Can you believe in free speech and moderate comments?

The Telegraph’s assistant comment editor, Tom Chivers, has written a thought-provoking article about moderating comments on web sites. In it he tackles the apparent mismatch between a website advocating free speech while disallowing some comments under its articles:

It’s a funny thing. You write a piece saying that the state shouldn’t outlaw rudeness and insults, and about one comment in three underneath it says: “Aha! But Telegraph Blogs sometimes moderates/disallows comments! How about THAT, eh, hypocrites?”

But Chivers goes on to justify comment moderation:

The fact that our blogs are widely read does not mean that everyone has a right to be have a comment hosted on them, any more than the fact that our paper is widely read means that we have to publish every single letter we receive, even those written in green ink. We don’t check comments before they appear, but if a comment is “reported”, then our moderators will check it out, and if they feel it doesn’t meet our guidelines for any reason, they will remove it. Sometimes they will get it wrong, sometimes they will be inconsistent (they’re only human), and frequently you will disagree with their decision, but it is their – and by extension our – decision.

He ends by saying that readers have alternatives:

…of course we believe in your right to hold and express your opinions, and we (and I) have firmly said so on many occasions. But there is no contradiction between that and saying you should do it on your own territory, not ours. In fact, if I were feeling particularly aggressive about this, I’d point out that it’s a bit weird for all you Free Speech Campaigners to be insisting that you should get the right to decide what Telegraph Blogs has to say. Remember that: when you say something on our site, it’s us who host it, in our space. It’s not your free speech you’re exercising on these pages, it’s ours.
And if you don’t approve, you can go elsewhere, because this is a free society with a plurality of news outlets. We think we have a relatively light-touch approach to moderation, but you may disagree. This is not Pravda; there are other places, with different moderation policies. If none of them are to your liking either, then you can set up your own, and make it as untrammelled and Wild Westy as you like (within the bounds of the law, of course, but you can’t really blame us for that). And if readers prefer it, then they will flock to your unpoliced, unmoderated, uncensored people’s paradise. That’s how a free-market democracy works. Give it a try.

You can read the full article here.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist in Newbury and West Berkshire. He is part of the Liberal Democrat Voice team and blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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8 Comments

  • 1984 is closer than we think. It is sad that we live in a supposedly free and democratic country and yet a man can be arrested for burning a poppy and posting it on the internet. Was it crass, offensive and thoughtless? Yes. But worthy of arrest? No.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 12th Nov '12 - 11:45am

    As someone whose comments on this site are automatically subject to “moderation” and some of which never see the light of day, may I say that I agree (almost) with Tom Papworth?

    It seems to me that “freedom of speech” includes the right (that’s the bit where I disagree with you , Tom) to express an opinion,within certain legal restraints, whether or not others may find that opinion controversial or even offensive. But it does not entitle one to an audience, it conveys no guarantee that others will listen and it does not compel anyone else to provide a platform or a medium for the publication of that opinion.

    But, to be effective in practice as well as in theory, freedom of speech requires a diversity of media which is why we need to guard against,, and if possible reverse, the concentration of ownership and control of the mass media.

  • I think Tom is right, comments aren’t an excuse for an on-line brawl.

    I prefer sites that exercise light-touch moderation, like the Telegraph where the onus is on the reader to ‘report’ comments for moderation as I think it helps to both ward off out-and-out abusive comments and flagrantly off topic contributions and provide a recognised means of deleting such contributions. This site (LibdemVoice) is another which exercises a slightly different approach by encouraging people to be polite and respectful – which seems to have a positive effect on people’s contributions.

    I find sites where comments are moderated before being displayed (eg. ‘The Blue Blog’) irritating. to me the operators of such sites are frightened of debate, which gets confirmed when questioning comments don’t get approved.

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