When the moderator becomes immoderate

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Am I a fascist? I fear I might be when it comes to the crunch. Even bigger shock horror, I suspect I could be about to rationalize some deeply suspect, callous, ruthless thinking of mine, right here and now. I’m not sure how this is going to pan out. By the end of the blog I may be appalled by what I have said, and so may you. No doubt you will let me know if that is the case, and I might find it painful.

It is just that, as the moderator of Heretic TOC over the period of nearly six months since its inception, I have found it necessary to be rather immoderate in slapping down some contributors to the comments, at times to the point of brutal bluntness – not in public, but behind the scenes in private exchanges. Several departed, never to return; a couple exasperated me so much I banished them permanently. Admittedly, when we consider the history of fascism, my culpability may seem slight: I have not organised bands of thugs in uniforms to beat up my enemies in the street and trash their business premises. I have not disposed of even one “awkward customer” by having him hanged with piano wire, though the thought has crossed my mind a few times.

And that’s it really, I suppose: the thought, the attitude. There are many definitions of fascism, but if we are thinking about an attitude rather than a particular political programme, we can perhaps sum it up in a couple of words: illiberal authoritarianism. In ancient Rome the fasces was a bundle of rods tied around an axe, which symbolised the authority and power of a magistrate. Carried by bodyguards, the fasces suggested strength through unity: a single rod is easily broken, but the bundle is not. And they could be used to beat a man to death on the magistrate’s command.

But why would I wish to be illiberal, when the very name of the blog evokes the valorisation of dissent, as does the tag “Not the dominant narrative”? Also, on the About page, I say “…satire can be savage. I prefer a gentler tone, in line with the kind of society I’d like to see.” Hardly a fascist sentiment, is it?

And yet, believe it or not, over the last six months I have been accused, sometimes in the bitterest terms, of being a near-fascist control freak – and not just by one accuser. They say I am hypocritical; my much vaunted interest in a diversity of views is a sham; not only do I want to showcase my own opinions, I want all the responses in the comments section to echo them as well. Could there be something in it? After all, even Meirion Jones, of the BBC, remarked to me that the commentators here seem to comprise only “like-minded” people – fellow heretics, as it were.

In truth, though, non-heretics show up only very rarely as commentators, and when they do their comments tend to go straight into the trash not because of the views expressed but because they are just outright flamers. Their attacks, devoid of any reasoned argument or relevant information, are designed purely to insult and intimidate. But fire-fighting this inflammatory stuff surely does not make me a fascist: on the contrary, it feels more like fighting fascism.

No, what I have found much harder to deal with is a handful of heretics who have turned up here and revealed themselves to be, well, not to put too fine a point on it, unpleasant crackpots of one sort or another. One man’s crackpot can be another man’s misunderstood genius, though; and with that in mind I have been very careful not to suppress anyone’s views just because I don’t like them. As for the “unpleasant” bit, I believe I have gone out of my way to put up with outright cantankerousness and even extreme personal abuse directed towards me in personal emails by some individuals. I have reasoned that minor-attracted people invariably have a tough life these days; some of them are bound to react badly by lashing out at others; I should make allowances and try to be understanding.

This abuse has not been at all like the “you disgusting sickos” style favoured by outsiders. It is much more personal than that, the aim being to hurt me as an individual by implying I am a poor writer, selfishly motivated, know nothing about kids, etc. There is seldom any real sting in these poison pen letters, though, because they are so obviously illogical: if they really thought, for instance, that Heretic TOC is a crap blog, why would they be desperate – as some clearly are – to continue as commentators on it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to go to a better blog elsewhere, or start their own?

How, you might ask, has such unpleasantness arisen? The answer, very simply, is from my moderation of the comments column. In the About section, I say comments must comply with the law and should aim to be Concise, Courteous, Coherent and Content-rich. Legality is obviously an absolute requirement and it has presented no problems. But I have been kept far busier than I would have wished on the “Four Cs”, especially as regards keeping it sweet in terms of showing respect for other contributors. It is when I exert control in this area, especially, but also in terms of trying to deter sheer waffle, often poorly written, grossly repetitious and irrelevant, that the brickbats start to fly. The result of this control-freakery, I suggest, has been a far more interesting comments column than the average to be found across the internet in general and it also gives the site a touch of class that I find pleasing, not least because it shows a civilized side to us heretics that visiting members of the wider public will rarely if ever have seen before. But is it too polite? Too intellectual? Too sanitized?

