Could the great commenting free for all actually make it harder for journalists to do their jobs?

Did you hear the one about the parish council which wants to hold its meetings under Chatham House Rules … because councillors are fed up of the abuse they get online?

Really. So much for freedom of speech online being good for democracy!

According to the Bucks Free Press, the council’s chairman thinks making comments at meetings unattributable, will solve the problem – if you can call them that – of people having their say about local decisions being made in the village of Hazelmere.

As it happens, the first meeting to have taken place under Chatham House Rules didn’t go ahead … because not enough councillors turned up.

To quote the Free Press:

The idea is championed by chairman Cllr David Brown, who said it was brought in because members were unhappy with posts made about them and the council on Hazlemere Residents Association 2009’s website.

He said: “Councillors have approached me to say they are not happy with what’s being written on the [HRA] blogs. We are being named and accused of things that didn’t happen or our words are being twisted.

“I remembered the Chatham House Rule from my college days. There’s no difference how the meeting is reported, but instead of ‘so-and-so said…’ it would be ‘it was said…’ so there’s no comeback to try and stop the blog site.

Just one problem: It’s not legally enforceable. To me, the problem isn’t the residents’ association website’s comments, it’s the disconnect between elected councillors and the people they serve. My suggestion would be they roll up their sleeves and join in the comments on the Community Association. Most likely, people will respect that. 

Here’s another example of how online comments can skew attempts to hold officials to account. In Brighton, a Brighton Argus reporter was told by a councillor – following a meeting – that he wouldn’t comment to the Argus because he didn’t like the abuse he’d get in the comments under the article.

According to Holdthefrontpage:

Tim Ridgway, political correspondent for The Argus in Brighton, took to the social networking site after receiving the email sent by councillor Christopher Hawtree, a member of the city’s ruling Green party.

He commented:  “Amused after @chrishawtree sends me email saying he dislikes he asking him for quotes after meetings. Is that not a job of a local cllr?”

But Coun Hawtree responsed that he had a “great dislike” of the reader comments in The Argus and that he preferred to appear in other papers such as the weekly Brighton and Hove Independent or Latest Homes magazine.

This is one of those stories which should irritate most journalists. Who does this councillor think he is to consider himself above questioning about decisions he is making?

But think about it a bit more and I start to see a potential problem. As one of the HTFP commenter pointed out, there is nothing compelling a councillor to speak to the Press after a meeting, and maybe the Argus reporter is right to tell everyone the councillor likes dodging questions.

However, it’s his reason/excuse which worries me. If he is subject to unfair abuse on the Argus’s website via the comments beneath stories, then it figures he should seek to reduce the risk of such abuse. Unlike Hazeldene Parish Council, who want to tamper with democratic transparency, the councillor in Brighton isn’t asking for council meetings to be held in secret.

And this poses a real problem for local newspapers. Unlike a residents association website, newspapers carry with them a reputation of providing news and information you can trust. They’ve traditionally provided a forum for discussion – the letters page – where the rules were simple: Keep it clean, keep it polite, and tell us who you are.

Thanks to legal rulings around who is responsible for comments if a website pre-moderates them, the rules for commenting online are effectively non-existent: No obligation to keep it clean, no obligation to keep it polite, and, often, no presumption that real identities must be revealed.

The result is, even in newsrooms which spend significant sums of money on community teams like the Guardian, carefully-crafted work at the top half of the page, and unpleasant commenting underneath with the odd on-topic, meaningful comment struggling to force its way through.

Hannah Waldram, a member of the Guardian’s community team, has recently argued passionately in favour of commenting on news websites. Her efforts – via a Tumblr highlighting a good comment a day – earned her a rather snarky write-up in Private Eye. I agree with a lot of what she said: Journalists shouldn’t fear critical comments, and they can add a lot to our journalism. I would dispute the suggestion that you get back what you put in to building a strong commenting community though – it just isn’t that simple, as colleagues who have previously spent hours pre-moderating comments have been quick to tell me.

The problem is that comments often they don’t add to the journalism. Much has been made of Trinity Mirror’s decision to use Facebook login for commenting on our new websites. It wasn’t done for this reason, but the net effect has been fewer comments, but high-quality (generally) comments, with little, if any, reactive moderation required. Trawling through many of the most commented articles on the old Manchester Evening News website, I noticed the majority of the comments weren’t about the story, or even the topic of the story. They were arguments within arguments, not adding to the story, not adding to the journalism … but making the website a nastier place to be.

Hannah’s solution to such comments is: 

“you just need to be experienced in tuning out the rage/rants and one-liners and homing in on what is actually constructive or editorially valuable.”

As journalists, we should be able to do that. But should a councillor, doing his job, really be expected to put up with personal abuse and allegations? Or a GP who runs the new commissioning group on a tight budget? Or a grieving relative? Or a police inspector? Or anyone who would traditionally talk to us because they know they should be able to expect a fair deal.  As Martin Belam elsewhere points out:

“I think the interactivity of comments, and the expanding number of voices that mainstream media facilitates being heard are a good thing. But it is incredibly wearing wading through people acting like dicks to get to them.”

And that’s the risk for news websites everywhere: The comments may not only scare off readers and advertisers (and I know advertisers who have been put off by them), but they could make it easier for those who should be held to account to dodge being held to account. In short: Why give them the excuse? 

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