Yesterday in Advertisers & blog censorship, I mentioned a controversy that had arisen over withdrawal of advertising from certain Australian blogs. If I interpret things correctly from skepticlaywers analysis in Of secondary boycotts, free speech and… revenue, the facts appear to be:
- Graham Young from On-line Opinion negotiated advertising arrangements for a group of Australian blogs including On-line Opinion, Club Troppo, Skepticslawyers, Lavartus Prodeo and Jennifer Marohasy.
- On-line Opinion ran a piece by Bill Muehlenberg on gay marriage that raised ire.
- This led to ANZ and IBM withdrawing their advertisements, an action that flowed across the whole collective. This led to considerable angst.
Before proceeding further, there is some interesting material in SL's piece on the economics of blogging. However, that's a matter for another post.
Having read SL's piece, I followed links through and would add the following:
- Gay marriage is one of those very sensitive, polarised topics. My own very cautious and very carefully worded foray into the area (posts at the end) attracted more attention than I usually get.
- The Muehlenberg piece appears to be quite partisan. If the comments thread on skepticslawyers is any guide, discussion on the piece quickly dissolves from questions of free speech to arguments about people and positions that I neither understand nor am especially interested in.
In terms of my own views:
- The question of the actual or perceived influence of advertisers on content has been a vexed question in the mainstream media for a very long time.
- Special interest groups from gay activists through Petra to the anti-abortion lobby have become quite sophisticated at the use of commercial pressure to achieve their ends.
- On-line Opinion is as the name says. The rules that are meant to apply to normal reporting (objectivity, impartiality) do not apply here. The whole purpose is to provide a platform for different views.
- Leaving aside legal arguments, the practical effect of the action by IBM and ANZ is to threaten diversity of opinion. Worse, it's plain dumb and confused.
- Both IBM and ANZ could have taken the view that their approach was intended to support diversity in discussion. After all, why else advertise on a series of blogs with diverse views? Instead, they appear to have substituted a defensible for an indefensible or at least more difficult to defend position: we won't advertise if the views sometimes expressed on the site alienate part of our target audience or, worse, breach in-house views as to what can be expressed, not expressed.
- Obviously, questions of balance do come in. Still, it's hard to argue that a single article on an opinion site is sufficient to justify withdrawal of advertising across a range of sites with different views.
- The sad and awful irony in all this is that the sites most affected by all this are also those whose general stance is in fact most in support of gay marriage. Just who has shot who in the foot, I do wonder?
I suspect that once IBM and ANZ think things through, the ads will re-appear. In the meantime, it's an interesting case study because of the range of issues raised.
I do wonder sometimes. I did a check around the blogosphere to find what my Australian colleagues were saying. Of those affected, LP's Mark Bahnisch in his comments on Saturday Salon took the most sanguine view. LP didn't need the money and it was all a matter of commercial decision by advertisers. Graham Young was somewhat more desperate - Wanted - new financial backers.
Outside this group, there was remarkably little comment: Loon pond adopted a very unsympathetic view Christopher Pearson, Graham Young, and Cardinal Pell a late starter but tries hard to be trying; the Australian Christian Lobby had its own alternative take -IBM and ANZ bow to gay activist pressure to quash free speech on marriage and then ACL calls for ANZ and IBM to explain attempt to censor On Line Opinion website; Bill Muehlenberg joined in with Marriage Mischief and the Pink Mafia; while Andrew Bolt views were well captured in the title, Selling out our free speech. Jennifer Wilson was sympathetic - ANZ, IBM withdraw advertising from e-journal that published opinion piece against gay marriage.
I must say that I feel a bit of an out-rider on this one, not that that's new in some of the things that I talk about. As a truly independent blogger not part of any of the main groups, I remain of the view that this case raises important general issues that are relevant to the role of blogs and blogging.
Discussion has continued in the comments thread on Club Troppo's Troppo bullied by corporate thugs including further amplification of his position by Mark Bahnisch. Meantime, a post has come up on LP - On Line Opinion and the advertising and “free speech” controversy.
There is also reference to a post on a very different topic, Political tragics a tiny audience, media researcher finds, that I record because I want to come back to it at some point.
One of the issues raised in comments here by marcellous and Legal Eagle is moderation of comments. This is an issue that's been discussed on this blog quite a lot because it is a constant problem. It's not so bad for me because, excluding spam, my average number of comments per post since the blog began has been just two. It's a much bigger problem for some of the very high readership blogs.
