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Reader comments: Where does fair comment stop, and unfair criticism start?

by James Nason, 11 October 2017
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IT IS one of those curly questions that keeps online publishers guessing on a daily basis.

That is, how to deal with reader comments, and strike the right balance between freedom of speech and robust discussion, and civil, constructive and fact-based dialogue that adds value to debate.

Someone suggested to us this week that there must be a universal code that governs what is acceptable in online reader comments or not. The truth is there isn’t. It is up to publishers to determine the type of comments that are acceptable on their individual sites.

The ultimate over-riding rules, of course, are Australia’s defamation laws, which generally speaking apply to anything published or broadcast in Australia – including media articles, comments published on online articles, or even social media posts.

Deciding whether a line has been crossed is often a grey area. At what point does a comment go too far, and at what point does blocking a comment amount to unfair censorship?

What constitutes a fact can also be subjective. Two witnesses to the same event may often have at least slightly differing accounts. Whose version is the factual one?

There’s also the issue of ‘shooting the messenger’. If we as a media organisation publish a comment, does that mean we endorse and support the position espoused in that comment?

Our belief is absolutely not, but from reader feedback in recent weeks it is clear that some stakeholders on the receiving end of negative comments often believe that if we printed it, we must also believe it and share the same view.

For these reasons alone, moderating comments is a time-consuming and challenging process. It is why an increasing number of media organisations are removing online comments altogether.

We don’t agree with that approach.

In our view online news has created many benefits for people in rural Australia, giving them faster access to news, more competition and a greater diversity of choice.

The ability provided by online platforms for readers to react instantaneously, to provide new angles, perspectives and insights, to challenge statements, correct factual inaccuracies, and to participate in debates is one of the biggest advantages that sets digital news apart from print.

When we started Beef Central, we debated whether we should let readers comment anonymously, or only under real names. We decided on the latter. We knew this would result in fewer comments, but we felt it would lead to a higher standard of debate.

We also developed a comment policy to define what is acceptable, and what isn’t, when commenting on our site.

Frankly, our approach to managing comments is still a work in progress. We believe the standard of debate on Beef Central is much higher than it would have been had we allowed open-slather comments under the cover of anonymity. Reader surveys and regular feedback clearly shows us that comments are also a much-loved feature of the site.

But we also readily concede that we don’t always get the moderation process right.

Under pressure of time and deadlines, some comments aren’t always read or absorbed as thoroughly as they could be before being approved. Comments that perhaps shouldn’t be blocked sometimes are.

It is perhaps fair to say that given the choice between policing our comment policy to the letter, and trying to avoid unfair censorship of readers’ views, we have tended to err toward the latter.

There are occasionally times which cause us to revisit our approach and reassess whether we’re on the right track.

Like what happened last Friday.

In recent weeks Cattle Council of Australia has copped some fairly heavy criticism from senators, who after four years of investigating red meat industry representative structures, levy arrangements and market transparency and competition issues in three different inquiries, recommended that CCA lose its peak council status and a new national grassfed representative body be established in its place.

At the same time, former Australia Meat Holdings CEO John Gunthorpe, who has been agitating against Johne’s regulation and Cattle Council of Australia for several years, has established a new organisation that he believes should be the one to take over from Cattle Council.

He has been stridently criticising Cattle Council as part of his public campaign to build support for his new organisation, including numerous reader comments that have been published on Beef Central. His comments have been to the effect that CCA is “broke, moribund and dysfunctional”, that CCA directors fly business class to international trips that in his view are junkets, that some CCA staff are overpaid etc

CCA board members are all cattle producers who all serve voluntarily. No one likes being on the end of constant criticism, particularly for something you do without pay.

CCA president Howard Smith contacted Beef Central last Friday to complain that a comment we had published from John Gunthorpe amounted, in CCA’s view, to free and unfair advertising for an anti-CCA meeting being in Charters Towers, in direct breach of our comment policy.

No mention was raised of legal concerns in that phone call, so we were slightly puzzled to see comments attributed to Mr Smith in another rural publication later the same day stating that comments had been removed because of allegedly defamatory material. It was not made clear which publication was being referred to, but readers who brought the article to our attention were under the impression it was referring to Beef Central.

It should be clearly stated that on consideration, we chose to take the post down. In contrast with media reports, there was no coercion or pressure from CCA whatsoever.

That aside, the biggest issue we see with online comments are those that try to “attack the person, not the ball”.

