to warn its writers to steer clear of lazy assumptions or phrases (such as the “chosen people”), that readers might interpret as latent anti-Semitism.

But why should this be necessary? Because there is clearly a problem, which the Guardian has been sweeping under the carpet for some time now. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to some lifelong Guardian-readers that for the last three years there has existed a website, CiFWatch – perhaps the only one of its kind in the world solely dedicated to recording instances of alleged racism in a national newspaper. This is surely in itself quite an extraordinary development.

Now, critics will try to argue that Adam Levick, who runs the site, is either a rabid right-winger or merely oversensitive about Jewish themes; but I have found him to be neither. And it goes without saying that his analysis is considerably more sensible, measured and fact-based than, say, CiF contributors like Lindsey German, whose considered view on Toulouse, in contrast, seems to be “the West asked for it”. Or George Galloway, whom the Guardian has spent the last week being shocked (shocked!) about, but has long been a CiF contributor.

The Guardian is free, of course, to print what it likes – that is freedom of speech. But, away from any ethical considerations, which might be more subjective, there is a simple, economic test of reasonableness for any newspaper: will we lose money by following this path? And, furthermore, are we risking one day be exposed to a lawsuit for incitement to racial hatred, which would surely do for the publication?

Such considerations surely include not publishing writings by known racists; just as we would not expect the Daily Mail, awful though it is, to publish something by Nick Griffin. But Haniyeh leads an organisation whose charter is explicitly anti-Semitic.

And ironically, while CiF, which self-evidently makes no money, has an increasing readership, the Guardian’s paid circulation is on the down. CiF therefore contributes only cost to the newspaper, meaning that the paper is not just broke, but losing more money because of CiF every year.

Like a cuckoo gradually throwing out the other eggs from the nest, Comment Is Free is slowly eating the Guardian: both financially, as it cannibalises the print version; and editorially, as more readers become queasy about what it sees fit to publish.

The most disturbing thing is that we are not talking about some polemical rag handed out by the SWP in Britain’s town centres on a Saturday. The paper that is churning out these dubious articles through its website on a regular basis is a hitherto highly-respected mainstream newspaper, known throughout the world for its liberal views and its eagerness to see an argument from both sides.

But no more. The Guardian still has some great and decent journalists: but it needs to get a grip on the internet monster it has created, or it surely will not maintain that reputation for much longer.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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