I am beginning to be worried, I must admit, not about sanitization as such but about the need to sanitize a site such as Heretic TOC. I had hoped that civilized blog pieces would attract civilized commentators. By and large, mercifully, that has been the case, and I am proud of the very high overall standard of contributions published so far. However, the small minority of exceptions has been deeply troubling. These are people who see themselves as ethical and do manage to post some thought-provoking and worthwhile contributions; but they spoil the effect completely when bitterness gets the better of them, as it often does. That is when the dark side takes over:  repetitively angry, empty, self-indulgent dross is on display in the public posts, and the private ones to me are far worse. That is where the real ranting and raving gets into full swing, with everyone, everywhere damned to perdition – including fellow heretics – except of course their own utterly blameless selves.

Ineffective as it is in terms of wounding me personally, such abuse is nonetheless depressing in its wider implications. I find myself wondering, “If I were a parent, would I trust my own kids with these people?” I do not think they are outright psychopaths but they are clearly very troubled guys who have been so hurt and damaged themselves that hitting out at others has become an automatic reflex. That, to my mind, constitutes a dangerous personality, even if it does not meet the accepted psychiatric conditions for any particular disorder, such as narcissism or BPD (borderline personality disorder), which are in any case highly controversial diagnoses.

So am I being a bit of a fascist when I insist on courteous postings and (as a courtesy to all Heretic TOC’s readers) severely edit, or even totally trash, the less well considered offerings? Is permanently banning anyone a step too far? Returning to my characterization of fascism as “illiberal authoritarianism”, I think, after giving the matter due thought, I will plead not guilty. That is because my approach here may be authoritarian but the aim – if perhaps not always the effect – is liberal. Does that make sense? Am I getting this whole moderation thing right, or not? Do let me know what you think.

Bring me the head of Meirion Jones

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                                                                                                                                                                      “I “I want to see heads roll at the BBC. Not trustees, or the Director-General, token sacrificial lambs. I’ll start with the despicably dishonest Meirion Jones. On a pike. Outside BBC headquarters.” – Anna Raccoon blog, 26 October, 2012

When Meirion Jones emailed me early last month, asking for an interview, I was intrigued. Here was a guy, as I soon discovered, with a big reputation as a top flight TV documentary maker, winner of the Daniel Pearl Award for his investigation of Trafigura’s toxic waste dumping in Africa and star of numerous other genuinely important exposés. Yet he was the also the man behind the wretchedly inadequate Newsnight exposure of Jimmy Savile, rightly dropped by BBC executives (who were then castigated for their cowardice) because it did not stand up. Yes, there were BBC cockups, but the independent Pollard Report concluded in December that the decision to drop the programme had been taken in good faith. Jones was also the man so ball-breakingly denounced by a woman who had been right at the epicentre of the allegations – a former pupil at Duncroft School for girls. Blogging as Anna Raccoon, her detailed assessment portrayed a “despicably dishonest” Jones who had exploited a vulnerable, unstable, supposed “victim” and failed to disclose that his own aunt had been headmistress of the school.

Strong stuff, and before deciding how to respond to Jones’s invitation, I decided I would first  interview him, quizzing him for about 45 minutes by phone over Anna Raccoon’s allegations. His mixture of plausible denial, and assurances supported by contextual detail, left me unable to nail any particular falsehood or bad practice on his part: for that I would have needed aces up my sleeve from serious investigative legwork of my own, and I had not been resourced for that. His strongest point was that his accuser had not been at the school in the era when Savile was a regular there, whereas Jones had visited his aunt frequently at her home in the school grounds and personally seen Savile on the premises a number of times. My impression remains that Raccoon is entirely right to regard the Duncroft part of the case against Savile as thin to vanishing; but that does not mean Jones was dishonest or behaved improperly.

