A lot of people will have seen discussion on the Saturday Salon thread of an apparent advertiser boycott of On Line Opinion, and consequently of blogs (including this one) which have been bundled together as a package for the purpose of advertising sales under the rubric of “The Domain”. The discussion was kicked off by an article by Christopher Pearson in The Weekend Australian, and some rather loosely argued (in my view) claims that the blogs in the advertising network were subject to a “secondary boycott”. I doubt, based on my own reading (and I’m not a lawyer), that is the case in a legal sense, but it certainly is true that all the blogs have been adversely impacted by responses on the part of advertisers to OLO Editor Graham Young’s selection of articles, or more precisely, to an apparent push by some to have ANZ and IBM withdraw advertising based on his editorial decisions. These decisions are, obviously, not ones taken by any of the blogs in the network, and indeed, the first any of us were aware of this issue was a couple of days ago.
I want to emphasise that in writing this post, I am just putting forward my own view, not making a statement on behalf of LP. Mark and Robert have already commented on the Saturday Salon thread, and while I agree with both their comments, this is not a collective position, and others may wish to have their say.
I disagree that this is an issue of “free speech”. It doesn’t seem to me to be a cogent argument, in the context of the capitalist market place, that advertisers are bound to continue to support whatever anyone wants to publish on the internet, if they believe it’s inconsistent with their corporate values or likely to harm their corporate reputation. Put simply, the concept of a democratic public sphere is not and should not be dependent on corporate support, and it seems to me that the arguments made in this context are quite incoherent when examined.
Graham Young, of course, has the right to publish the opinions of Bill Muehlenberg, and it is right to note that:
(a) Muehlenberg’s anti same-sex marriage rant was published as part of a series encompassing a number of views on the issue, then a salient and current topic of public debate. Among those articles was one by Rodney Croome;
(b) OLO sees its remit as publishing a broad range of views across the ideological and political spectrum. There’s certainly a place for such an aim, and a worthy justification for it. That’s quite different from LP, which never purports to provide “balance”, but to publish the opinions of writers whose broad ideological position is on the left, and guest posts from a similar perspective.
However, had I been the editor of OLO, I would not have published Muehlenberg, because he did not argue a cogent case, but rather strung together a series of unrepresentative quotes designed to claim, in the precise manner that the Religious Right has made long use of, that there is some universal “homosexual” agenda. That’s rubbish, and this mode of argument is neither fair nor reasonable.
Free speech is not an absolute right, and we often tend to forget that the classic defenders of free speech were careful to place it within the context of reasoned argumentation. We live in an age where “opinion” proliferates, and is now cheap currency across the digital media, but there seems to be little left of the view that opinion is worthless unless sustained by evidence and careful of the goal of approaching truth.
Further to that, the comments thread on the forum linked to the article, most regrettably, contains a large number of vile and egregious points, which again mirror the long used homophobic talking points of the American Religious Right. It’s pretty much a catalogue of them, in fact. They were certainly contested on the thread, but I don’t believe such a stream of hate-filled remarks and slurs constitutes “free speech” in any meaningful sense of the term, or “robust debate”. Some have claimed that the actual objections leading to contact with the advertisers were occasioned by the comments thread, something denied by Young.
I don’t presume to adjudicate on that, but I do observe that LP has a strict moderation policy which prevents the posting of comments designed to cast aspersions on groups, or individuals on the basis of alleged or actual group membership and identity, and we do not and would not condone homophobia and/or hate speech being published here. Moderation is, of course, an onerous task, but I do think people (including the MSM moderators of blog threads where all sorts of absolutely awful rubbish is often published) have a responsibility to think about what is and is not acceptable. We ought to have moved far beyond the sorts of free for all, quasi-libertarian arguments about “free speech” in net discourse which once characterised digital ideology.
In that context, in the Pearson article, Young is quoted as saying he had declined to sign up to an online advertising code of conduct which prohibited “views calculated to cause offence” so as to “incite hatred of any individual or group”. That may be a bit unfortunately worded, though I can’t say that setting out to cause offence is in any way a laudable aim, and is something we prohibit here under our comments policy. But the intent to avoid hate speech is clear, and this is not the action of “corporate thugs”, as Ken Parish would have it, or “political correctness gone mad” as Christopher Pearson says. It’s actually a precondition for free speech and democratic debate. Nor can I see that discussion which is not characterised by insults and stereotyping is necessarily “anodyne”.
