[This, of course, is an entirely personal opinion,and only reflects my views]
Michael Danby, the Australian Federal Member for Melbourne Ports has read into the Australian Parliamentary Record ‘Hansard‘ his version of a contretemps between the editors of the online magazine New Matilda and the commentary site Crikey.com. He has also republished the Hansard speech on his personal website, adding in mastheads of the offending publications in his claims about ‘hate speech’. Doubtless, his speech will be mailed out (at taxpayer’s expense) to everyone in the local electorate newsletter.
The essence of his complaint is that both publications have been derelict in not weeding out what he regards as anti-Semitic and unjustified anti-Israel comments added to opinion pieces or other articles. This is in addition to what he considers to be untoward journalism about Israel including generalized comments about Jews in Crikey (some of which I tend to agree with, by the way).
He has not been satisfied with the responses of editors to either publication about how they manage comments made to opinion pieces. New Matilda has engaged in correspondence (see Danby’s links (as well as my own opinion) on line, and a search on New Matilda under ‘Danby’ will reveal other articles). Crikey.com has not responded at all. Danby also mentions the name of the Crikey publisher by name ‘Eric Beecher, the owner of Crikey, who hails from a similar ethnic cultural background to me, owes an explanation for Crikey’s publication of these hate filled comments’. What is Danby implying?
It’s highly regrettable that Danby has chosen to read into the parliamentary record his version of events, where he also names a number of other provocative commentators such as Anthony Lowenstein and Michael Brull. None of them have any right of reply, or defence against what he says, in parliament, because parliamentary speech is privileged speech.
It seems to me that Danby has in fact abused his special rights here. It its a clear example being able to use a power relationship–such as that of a parliamentarian–to deliver an under-the-belt punch to opponents in the media, when the debate, between the fourth estate and a parliamentarian should be conducted in a more open fashion–that is, through the media itself. By using his power he has probably only made those who think there is a powerful Israel lobby even more inclined to believe that Danby is now working on its behalf in Parliament.
Danby in fact, has missed the point about what is going on here, though doubtless, he will claim that the press is still at fault.
The new media move a lightening speed, both in terms of access and the capacity for anyone to publish. It’s not the same as letters to the editor which have at least a 24 hour turn around, and in cyberspace, there is no word limit. To ask online media editors to constantly monitor readers’ comments is almost an impossible task for several key reasons:
* its sets an almost impossible benchmark to meet of what is acceptable and non-acceptable speech on ‘hot’ topics; there is bound to be disagreement between editors about what is acceptable and non-acceptable, and to use one of my least-favoured expressions, ‘mistakes will be made’.
* turning off the capacity to make immediate posts that then have to be passed through an editor or monitor sets in place even more work for newspapers and online publications (the ones that have a financial basis are under stress, and others are volunteer efforts). Anyone who has managed a website knows how much work it is to manage posts and prevent spambots posting ads for Viagra, and that, regrettably, is why the AJDS has none.
* the principle of free commentary is really put into jeopardy once rigorous monitoring gets going. This is a reason why local government, for example, has been so reluctant to get involved in opening up local online forums. There is a fear of law suits over what might seem like trivial matters converted into personalised grips (fights over fences and dog). It is also why there has been such a strong reaction to attempts to set up government-run internet filtering in Australia.
Furthermore, if we assume (I hope we can) that online readers of political opinion are reasonably intelligent, all but the most conceptually-challenged should be able to distinguish between much of the conspiratorial nutcase garbage that appears as commentary posts and fair, if strongly-worded political comment. I think it was Steve Brook of AJDS who said that the internet is an instant rubbish bin, and most of what people post belongs in the rubbish bin. People get their nano-second of fame (if under a pseudonym), but there are also jewels, it must be said.
It doesn’t take much time to pick up on who the nuts are, because on the Israel-Palestine question, they appear everywhere. In my own case, I also consider it my duty to denounce the nutters–it is not hard to find their personal websites replete with pages and pages of conspiracy theories.
There is in fact, a very similar problem which has affected the ‘other’ Jewish websites such as SensibleJew or Galusaustralis, where there have been a number of incredibly vicious, sociopathic individuals posting very, very nasty and personalised comment. Attempts to moderate them have proved to be extraordinarily difficult, as they feed off attention. So this is not just a ‘non-Jewish’ problem, but one that faces Jewish sites as well.
But there is also the global context, which Danby seems to have missed completely and I am surprised that New Matilda has not raised this issue as well.
Unfiltered commentary, appears to be the case on major news and commentary sites around the world: the best example is Haaretz in Hebrew or English, where anything goes, from identifiable anti-Semites (inlcuding a number known from Australia), anti-Muslims, to ideological Jewish anti-Zionists. I suspect the only thing that is edited out on Haaretz are terror threats. I’ve seen the same on Italian and French websites. Even the local Herald-Sun gets all sorts of racist postings. By the way, there have been similar complaints in the UK about the posts to the Guardian and Independent, but it appears that the editors there have decided to stay out of the censorship game except for the worst forms of abuse.
On Youtube, comments are full of vicious anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, anti-gay, anti-everything remarks and theyare left on (though the situation is different because Youtube is not moderated). For example, videos of Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky reveal the worst from both sides. It’s a world wide problem, that civil debate has gone out the window, but it isn’t just confined to Israel-Palestine. It affects it seems, almost everything. Thus, wars between Hassidic factions are carried out on Youtube, with film of various punchups in synagogues being distributed, along with inflammatory comments. The miniscule but noisy ultra-orthodox anti-Zionist Neturei Karta also get their space on the internet to vent their anti-Zionist spleen, and are a favourite of rejectionist Palestinians and their sympathizers.
Danby hasn’t it seems, considered that perhaps, what Crikey and New Matilda face on a minute-by-minute basis, is similar to the online media in Israel and the rest of the world. This stuff is hard to manage. It’s certainly hard enough to manage on amateur web-sites that offer comment space on topical issues.
But at least New Matilda, in the interests of free speech, has reprinted Danby’s parliamentary complaint, though all comments are moderated. My comment still hasn’t appeared after a day and it is now the weekend. So by instituting a regime of censorship, and reading his version of history into the parliamentary record for posterity, he has got his own back
Michael Danby is full of contradictions: a strong defender of human rights, refugees, and freedom of expression everywhere, except when it comes to one issue. Israel. He has a complete blind spot. In this blindness, Danby must be happy.
[This, of course, is an entirely personal opinion,and only reflects my views]