There is no question in our view that comments should be able to deal with an issue without resorting to trolling, insulting, or abusing people or organisations involved, and we will be focusing more heavily in future on ensuring personal attacks aren’t accepted.

We reserve the right to edit comments to remove material we don’t believe is factual, or appropriate. This is our site, if visitors don’t like the rules, there are countless other opportunities for people to express their views elsewhere on the worldwide web.

A final point: in our opinion it would also be extremely disturbing to see industry debate shut down by a representative organisation threatening legal action against its critics.

Just as we respect the right of people to be treated fairly and with respect, so to is it essential that the need for freedom of speech and open and robust debate about industry affairs be protected.

Some critics have told us they don’t believe we should allow comment threads because they can become dominated by smaller, more vocal groups with particular agendas and a lot to say.

We emphatically disagree. We believe the fairest way to ensure open and robust industry debate is to ensure platforms are open to all. Whether individuals or groups choose to actively explain their positions or not is up to them.



Reader's Comments


Comment
  • Mark Killen October 11, 2017

    Good article.
    Keep the comments option open and ask that contributors tick a box to accept any comment as their own, so as to personally accept any legal action that may result, to keep the lines of communication open for beef producers. We are “professionally isolated” enough without the swinging appendages trying to stifle debate. These appendages already get all the free press they want, it is forums like Beef Central that can level the playing field. Although some producers may volunteer to represent their fellow producers, it does not give them the right to silence debate by threatening legal action. Doing so says a lot more about them than they probably can comprehend. Sure, give them business class flights, I have no problem with that. They deserve a few perks. Cheers, Mark Killen, Papanui, Merriwa.NSW.

  • Glen M. Feist October 11, 2017

    Jon/James, There is only one way to play this game. That is with the straight bat you have always played with. You have your rules of engagement for people who want to comment. Australia has defamation laws. So let the game begin and let it run it’s course. Media outlets like yours write or publish an article based on your journalistic expertise to the best of your ability. That is your right, that is your expertise and that is your “gift” to us readers. (as your website is free) If you have readers who don’t agree, let them. If you have readers who want to take a pot shot at others, then let them. This is how freedom of the press and freedom of speech works. However, once you get into trying to cater to individuals or censoring you will never win the war on words. The mere fact that you feel you had to write this article worries me.

  • Paul Franks October 11, 2017

    “He has been stridently criticising Cattle Council as part of his public campaign to build support for his new organisation”

    Isn’t that supposition? As a beef producer in Central Queensland for various reasons CCA seems to have very few fans in this part of the world. At least to the people I speak to. So from my perspective any critical comments of CCA, MLA, etc, I do not see it as out of the ordinary.

