‘We don’t need no badges
The world of blogging, and particularly political blogging, has grown massively in the past few years. As blogging itself reaches its tenth birthday, it seems the phenomenon can only increase in importance. Sites such as Harry’s Place and Guido Fawkes have contributed massively to political discourse in the UK, with traditional media struggling to keep […]
13 Apr 07

The world of blogging, and particularly political blogging, has grown massively in the past few years. As blogging itself reaches its tenth birthday, it seems the phenomenon can only increase in importance.

Sites such as Harry’s Place and Guido Fawkes have contributed massively to political discourse in the UK, with traditional media struggling to keep up with the furious pace. The Guardian’s Comment is Free, and US-based Huffington Post have shown how traditional, well-funded media have been keen to follow the trend, and it is rare for newspapers websites not to feature a range of blogs from editors and columnists.

But for many, blogs can be exasperating, infuriating and even intimidating places. The cut and thrust of the comments boxes can be enlightening, but very often the ‘debate’ can descend into abuse, attacks, and ‘trolling’ from anonymous commenters imposing their own prejudices and agendas.

With this in mind, web guru Tim O’ Reilly and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales this week proposed a voluntary ‘code of conduct’ for blogs, encouraging sites to display badges suggesting either ‘civility enforced’ or ‘anything goes’.

The proposed code generated many responses, many echoing the famous line from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: ‘We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.’

Index asked some of the UK’s top political bloggers whether they would be tempted to implement the code; here are their answers:

Paul Anderson, Gauche

‘I’m all in favour of people behaving in a civilised manner in the blogosphere and try to do so myself – though there’s one troll in particular who drives me so mad that I used expletives at him a couple of weeks ago, and over the years I suppose I’ve been very rude to lots of people. Although I don’t allow libellous or racist comments to stand on my blog and remove most comments I consider vindictive or asinine, I keep some abusive ones (the ones I think are funny) as well as plenty that are idiotic (if they are revealing or integral to a thread). So I really wouldn’t be tempted to sign up to a code of conduct, however much I sympathise with the goal of improving the quality of online conversation.’

Sunny Hundal, Pickled Politics

‘Yes, I would sign up to it because I think it takes into account the fluid nature of blogging while attempting to have some basic standards on etiquette. Most blogs nowadays have a comments policy anyway so I don’t see this to be a problem since the code would be voluntary.

‘I’m very strict on my blog with regard to comments because it is a discussion blog where the interesting comment is more likely to be underneath the original article. So it becomes important to maintain and encourage civility.

‘I also think such a code is inevitable as blogs consolidate and grow bigger and become more accountable to each other and their readers.’

David T, Harry’s Place

‘Blogs are but one item on the varied menu of information available, both on and offline, to a person who chooses to seek it out. If a person lives his or her life on the basis of what can be gleaned from a single blog, they’re an intellectual anorexic.

‘Not all blogs are the same; in terms of quality, politics or tone. The Belgravia Dispatch is very different from the Daily Kos. If you don’t like what you read on a blog, then stop reading it.

‘Blogs, and people who post on blogs, are subject to the ordinary law of the land.

‘Trolling and misbehaviour on blogs and chat boards is a problem as old as the hills. There are some forums which are ruined by it, certainly. I think that the viciousness you find on LGF comments, or some of the showbiz related blogs, render them sewer-like. Those who seek them out are like football hooligans, turning up for a pre-arranged fight.

‘We’re not free from nastiness at Harry’s Place, sadly: but I’m phlegmatic about venom. It is part of human nature to be intemperate, at least at times. Sometimes anger is appropriate. When it comes to nasty expressions of bigotry, I don’t think there’s any point in pretending that these ideas don’t exist. Seeing it at least gives you an understanding of the nature of the problem you confront, and practice in opposing it.

‘We could shut down comments. We could respond by introducing a registration system. I’m not comfortable with that, though. I like the ‘drop in’ atmosphere of Harry’s Place. Some heavily moderated blogs simply become sterile echo chambers. I’d hate that.