In the end, I think, it comes down to a clash of values: what constitutes a scandal depends on what you think is reasonable behavior. Public standards have changed. Duncroft was clearly a very special place decades ago. It was a residential school for highly intelligent but “wayward” girls, as they would once have been called – the “hard to handle” daughters of elite families, including top military brass, film stars and even minor royalty. Jones’s aunt has admitted the girls were “no angels”. Many of them – including the key witness in Meirion Jones’s ditched film, who later “starred” in the ITV follow-up, were thrilled at the time to see a bit of action with Savile. It was all very St Trinians: “…an unorthodox girls’ school where the younger girls wreak havoc and the older girls express their femininity overtly, turning their shapeless schoolgirl dress into something sexy and risqué.” Would the audiences of the early St Trinians films half a century ago have been shocked by Savile’s escapades? They might have been merely amused, as they were by the films themselves.

But why, you might wonder, was Jones interested in me? After all, I’m not an old Duncroft girl, and I doubt I’d be mistaken for a St Trinians one either, even if I were to slip into a gym slip (perish the thought!) Turns out he’d been alerted to my existence as a result of discovering this very blog, Heretic TOC. Or, rather, my continued existence. He knew of my work with PIE in the 1970s – which is why he wanted to talk – but until seeing Heretic TOC he thought I was dead! Like Jon Henley of the Guardian a few months ago, he said he would like to get my views on why British society, along with others, is now so militantly hostile to paedophilia compared to just two or three decades ago. He said he just wanted an off-the-record discussion, not an on-camera piece. No particular programme had been commissioned. He wanted background because the theme is “hot” and likely to remain so for some time to come.

Obviously, it would have been crazy to hold out hopes of good publicity coming out of a meeting with a guy who had done so much to trash Savile, and I didn’t. But I was curious: on my side there was nothing to lose, as my life has long been an open book.  Besides, he was offering a modest fee and I thought such a meeting could yield some lowdown on any other looming scandals he might be nosing into; it might also offer insights into how a guy with Jones’s reputation goes about this type of story. Anna Raccoon’s “take no prisoners” views on that are entertainingly colourful but, well, there may be a touch of St Trinians in her!

So Jones and I met. Not, dear readers, clandestinely in an underground car park, but in a plain business boardroom suite chosen and hired by me in a quiet location in the north of England where I could audio record the whole encounter with good sound quality. That was one of my terms: off the record, but on my recorder! He readily agreed to that, but unfortunately I cannot go into specifics about the questions he asked: that was his prior stipulation, although he knows I’ll be blogging.

What I can give, though, is the clear impression I formed of a man who, without being in the least bit underhand or devious, so far as I could tell, is still on a mission to identify and hunt down “guilty parties” from the past – not Savile, this time, but other “powerful people in high places”, perhaps people “at the heart of government”. These and other clichés of the conspiracy-minded appear to depend for their appeal on a simplistic Manichean split between goodies and baddies, with the baddies as the evil, controlling insiders. Meirion Jones and his ilk, in another dodgy binary, appear to see themselves as heroic lone rangers, outsiders riding into town to right all the wrongs. Well, it may work with tightly focused, rather distinct wrongs, such as toxic waste dumping and – Jones’s latest big story – bogus bomb detectors, reliance on which may have cost hundreds of lives in post-war Iraq; but in matters of more complex cultural change it seems to me like a hopelessly wrong-headed mode of investigation.

It is too narrow, too blinkered. Yes, we discussed some of the “wide-ranging” background issues in which he had initially expressed an interest – the rise of feminism, for instance – but there were strong indications that to him this was all just a nebulous and irritating distraction from the real business at hand. Only when we were focusing minutely on the culture of the Home Office in the late 1970s did I sense from him any real sense of engagement, and that is not even my area of insider knowledge: he would do better to ask a conventional historian! Perhaps he will.

 

 

 

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