  • Faye Seng October 11, 2017

    The article ‘Where does fair comment stop, and unfair criticism start’, raises many questions about our rights and obligations within society. I feel strongly that personal attacks on others when exercising ones’ right to free speech only serve to weaken even the strongest of arguments. But agreeing that this is not ok, must then lead to the question of why these words were reported word for word in the first place and why society deems this behaviour OK. Is there not an article based on fact that could have been written without inclusion of the exact wording (e.g. broke, moribund and dysfunctional)?. Could the journalist not have reported the issue, but then avoided the interviewee from benefiting from the emotional impact that such attacks draw from their intended audiences?.
    It is reassuring to witness an ongoing journalistic sense of responsibility present in Beef Central, and I do not feel that the views expressed in this article are reflective at all of Beef Central’s reporting methodology and ideology. Rather these views are drawn from my dissatisfaction with the commercialism that I believe drives television reporting sensationalism and the abuse of the right to free speech that occurs within our own political system.
    We all have the right to express our opinions, but perhaps the acceptance by many prominent people to express their opinions without regard for personal attacks on others (as in your article), can in part be attributed to the antics constantly on display by our political parties who of recent times seem to function on the premise of ‘Don’t beat them with strong policy and good government, bash them out of power with scare-mongering and dirt ‘.
    Where do our politicians draw the line regarding exercising their right to free speech?. Do they even have lines drawn in the sand?. We as a nation want to be informed, but do the media feed the political frenzy that arises from the prominent headlines that the latest political attacks and dirt digging antics attract?. Is any attention be it of a negative nature better than none? How are media reports of political demeaning behaviour beneficial to the running of our country in any way, shape or form?. Yes there are genuine cases that do require reporting, but where are the lines drawn and what is news?. How are television ratings impacted following the throwing of dirt by one political party onto the other ( in the case it is coloured or false), and is the reporting of these events a bi-product of the competition between networks or a desire to report a substantial news event in society on that particular day?. How has it become ok for us to allow politicians to promise swinging voters the world just to get elected? How have we become so lax within our own society that we fall for it?
    The nightly news just prior to election time, is smothered with interviews and statements from politicians in positions of responsibility. Many things pop up and some are released with the sole intent to discredit the opposition. At times reports of arguments between political leaders contain nothing of substance about policy or government and contradict statements they themselves made a month or two months prior? Is this newsworthy? Some might say yes we need to know, but the politician just got air time?? Election advertisements have been seen to stoop to an attack and scare format, rather than providing information. Election promises are made to buy votes. Some come to fruition, others are hollow.
    Our politicians are being allowed to abuse their responsibility and right to free speech in an effort to influence us as individuals to vote for them. So why do we as a nation allow them to continue to do so?. Every word that comes out of their mouth should be the truth. They are our chosen leaders. Journalists have responsibilities to report news during elections, but why do they offer prime position on the news, to a new party smear campaign that has dug up a new piece of dirt on their opposition.
    We as a nation exercise our right to vote. This is the one time we get to express our individual right to decide who should run our country. It is every bit as important as our right to free speech. How is it Ok then, for political party individuals to also replace the political leaders whom we have voted into power, should their leadership provide minority views and/or risk a loss at an upcoming election. How are we to trust in our current political system when the person we vote into power may not be there until the end of their term, and subsequently how is a party to ever find a strong leader when they when leaders are booted out the minute they lose popularity or they ruffle internal party feathers.
    How are we to address the issues of what is and is not acceptable in our right to free speech and to vote. Maybe it is not whether we have the right to express our opinions on matters, and whether the press have the right to report it, but more to the point, whether we have a responsibility to own our opinions with honesty and respect and to extend the same right to others without fear of personal attack. Maybe we need to find a way to minimalise the sensationalism in the media and politics and to legislate to make politicians accountable for every election promise made and not adhered to in the ensuing 12 months. Imagine a legislation that made an elected political party leader serve their term, unable to be outvoted by their own party for being unpopular or strong. Looking at the bright side as there are plenty, I live in Australia and have the right to express my opinion. Food for thought!!!

  • John Gunthorpe October 12, 2017

    Thanks James for those well crafted words. Just a few comments.

    Beef Central is a well-respected voice regarding issues in our industry. It is due to the good work you and Jon do on a daily basis. However, as a voice of our beef industry it needs to report news without fear or favour. Would my comment have been taken down had you not received a call from Cattle Council? You had read them previously and posted them. However, we accept your assurances that they were taken down without pressure from CCA.

    Meetings held to discuss J-BAS, Biosecurity Plans and a better way forward for our industry’s advocacy are not organised by the Australian Cattle Industry Council but by concerned cattle producers. So Tuesday’s meeting at Charters Towers was organised by Andy Rea and Alf Collins – the meeting in Wagga by Mark Lucas, Boonah by Jan Delroy and in Casino by Dr Ian Fielding and T & W McCormack Stock and Station Agents from Casino. We are invited to speak at these meetings. We understand there will soon be further meetings in Launceston and Rockhampton.

    Beef Central’s forum for concerns raised by the BJD Action Coalition while we endeavoured to deregulate the management of BJD was important to our cause which was eventually (it took far too long) vindicated. Ash Kirk’s letter (Rockley Brahman) read out at the Charters Towers meeting this week thanked those who gave support to this movement. Rightly, Beef Central is included in this number.

    We also heard from Megan and Tim Atkinson who were quarantined for 3 years over BJD. It cost them over $1 million and stressed them to the point where the pain is still evident. This was the darkest period for beef producers in Queensland and led to unnecessary pain and suffering. Yes we will speak out against it and remind our members whose responsibility it was.

    Thank you for your forum and best wishes for your future success.

  • Wallace Gunthorpe October 13, 2017

    It always amazes me that people that endorce bad policy and standover tactics become very precious when the tables are turned !
    John Gunthorpe and I had an opportunity where we could have taken legal action against defamatory comments made about us during our fight for deregulation of the BJD Protected Zone Policy,we chose not too because it wasn’t about us,it was about changing bad policy to bring quarantines to an end for all Queensland cattle families.
    We played the game with a straight bat,John got a double century and I took a few wickets ! We won the Test match !

    Wallace Gunthorpe
    Chairman QLD BJD Action Coalition

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