Monday, February 07, 2011

ANZ, IBM & freedom of speech

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:

  1. 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.
  2. On-line Opinion ran a piece by Bill Muehlenberg on gay marriage that raised ire.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. 

Update 2

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.

Update 3

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!

Update 4

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.  

Update 5

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?

  1. Cash has been withdrawn from the Australian blogosphere.
  2. 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.

On Line Opinion editor Graham Young has published on this issue at his own website and at ABC’s The Drum.

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:

“Hi Graham,

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?

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.      



Anonymous said...

What a well-judged response, and I think pretty well spot-on (though time only will tell as to the return of advertising).

Yes, things did get rather heated over there and I'm one of those and possibly the one responsible. That was a bit silly as by venting my antipathy to Pearson I hijacked the comment thread to the point of getting it closed down.

This is a bit ironic, as I'd say it was Graham Young's refusal to censor his comments thread on OLO rather than the Muehlenberg article per se which was the cause of complaint to his advertisers.

There is a difficult point for "free speech" when one has to consider the extent to which all opinions or arguments have an equivalence or not.

There is also a kind of moral hazard for bloggers taking advertising revenue. Blogging in this regard is not so different from that of other publication of opinion: outrageous opinions attract eyeballs and hence revenue. One difference between the web and, say, newspapers, is that whereas paper newspapers reach the regular readership, online opinions attract a wider range of support and attack because people can drop in from anywhere. I'm not sure, looking at the comments thread, if the Muehlenberg piece was drawing quite the A/B demographic that SL assumes to be attractive to advertisers on her or the associated sites.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Marcellous. Your point about comment moderation is well taken and should be brought up into the main post. It's one I have discussed before and bears upon overall approaches to blogging and the need for a defined policy.

At some point I should also return to the money issue.

Anonymous said...


I wasn't going to comment on this other than to thank you for providing a reasonable summary, but having used your update links to read Graham Young's piece I am now in a state of puzzlement.

In part he says "As Christopher Pearson points out in his article, based initially on a post by Helen Dale at Skeptic Lawyer"

But on skepticlawyer SL herself says in part "In today’s paper, Christopher Pearson comments [....]"

- which left me with the quite distinct impression that SL was reacting to Pearson's piece - given that the bit I left out [....] was a direct quote of his article.

None of which is anything to do with the substantive issues raised.

(But then you are surely used to that by now as the sole defining feature of my comments)


Jim Belshaw said...

It's all too confusing for me, KVD! As always, do feel free to continue to wander!

Legal Eagle said...

I can confirm categorically that Pearson wrote his piece first, although I suspect he might have chatted to Graham and/or SL via e-mail before he wrote it. Not entirely sure.

Online Opinion has some very odd commenters. We picked up a 9-11 "troofer" from over there who returns periodically to abuse us from time to time, and we put him in the Trash Can. This is one of the reasons why I don't often comment there, although I do enjoy the spread of articles. I very rarely read the comments, they just make me cross.

I'd say OLO are a lot more libertarian than us in comments (kind of funny when our originator is a libertarian, hey?). We generally stop it when it gets too impolite or personal. It can be hard, though - I have occasionally let my eye off the ball with comment threads, including one recently where I was at a funeral.

(The word verification for this is "compen"... where's my "sation"? Particularly fitting as I am getting into Torts law tonight.)

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE. That clarifies things. We have discussed moderation of comment threads before. You do need to have a clear policy. Even then, as you note, things can slip through.


Anonymous said...

Just as I thought LE. And further on your comment 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.

Which I must say is a very great worry as far as Jim is concerned!


Jim Belshaw said...

David, I am actually quite happy to be judged by the commenters I attract!

Anonymous said...

Another post on the topic to add to your list is

Anonymous said...

Well yes Jim, but you city folk don't have any real problems as such. I have just spent 45 minutes extracting a sheep and a dog from my reed-filled dam, after yesterday getting gently rid of a six foot diamond pyhthon from my screen door.

Now if I can only get LE to assist with my lawsuit against the owner of the sheep, and the dog, and the builder of the dam for hurt and distress - or at least my muddy clothes.

I am thinking in future to poke fun only at myself. This should be least offensive, and I seem to have gathered an enormous amount of material.


Legal Eagle said...

...I'd say it was Graham Young's refusal to censor his comments thread on OLO rather than the Muehlenberg article per se which was the cause of complaint to his advertisers.

I wish you'd explained that at our place, Marcellous, rather than taking the tack you did. That makes the complaint far more explicable to me. I have A LOT more sympathy for it, because I can just imagine the kind of nasty comments you are talking about. Certainly at our site we wouldn't put up with anything like that for one second.

I still don't think it's fair to punish everyone for it, though (it's a bit like keeping the whole class back because one person did something bad, something I always hated when I was at school).

And I think that ultimately, it's a tactical mistake from a long term perspective, because it's done the very opposite of what was sought to be achieved. Rather than stopping people from expressing homophobic views on blogs, you get all these people bleating about a "gay mafia" controlling what people can say - the comments over at Bolt's place had to be seen to be believed, for example. I had to stop reading, some of them were so vile.

[Word verification: bicsismo - sounds like an Italian biscuit?]

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, marcellous. I have included it in an update.

KVD! How could you! You city folk indeed! I will match my sheep, cows and snake stories against yours anyday. After all, aren't you a tree change person? I feel another post coming on!

Anonymous said...

Jim a couple of hopefully final comments.

1) The comment by Gregory, saying “he did the right thing” in approaching the sponsors I do not agree with. What he did was attempt to stifle a view he found objectionable. I sympathise with his position, but not that action.
2) I agree with your “practical outcomes” analysis, but don’t think it is possible to “forget the in-principle arguments” without some discomfort.
3) Re my earlier comment that blogs seem categorised by their comment stream – I realise now I did exactly that with LP back on your best blogs post. It was never the content of the posts I took exception to; only the tone of the commentariat – including those of the post authors I should add.
4) I can’t actually find your own policy except for the phrase about welcoming civilized discussion – which I do attempt to comply with. And perhaps that is all one can ever ask for.

Maybe it’s just that the blogging world is now achieving some sort of maturity, and being forced to play in the real world where speech has consequences, sometimes including financial, however noble and well meaning, or self-serving and bigoted such previously unfettered “free speech” was.


Anonymous said...

Afterthought re point 1) above.

I read somewhere that the answer to objectionable speech is not suppression, but in fact more speech - i.e. putting one's own view.

I think I prefer that approach.


Jim Belshaw said...

1. Agree Gregory was attacking free speech.
2. The practical outcome is no one wins. I agree the in-principle arguments are still important - and uncomfortable.
3. Agree re commentariat.
4. I have never put up a formal comment statement, just dealt with it in posts. Civilsed does capture it.

I think that your last point is well taken and at a number of levels. Actions do have consequences.

Jim Belshaw said...

Agreed, KVD