A Thought Police for the Internet Age
SEPTEMBER 28, 2011
There could be no better proof of the revolution – care of the internet – occurring in the accessibility of information and informed commentary than the reaction of our mainstream, corporate media.
For the first time, Western publics – or at least those who can afford a computer – have a way to bypass the gatekeepers of our democracies. Data our leaders once kept tightly under wraps can now be easily searched for, as can the analyses of those not paid to turn a blind eye to the constant and compelling evidence of Western hypocrisy. Wikileaks, in particular, has rapidly eroded the traditional hierarchical systems of information dissemination.
The media – at least the supposedly leftwing component of it – should be cheering on this revolution, if not directly enabling it. And yet, mostly they are trying to co-opt, tame or subvert it. Indeed, progressive broadcasters and writers increasingly use their platforms in the mainstream to discredit and ridicule the harbingers of the new age.
A good case study is the Guardian, considered the most leftwing newspaper in Britain and rapidly acquiring cult status in the United States, where many readers tend to assume they are getting access through its pages to unvarnished truth and the full range of critical thinking on the left.
Certainly, the Guardian includes some fine reporting and occasionally insightful commentary. Possibly because it is farther from the heart of empire, it is able to provide a partial antidote to the craven coverage of the corporate-owned media in the US.
Nonetheless, it would be unwise to believe that the Guardian is therefore a free market in progressive or dissident ideas on the left. In fact, quite the contrary: the paper strictly polices what can be said and who can say it in its pages, for cynical reasons we shall come to.
Until recently, it was quite possible for readers to be blissfully unaware that there were interesting or provocative writers and thinkers who were never mentioned in the Guardian. And, before papers had online versions, the Guardian could always blame space constraints as grounds for not including a wider range of voices. That, of course, changed with the rise of the internet.
Early on, the Guardian saw the potential, as well as the threat, posed by this revolution. It responded by creating a seemingly free-for-all blog called Comment is Free to harness much of the raw energy unleashed by the internet. It recruited an army of mostly unpaid writers, activists and propagandists on both sides of the Atlantic to help brand itself as the epitome of democratic and pluralistic media.
From the start, however, Comment is Free was never quite as free – except in terms of the financial cost to the Guardian – as it appeared. Significant writers on the left, particularly those who were considered “beyond the pale” in the old media landscape, were denied access to this new “democratic” platform. Others, myself included, quickly found there were severe and seemingly inexplicable limits on what could be said on CiF (unrelated to issues of taste or libel).
None of this should matter. After all, there are many more places than CiF to publish and gain an audience. All over the web dissident writers are offering alternative analyses of current events, and drawing attention to the significance of information often ignored or sidelined by the corporate media.
Rather than relish this competition, or resign itself to the emergence of real media pluralism, however, the Guardian reverted to type. It again became the left’s thought police.
This time, however, it could not ensure that the “challenging left” would simply go unheard. The internet rules out the option of silencing by exclusion. So instead, it appears, it is using its pages to smear those writers who, through their own provocative ideas and analyses, suggest the Guardian’s tameness.
The Guardian’s discrediting of the “left” – the left being a concept never defined by the paper’s writers – is far from taking place in a fair battle of ideas. Not least the Guardian is backed by the huge resources of its corporate owners. When it attacks dissident writers, they can rarely, if ever, find a platform of equal prominence to defend themselves. And the Guardian has proved itself more than reluctant to allow a proper right of reply in its pages to those it maligns.