Indeed, OLO itself prohibits publication of material which is:
is unlawful, threatening, abusive, defamatory, invasive of privacy, vulgar, obscene, profane or which may harass or cause distress or inconvenience to, or incite hatred of, any person.
That doesn’t seem to me to be too different from the IASH Code of Conduct.
What’s more, I certainly want to distance myself from some of the responses defending OLO (which are perhaps better classified as attacking ANZ and IBM and those who brought their concerns to the advertisers’ attention). “Gay activists” attempting to leverage “the pink dollar” to silence their opponents or “Gay & Lesbian Lobby Attacking Freedom of Speech” are hardly exemplars of “Socratic dialogue” or great advertisements (if you’ll pardon the pun) for the “Enlightenment values” some aggrieved parties allege they uphold. Another instance is found at the website of the ironically named Australian Christian Lobby which similarly constructs a straw LGBT bogey to vilify, the same illogic, in fact, of the Muehlenberg article. And then there’s Andrew Bolt.
It is unfortunate that LP has suffered financially through a worthwhile venture to aggregate advertising income and promote a range of blogs, in my view, leading to actions which are based on a false equation of the publication policies and attitudes towards online speech of all those blogs with those of OLO. I do think Graham Young’s site could benefit from a rethink of its moderation approach, and more selectivity in assessing the argumentative soundness of all the articles that are published, while recognising that the approach the site seeks to take is worthy of support. But I also think it’s important to outline why I cannot, myself, subscribe to some of the positions taken by those reacting against the withdrawal of advertising. I think a better approach might have been to open a conciliatory dialogue with the advertisers, but as I’m emphasising, our views and decisions are entirely separate from his and those of OLO. I would add that I think that it’s regrettable that the advertising agency wasn’t upfront and transparent about what was going on. I doubt, however, that the bluster and legal musings on some sites are going to do anything to achieve the aims the writers in question claim to be seeking.
Update: The person who apparently made the complaint has had his say at On Line Opinion.
Update: I agree with this comment from Tim Lambert which reinforces the point that the pushback against this decision is likely to be deeply counter-productive.
Elsewhere: Jim Belshaw, who provides a lot of useful links.
Update: [by Mark] LP has now made a statement about the matter on behalf of the blog.
Update: Ken Parish has made an apology to Gregory Storer and revised his position on the controversy:
This post and Don’s on the same topic have generated considerable debate and resulted in disclosure of information not originally known when I wrote this post several days ago. Mel(aleuca) has suggested in the comment box to this post that an apology to original OLO complainant Gregory Storer is warranted. Given what we all now know, I agree.
I wrote the primary post on information that a mysterious but identified small group of “gay activists” within ad agencies had effectively ambushed OLO (and by extension Troppo and the other Domain blogs) by orchestrating a campaign for an advertiser boycott of OLO because it had published an article on gay marriage by Bill Muehlenberg which they found offensive (as do I). Had that been the situation, the activists’ actions would have been highly objectionable in my view, despite the offensive nature of the original article, for the sorts of reasons discussed in the primary post. The events would also have raised secondary boycott issues (albeit with significant legal, evidentiary and practical uncertainties as discussed earlier in the thread).
It has subsequently emerged from discussions here and at LP that the actual dispute was about the extremely toxic/offensive comment threads to the Muehlenberg post rather than the article itself, and that there had been extensive dealings between OLO and the complainants (most prominently Gregory Storer) where they sought unsuccessfully to have the problem addressed. It appears they would see themselves as having approached advertisers as a last resort. Personally I would have preferred to see them take less drastic expedients such as anti-discrimination/equal opportunity complaints, because the result of approaching advertisers might well be the closure of a valuable and longstanding independent opinion journal (whatever one may think of its moderation policies).
In those circumstances I certainly agree that I should apologise to Gregory Storer unreservedly, and I do so. I feel both angry and stupid, but hopefully most of us learn from our mistakes.
I also want to record that, although this apology is obviously implicitly critical of Graham Young, I’m very unhappy about the impact all these events seem likely to have both on him and OLO. Online Opinion is an extraordinarily valuable publication for Australian political discourse and culture in my view. Many readers may not know that its existence and development are overwhelmingly due to Graham’s efforts, determination and personal financial backing over many years. I can only hope that all of us in the blogosphere will find a way to draw a line under these unfortunate events and do what we reasonably can to help Online Opinion to survive and prosper.
Update: If I’m reading this post correctly, Skepticlawyer has somewhat altered her position on the controversy.