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The Guardian – champion of free speech, scourge of China
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By David Ferguson

"Comment is free... but facts are sacred!"

These ringing words come from an essay written in 1921 by C.P. Scott, one of the United Kingdom's great journalists and politicians, who also served for fully 57 years as the Editor of one of the United Kingdom's great media institutions, The Guardian. The newspaper operates the most actively-frequented opinion, blog, and readers-comment section in the mainstream UK media, and "Comment is Free" – "CiF", as it is widely known – is its proud banner.

The Guardian is an interesting and important element of British society. Although its circulation is miniscule (350,000 copies per day) it carries huge influence. It is the Labor Party's "house" newspaper – indeed, a growing number of its own readers seem increasingly disenchanted with its unquestioning support for the Party, however inept and dishonest its behavior in power – and its journalists have the ear of the highest levels of government.

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The Labor Party operates a peculiar policy under which vast numbers of public sector jobs that it has created during its decade in power are advertised only in The Guardian – some say that the newspaper's financial survival is dependent on this governmental "sponsorship" – with the result that a huge swathe of the social agenda of the country, covering fields like Health, Education, Welfare, and Criminal Justice, is largely owned and run by a self-selecting and self-perpetuating clique of The Guardian readers and sympathizers.

In principle The Guardian is a left of center paper dedicated to such worthy principles as truth, honesty, justice, equality of opportunity, the defense of the underprivileged, and above all freedom of speech – what are the western media, after all, without freedom of speech?

The reality falls far short of these ideals. Although CiF is the most actively-frequented and liveliest readers forum in the mainstream UK media, its readers comments are subject to ruthless and wholesale censorship by a group of anonymous "Moderators".  Scroll through any CiF article and the posts below it and you will dozens of posts replaced by the words "This comment has been removed by a moderator..." As a puzzling and as yet unexplained appendix to this process, the Moderators occasionally delete offending posts altogether, so that you have no idea that they ever existed.

The logic behind CiF's moderation seems to be entirely arbitrary and subjective. Whereas some posts that clearly contravene the official CiF guidelines by swearing or using abusive language are left to stand, others are deleted. Less acceptably, other posts that do not in any way appear to contravene the guidelines are also deleted.

I once saw a carefully-constructed, highly articulate, and hard-hitting post by a contributor called Newsed deleted – apparently without any sense of the irony – from an article entitled Saying the unsayable...   Newsed's post presented the view that feminism had had a negative impact on society, and it was hard to conclude that it had been removed for any reason other than spite, in that it went against one of The Guardian's most dearly-held prejudices and it was well-argued. On that particular thread fully one-third of the first 42 posts needed to be deleted for, er… saying the unsayable. After that the Moderators became a bit less tolerant of dissenting voices.

Repeated requests by readers to debate the issue of moderation with the Moderators or with some other relevant member of The Guardian Editorial staff are ignored. There is an email address to write to on issues of moderation, for anyone who is sufficiently naïve or has time to waste.

Unsurprisingly, in an environment where comment is mercilessly censored, facts are "sacred" in a rather relativistic fashion.

The Guardian has a long-standing editorial policy of hostility towards China. Throughout 2008, through winter storms, the May earthquake, the Olympics, and the looming global recession, CiF has published piece after piece – possibly 200 this year, or perhaps even more. I have not read them all, but of the dozens that I have read, I can think of one or perhaps two that were not relentlessly biased, hostile and negative in their treatment of their subjects.

Based on CiF's 99 percent negative coverage, it would be reasonable to assume either that all of the population of China are having a rotten time 99 percent of the time, or that 99 percent of the population are having a rotten time all of the time. This is not my personal experience of the country, but then how could I ever compete with the viewed-from-afar expertise of someone like Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, who once met a Chinese security worker on an aeroplane?

Blinded by bias, The Guardian's Opinion columns on China are atrocious. Facts are routinely ignored or invented; interpretation is selective at best, and tends towards the "Let's assume the worst possible outcome of the worst possible set of circumstances…" school of journalism. China gets little or no credit for anything positive that the country, and particularly its government, has achieved. But the worst aspect of all is the censorious hypocrisy.

Some would argue that the best way to deal with this kind of phenomenon is to ignore it, but this fails to take into account the huge influence that The Guardian wields, both domestically and abroad. Very influential people in the United Kingdom rely on the paper both to obtain and – more importantly – to promulgate information, and even larger numbers of ordinary people, who have little direct knowledge of countries like China, have their views formed by what they read in such "reliable" sources.

I myself have given up on The Guardian and CiF, and I no longer post on its website. I will therefore be using this column in the forthcoming months to subject its output on China to a rather more critical examination than is provided by its own editorial process. While I have little doubt that Comment is Free on its own will provide me with a rich seam of ore to mine, I will be more than happy to subject other western media reporting on China to similar scrutiny.

(China.org.cn December 13, 2008)

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