Squeaky Spleen – Beaumont Strikes Back
In Parts 1 and 2 we analysed what Observer editor, Roger Alton, described as “a superb demolition of Chomsky” by the newspaper’s foreign editor Peter Beaumont.
In the event, Beaumont’s review of Chomsky’s book, Failed States, generated a flood of criticism on the Guardian Unlimited website: http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/observer/archives/2006/
This post from ‘mikeolive’ summed up the reaction of a number of people:
“Oh dear… the foreign affairs editor no less, a senior journalist of a supposedly mature and serious national newspaper, who would have guessed it, from that article?
“I, too, am surprised it got past the editor, especially as it would have been obvious that the people interested in reading a review of a book written by Chomsky would be looking for some real substance.” (mikeolive, June 18, 2006; http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/observer/archives/2006/
Curiously, the Observer shut down the blog on June 21 – three days after Beaumont’s article appeared in the paper – so that no more comments could be posted. The Observer’s weblog moderator supplied this explanation:
“The blog appears to be hosting a long-standing argument between a select group and this has led to complaints on both sides about defamatory comments. Several people, both individuals and the editors of Media Lens, have asked for comments to be deleted and we’re simply finding it’s too time-consuming to manage the blog with a small staff. This is why we have had to stop accepting comments.” (Forwarded email from David Peterson, June 27, 2006)
This cannot be taken seriously. A far more plausible explanation is that the Observer was embarrassed by the overwhelming number of critical comments from readers.
On the same day as his review appeared, Beaumont published an online article: ‘Microscope on Media Lens,’ (Beaumont, June 18, 2006; http://observer.guardian.co.uk/
Whilst Beaumont’s book review was superficial and poorly researched, this was little more than a tantrum.
Media Lens, it seems, produces “nasty emails”, is “run by a couple of acolytes of Noam Chomsky, and serviced by a couple of dozen die-hard supporters“. We are an “irritating site” given to “hyper-ventilating” about this and that, targeting journalists and “anyone else who needs an email kicking”. In short, we are e-hooligans stalking the web in size nine boots.
As we have noted many times, it matters little how dissidents actually behave, or what they argue, the mainstream will always focus on alleged anger, irrational hatred and other mania as a strategy of demonisation. Beaumont was unwilling to challenge even one of the thousands of arguments and facts published in 2,000 pages of Media Alerts and in our book Guardians Of Power – so, instead, our ‘nastiness’ was the focus of attention. Even the alleged anger of members of the public who read and respond to our Media Alerts was used to discredit us. The reason is clear – Beaumont knows that we ourselves do +not+ send angry abuse to journalists. Very few of our readers do, either, if our inbox is any guide.
Beaumont’s smear was so far-fetched that it descended into a kind of literary slapstick. He wrote of our website:
“… there is no conversation between them and their victims. It is a closed and distorting little world that selects and twists its facts to suit its arguments, a curious willy-waving exercise where the regulars brag about the emails they’ve sent to people like poor Helen Boaden at the BBC – and the replies they have garnered. Think a train spotters’ club run by Uncle Joe Stalin“. Ours is “a deeply vicious little world as well“.
What is so marked is the deep dislike of public participation in even the most urgent and serious political issues of our time. To write an email challenging a journalist’s argument is to “target” them. To encourage readers to send polite comments is to transform journalists into “victims” of “an email kicking”.
But there is much here that just doesn’t add up. What, after all, is the difference between scores of individuals sending messages to the Guardian Unlimited blog and sending emails direct to media inboxes? Journalists are not compelled to read either the posts or the emails – both can simply be ignored or deleted. And if our practice of inviting comment is so despicable, why does the Guardian website do the same on its ‘Comment Is Free’ blog?:
“The aim is to host an open-ended space for debate, dispute, argument and agreement and to invite users to comment on everything they read.” (http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/about.html)
This is chilling stuff. Why does Beaumont not rage against his own newspaper for setting him up for “an email kicking”?
In reality, Beaumont and Alton resent being subjected to the kind of rational challenges from which they have traditionally been protected. For decades the mainstream media has wielded massive power with minimal accountability and right of reply. Responses have been limited to whichever letters the editors deigned to allow on the letters page. Because readers knew that serious criticism of media performance had little or no chance of being published, few went to the trouble of putting pen to paper. This is surely one reason why mainstream journalism is held in relatively high esteem – there has simply been no means of exposing the superficiality, incompetence and deep structural bias of the media to a wide audience.
“The Observer is a conversation,” Beaumont continues. “It is not a commune, so some voices are louder than others, but it remains a conversation.
“Which is more than can be said for groups such as Media Lens with their endless email campaigns. Because there is no conversation between them and their victims.”
The Observer is not primarily a conversation; it is a business. All “conversation” must step carefully around issues threatening this bottom line concern. And so we find no conversation about the impact of the profit motive on freedom of speech. There is no conversation about the Observer’s relationship with fossil fuel advertisers in an age of catastrophic climate change. There is no conversation about the corporate domination of culture, economics, party politics and foreign policy.
The point about the conversation we encourage is that it is not constrained by the unwritten rules of corporate employment – where to be seen as overly critical of media companies or the government can damage, stall or wreck careers.
Beaumont concludes as damningly as possible:
“For journalists like myself, the voice of the disgruntled left we hear is not that of the silent hundreds of thousands I marched with against the war in 2003, but the small, shrill, squeaky voice of an extreme.”
Our experience has been very different. Time and again we have been dismayed to see sincere and reasonable emails from readers met with breathtaking arrogance and contempt. Beaumont’s criticism of us, for example, could hardly be squeakier! As for “shrill“, in a 2003 Observer online debate, Beaumont advised questioners:
“now please piss off and let some serious posters ask questions”. Another questioner received personal counselling: “get a life”. (Observer foreign editor Peter Beaumont, Observer online debate, June 12, 2003 http://talk.guardian.co.uk/WebX?128
“Shrill” hardly seems adequate in describing Roger Alton’s “voice”. The Observer editor replied thus to one polite emailer:
“Have you just been told to write in by those c*nts at Media Lens? Don’t you have a mind of your own?” (Email forwarded, June 1, 2006 – our censorship)
But this earlier exchange between Alton and a restrained reader from South Korea says it all for us:
This is utter bollocks — the piece wasn’t compromised. It was fine. Please stop bothering people about such junk.
Roger Alton” (Forwarded, May 11, 2006)
Our reader responded:
“Thank you for taking the trouble to reply to the email I sent… Unfortunately, it appears from the tone of your message that my comments are unwelcome and indeed have touched a raw nerve.
“I am sorry that you seem to share Peter Beaumont’s disdain for a genuine and open dialogue concerning the very real dangers of press impartiality. I feel that the points I raised are valid, and at the very least deserved a civil response. It is therefore disappointing to see the editor of a ‘liberal’ national newspaper such as The Observer succumb to this kind of anger and rudeness. Your reaction suggests to me that at heart you view your readers merely as passive consumers of knowledge rather than active thinkers struggling to make sense of a complex world.
“I would ask you to reflect for a moment on your responsibilities and the contribution – or lack of one – that you are making to the kind of dialogue that would characterise a genuine democracy rather than a notional one.
Name Withheld (Forwarded, ibid)”
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-squeaky tone.
Write to Peter Beaumont
Email: [email protected]
Write to Observer editor Roger Alton
Email: [email protected]