In the context of the advertising question, one commenter elsewhere suggested that the major media had the same problem but weren't penalised. That may be true, but its a moot point.
In a practical sense, there is a real difference between blogs and the bigger media outlets. Advertisers cannot ignore the bigger outlets!
In a comment that's just come up, KVD wrote:
I am now getting the distinct impression that blogs are sometimes defined as to their alignment by the views of their commenters - rather than the content of the actual posts.
I think that's a fair point in at least some cases, although it's also a bit of a chicken and egg issue!
Sinclair Davidson has now posted on Catalaxy, What do the shareholders think about gay marriage?, while Andrew Bartlett has contributed Advertising & writing/commenting on blogs.In a comment on the Bartlett piece, Paul Walter wrote:
I find CJ Morgan’s comments miss the point.
At least Young publishes rather than censors or boycotts. As one fed up with hair trigger censorship at blogs by paranoid moderators later explained away as, “removal of hate speech” (eg, a view they don't agree with), I must congratulate him on his integrity.
Very subjective, dare I say it, “convenient ” thing, this hate speech thing.
Yes, the offending article was crap. Had some of the G and L hysterics been possessed of even a modicum of wit, they would have noticed also how Muehlenberg's article was promptly shot down by posters.
Unless an article is overtly offensive or inciteful, moderators should keep their personal biases to themselves and NOT censor out divergent viewpoints as they do at some sites- You are just setting a precedent that makes it so much easier people like Chris Mitchell of the Australian to follow suit.
It will be clear from my own comments that I don't fully share Paul's views on comment moderation. However, it is a statement that sets out a specific case on the dangers of censorship.
His point on the response to the Muehlenberg article bears upon another point, the way in which comment streams sometimes become self-correcting, balancing. Of course this is not always the case; most of us have at one point or another been burnt by flame wars. I certainly don't like it. Life's too short.
There is an art in effective moderation. As a general principle, I don't block comments on this blog unless they are spam or there is a specific legal reason for so doing. I generally try to ask questions or to summarise key points inside the opinion wrapping. In one case I did stop a conversation, and it was a conversation, because I found that it was becoming emotionally wearing. I found that my own emotional responses were starting to interfere.
I think that a lot depends upon the culture of the blog. I read Poll Bludger from time to time. This is a very high comment blog - the last three posts had comments of 4,528, 2,046 and, to date, 1,439. PB gets as many comments on a single post as I have had in this entire blogs history!
Many of the comments are highly partisan and attacking. You would think that this would be a recipe for a flame disaster. It doesn't appear to happen. Commenters obviously know each other. They go from attack and opinion to the provision of factual information at the drop of a post. I hate to think of William's moderation problems, but he seems to manage it.
I am running out of capacity to monitor this discussion.
In a new post on Club Troppo, Online Opinion and the norms of debate, Don Arthur begins:
It’s easy to miss the point in the debate about Online Opinion‘s loss of advertising revenue. As Kim at Larvatus Prodeo points out, the debate isn’t really about free speech — it’s not as if publishers have a right to corporate funding. The important point is about how online communities deal with differences of opinion over moral and political issues.
In a sense that's right, but this does link to freedom of speech.
A piece on Ambit Gambit, Human Rights Awards, Chris Sidoti, Pauline Hanson and On Line Opinion, last December by Graham Young drew the following comment:
I’m one of the ‘gay activists’ who ‘attacked’ online opinion, however, I took exception to some of the comments that where posted after Bill Muehlenberg’s piece, not the actual essay.
I defend Bill’s right to his opinions, he should have he’s stuff published, but it’s the disrespectful and outright hatred of the comments that follow that are objectionable. As a person who is gay, I find those comments disturbing and they shouldn’t have a place in our society.
And I did the right thing, I raised the comments with Graham Young, he made it clear he thought the comments where ok, so the next step is to approach the sponsors and advertisers to make them aware of the sort of site they support and to express my disgust.
Online Opinion does a great job in allowing people to express their opinions by publishing their articles. The comment sections leave a lot to be desired.
Comment by Gregory — December 20, 2010 @ 3:30 am
Now several things are clear from the post and this comment.