‘However, if HP’s comment culture became like Comment is Free, for a prolonged period, perhaps I’d rethink my position.

‘The discussion about the standard of conduct on blogs is valuable: the Code of Conduct itself is not. It presents practical problems in application. How, for example, does a blog reconcile the advice in Point 6:

“Ignoring public attacks is often the best way to contain them.”

with the Point 4 obligation to “take action” against ad hominem attacks on other posters:

“When someone who is publishing comments or blog postings that are offensive, we’ll tell them so (privately, if possible – see above) and ask them to publicly make amends.”

‘The answer is that you play these sorts of things by ear, and hope you get it right. You learn from your mistakes. That’s the sensible thing to do. Yet, though most of the Code of Conduct is sensible to the point of triteness, I can see a happy future in which the comments threads of Code-observing blogs are clogged up with arguments about alleged breaches of its standards. That – just as much as vileness, is the death of a blog.

‘A good, mature, blog has a healthy organic culture, which self polices to a significant extent. Most people are afforded due respect, most of the time. Long standing trolls are treated with a degree of affection, even. There is a common desire, among the most respected of participants, that the arguments should be conducted constructively.

‘Blogs which attain this standard of conduct should, and do, lead by example.’

Oliver Kamm

‘I would not sign up to this code of conduct. Here are three reasons, in ascending order of importance: I do not believe it could be enforced; I take exception to the notion that I require someone else’s imprimatur as evidence of my civility; and I am opposed in principle to speech codes, which have the characteristic of extending without warning their remit to a new set of perceived slights and insults. There is, for example, increasing use in public debate of the term Islamophobia to denote sentiments supposedly prejudiced against Muslims. I find this concept question-begging and illegitimate. I know how to speak and write in a way that is not personally abusive and is not racist, and I should rightly be held accountable to those standards by people I know (i.e. not a “badge” issued by someone I don’t know). I do not propose to tailor my speech to avoid offence to Muslims or any other group of religious believers. All they are entitled to, qua Muslims or any other religious group, from me is a recognition of our common humanity and equal citizenship, and an insistence on their right to religious liberty. To the extent that it encourages avoidance of offence, a code of conduct is not conducive to freedom of speech. Its corrosiveness lies in the self-censorship that it almost inevitably encourages.

‘There is, however, a good deal of misapprehension of what support for free speech involves. When I started my blog I did enable comments for its first year. I found that the comments included, and were sometimes dominated by, the type of contribution that characterises the comments threads on The Guardian’s Comment is Free site. As Jonathan Freedland notes of reading those CIF threads: “It won’t take you long to run into some serious vitriol. Even a brief, light piece can trigger a torrent of abuse, usually directed at the author and rapidly diverted by the commenters to each other.” From my experience, that is an understatement of the problem with CIF. In one article I contributed to The Guardian’s Comment page last year on the Lebanon crisis, the volume of overtly antisemitic comments (one, which is still there, referred to “sick-minded Jews who can’t accept TRUTH, as they never did with Moses or Jesus!”) appended to it genuinely surprised me. CIF’s comments are an extraordinary phenomenon, and I’m certain the site’s founders can’t have imagined how bad it would be.

‘I thus shut down the ability to post comments a long time ago. My rationale drew on a story given by the late philosopher Sidney Hook about a conversation he once had with Bertolt Brecht. Hook was a socialist who did much to expose for American audiences the fraudulence of the Moscow Trials. When Brecht paid a visit to Hook’s New York apartment in 1935, the two men discussed the issue . Of Stalin’s victims, Brecht said: “The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.” Having checked he had heard Brecht correctly (Hook was fluent in German), Hook brought the man his hat and coat and showed him the door. My attitude to an indefatigable Holocaust denier – and not only to him – who used to litter my blog with his comments is like that. I hold left-wing opinions and libertarian social views. I am close to being an absolutist on freedom of expression (I strongly opposed the jailing in Austria of David Irving, for example). But I see no logic in the notion that defending freedom of speech requires me to extend a platform of my own – my home, my dinner table or my web site – to others to use as they will.’

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.