As the Panama Papers’ sixth millionth document is pored over, it has never been more apparent why a potent free press is a sane society’s greatest ally

 

There is plenty of scope to ridicule and rail against the media, plenty of room to bash a press that, between this surveillance scandal and that tax-haven exposé, seems to be becoming more opinionated and less useful by the day. Nonetheless, we may be in the process of the most momentous social happening of the century, far bigger than the scandal around the NSA,  and all because of the machinations of a free press. It is a great honour, and a feather in my cap, to be able to say that in my short enough time as a journalist I have done my part to suggest how dangerous the globalised, border-free finance system sanctioned by the likes of Mossack Fonseca can be. I would never have had the means to inform as I did my handful of readers of those possibilities if Shout Out UK did not follow so many of the dictums of a free press.

Our press is in need of reform in many a sense. Its mounting taste for ahistoricism for one, cannot be allowed to go on developing as it is. Still, the freedom of the press has won for us before and will win for us again. That is why it strikes one as curious that many voices, the loudest of them coming from within the media industry itself, are interested in restricting or outright abolishing one of the great facets of the liberated modern media; free comment. I say ‘one’ of the great facets of liberated modern media when I really mean that free comment may be one of its only two great facets; one of the only things that may overcome the media’s internal freedom from fact and empiricism, and that which represents the future of news and of the press.

Why ban the comment? You’ll have heard the one truism about comment culture plenty of times before: that it brings out the worst in people. This, to me, is too broad a brush stroke. To see if this really is a maxim to characterise all of Commentdom, we first need to look at individual comment cultures. For example, the comment culture of YouTube (and Google+) is a powerful comment in itself against comment. On the other hand, seek the comment culture of a carefully run web journal, or of certain online newspapers, and a fair percentage of the time you’ll find a culture that is as quiet and sagacious, if not quite as plush, as a turn-of-the-twentieth-century French salon.

The Guardian will power home the point on my behalf. This particular paper provides a prime case study for looking at the pros and cons of comment culture. It’s a timely example too, given that the paper has recently published an exposé on the ‘dark side’ of comment culture. What they’ve suggested when considering comment culture is that, by and large, it is:

  1. An obstruction to journalistic validity and expediency
  2. Little more than a conduit for trolling, or active prejudice where broader issues such as migration or race are concerned

However, as a paper that prides itself as the last remaining interrogator of political power, the Graun is hunching over a key irony in the matter by motioning even vaguely to reduced free comment. A free commentariat is essential in a contemporary media environment to ensure the media can be held accountable to their readers, beyond being regulated by the readers’ buying power — which is becoming redundant in itself as advert capital becomes the prevailing model. One need only look at the annals of comment in the Guardian, at its quite splendid Below the Line community. There are trolls to be seen strolling primly down its promenades of comment, yes. But, in general transcendence of stereotype, it reflects a readership whose views range across every board; proud and intelligent, and often highly informed.

The removal of their powers of comment would bring about the death knell for one of the media’s primary functions: the establishment of public dialogue on important subjects. There is already a stigma running down the writing arms of a great many journalists vastly underqualified, in facts, tact, reason and wisdom, stemming from that great belief that the journalist’s preserve is to talk at their readership. This generates the insidious and artificial consensus within the media that allows them their present reign of social supremacy. Representation of the readership is no longer thought of as the journalist’s concern. If readers believe everything you write, they must be held in passive contempt for their sheep-like behaviour; if they don’t believe a word, they deserve active contempt for being so woefully underdeveloped, backwards and ‘problematic’ in their ideologies. It’s no wonder then that a great many journalists appear to be welcoming the expiry of free comment.

Indeed, the Guardian’s commentariat is a readership that is hugely defiant. Their consumers can often be found rebutting so many of their articles, and criticising with coruscating frankness what some see as a once grand institution now sinking into a parochial mire. Quite aside from the political necessity of a commentariat against a tyrannical press, one would advise against the imprisonment of comment because, in the Guardian and very often elsewhere, the comment section, where a commentariat flourishes, is where the greatest wealth of insight and the greatest quality of commentary on a given issue is to be found. The Guardian’s commentariat is growing, this is true, and it is not yet a perfect model; but, in terms of scale relational to the quality, civility and ease of debate, there are few commentariats that are better. The paper itself knows it.

Taking such a trenchant stand against free comment, aside from a possible, knotty equivalence with the idea that ordinary people necessarily lack the substance or civility to deserve the right to free speech, also harms the news industry in other ways. The commentariat hold the key to the future of the media. They have already liberated the bloggers in their hundreds of thousands, generating a means (if not, as yet, a steady source) of counter-consensus from individuals. Fifteen years ago, those individuals would have been working away elsewhere, frustrated that their desire to write conflicted with the line of thinking the mainstream press preferred their writing to follow. They now have a platform that is their own dominion. I have no reason to think that the potential of free comment is limited to the frontier of the blogosphere, either.

I don’t believe this issue can be skewered with more grace or brevity than was managed by Kent State professor John Kroll. In fact, if the following passage of Kroll appeared beneath this piece as a comment, it would prove my point very nicely (if you’re reading, John). The journalist wrote:

‘Why bother [allowing comment] when almost all comments come from only a tiny percentage of the audience? Only a tiny percentage of most cities’ populations attend council meetings, so why make those public? Put aside the ax-grinders [sic], and the rest of your comment regulars are an audience you should treasure and encourage; fiercely loyal, spending hours on your site. And, if you do your part of the job properly so the comments are not a swamp, those few commenters are providing free content that will draw the eyeballs of lurkers … ‘

When Popular Science announced in September 2013 that it would be closing its comment section, they did so with the explanation that what was conducted below the line, under the veil of anonymity, promoted aggression and mockery while stifling ‘substantive discourse’ on matters of science. The editors of that site had triangulated the problem but had dealt with it, in my opinion, in the wrong way. It is better from both substantive and pragmatic points of view that the media embraces comment culture. Start with forcefully, actively enforced community guidelines; people act out online because they can, because they have no sheriff to worry about, and because sites are lazy with their moderation. If, for the following period, you might have to employ your own writers as proxies and patsies to pseudonymously stir the pot and get debate going below the line (so long as the article is not theirs), so be it.

The value cumulatively acquired by a given site, a given piece and a given discussion cannot be measured, not even in the comment — or up vote — count. Perhaps science can claim exception, for its demand of technical assuredness; but, elsewhere, I believe this is where the media of the future can, perhaps must, settle and grow. Given the correct methods, I can only imagine how enriching that comment section of Popular Science could have grown to be: writers enriched and challenged by readers, readers informed by the insights of not only their informants but their neighbours too.

We are, as media consumers of the twenty-first century, prey to a lot of dirty tricks. With all its sanctimonious position of height over the ‘real world’, we are facing the very dangerous prospect of living under an essentially unfit-for-purpose media-enforced consensus, without a channel of contest. One of the main ways we can take precautions against this is by encouraging the loyalty of the free commenters, and by allowing space for their own debate. A society that allows the work of investigative journalists will always be better equipped to fight against tyranny. But, a society that promotes media as a two-way exchange of thought and comment will always have a greater arsenal of weapons against the massing ranks of stupidity — God knows that is an arsenal beloved of any pacifist.