The first is the longish history of this issue that I was not aware of when I wrote my first comment. The second is the apparent role of comment moderation, something already mentioned and discussed by commenters on this blog,
The third is the action taken by Gregory and possibly others when they did not get satisfaction from Graham. Now Gregory was entitled to take the action that he did, although he was actually trying to control free speech. The speech may have been distasteful, but it was still an attempt to punish.
Now what's the practical outcome of all this, forgetting the in-principle arguments?
- Cash has been withdrawn from the Australian blogosphere.
- Those advocating certain aspects of gay rights have put themselves in a position where opponents can present them as opponents of free speech and of PC.
It seems to me, I stand to be corrected,that the only winners are Andrew Bolt and the Australian Christian Lobby.
Update 6 & final
Just to complete the record:
In Larvatus Prodeo statement on the On Line Opinion advertising controversy the blog formally distanced itself from on-line opinion. In this case I will quote the post in full without comment:
A public controversy has recently arisen regarding withdrawal of advertising from On Line Opinion because of material published on a comments thread attached to an article by Christian activist Bill Muehlenberg. Details of the issue can be found in this post.
Larvatus Prodeo wishes to point out that this blog is associated with On Line Opinion only through an agreement to bundle several public affairs websites together for the purpose of selling advertising space under the rubric of The Domain. Any editorial, policy and publication decisions regarding content and comment are the sole responsibility of each individual website.
We do not share the views Mr Young puts forward in his article regarding free speech, the complaints of aggrieved parties and the decisions of advertisers (including ANZ and IBM), and we disagree with his views on the appropriate moderation of the comments thread in question. We have only been aware of this issue for a few days.
We recognise that Mr Young has a different approach to issues of acceptable and unacceptable speech, and we have no doubt that he has formed that approach in good faith. We cast no aspersions on his motivations and note OLO’s policy on the publication of offensive material. However, we wish to emphasise that his position and ours are completely separate and independent of each other.
LP takes a strong stand against the vilification of people based on sexual preference, and does not condone homophobic speech under any circumstances. LP’s comments policy can be found here.
LP also supports companies formulating a strong diversity and anti-discrimination policy, and acting in accordance with those values.
This statement has been posted because the name of this blog has been associated with On Line Opinion in discussion of this issue, because of the shared advertising. LP has been adversely impacted by all this, but we also believe that it needs to be understood that our reaction to that impact, and to the issues underlying the controversy, are different from those of Mr Young, and others who have written on this issue, such as Christopher Pearson.
The discussion thread on Club Troppo's Online Opinion and the norms of debate continued at some length after my previous mention, while skepticlawyer did her own follow up: Tertiary boycotts, online civility and agreeing to disagree. On Catallaxy Files, Sinclair Davidson's Fair weather business partners provides a somewhat tart final comment.
Update 7 & final final
I thought that I should let Graham Young have the final word on this. From a comment, no 30, on Tertiary boycotts, online civility and agreeing to disagree.
Helen, you have made an assumption about what caused the advertising boycott in the first place which is not borne out by the facts.
Gregory Storer may want to claim the credit, but this is what the advertising agency sent to us on the 29th November, 2010:
Hope you had a great weekend!
I have email from my client as in the blow, as you know I can’t control where the ads will show on which page or which article, so can you do me a favor to take off 300×250 banners from this page? http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=11268
IBM advertising ran on the site onlineopinion. It ran next to a very offensive article in relation to homesexuals. A gay employee of IBM has made a complaint. Please let me know how you would like to rectify this situation”
So can we just stick to the facts. I’m getting a little tired of being treated as incompetent when most of my critics can’t even do basic homework and contact me to check facts.
Then you apply norms that have grown up from blogs that are “salons” when our site is a “public square”.
The distinction between salons and public squares is an interesting one.
Update 8 & final?
I had intended to leave the last word on this issue with Graham. However, there was a further development that I thought should be recorded so that this post can stand as something of a record of the whole affair. Maybe someone will want to track through later.
On 11 February, the ABC's The Drum revealed that Larvatus Prodeo and Club Troppo were withdrawing from the Domain advertising collective; the piece includes the LP email to Graham Young as well as LP's subsequent response to the leak. Then Club Troppo released its own advice to Graham stating that it was withdrawing.
- 25 October 2007 Murder, Mr Rudd & Gay Marriage - confusions about values in an over-regulated society
- 29 October 2007 Mr Rudd and Gay Marriage Revisited
- 30 October 2007 Let's Take the Law out of Marriage