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What’s the point of turning the net into a giant lavatory wall?

When I give someone a book as a present, I don’t hand them a marker pen so they can scrawl “DID YOU GET PAID FOR THIS?” on the final page. So when did we get the idea that allowing comments on articles was a Good Thing?

The anti-comment backlash has been gathering pace for a while now. Every so often, a writer puts their head above the parapet to say that, actually, they don’t really enjoy every facet of their life, career and appearance being raked over directly underneath an article they’ve spent time crafting. Or that they feel slightly miffed that a drive-by “YOUR SHIT” or “FIRSSSST” gets almost equal prominence with their original work.

A few places have already taken the step of removing comments: one of them is the satirical Daily Mash website. “One of our well-worn catchphrases is: 'I have no interest in your worthless, ill-informed opinion. And we’re not kidding,'” the Mash’s editor, Neil Rafferty, told me. “What you don’t want is to write a piece of comedy and immediately below it, have lots of people trying to be funnier than you. It’s a tiresome experience and it detracts from the actual article. It was banned fairly early on; we tried it for two weeks and it was hellish.”

Generally, however, writers who complain about comments are deemed to be lily-livered. In public, legions of stompy-boots gladiatorial bloggers laugh at their weakness. In private, other writers tell them just to ignore what’s written under their articles. I think at this point it’s safe to say there are two types of writer: those who worry about their comments, and those who don’t read them.

So why have them at all? The usual reason is that they promote audience engagement, and allow readers to “have their say”. But I find that people with something considered and interesting to offer have plenty of ways to get in touch: they can @ me on Twitter or write an email for a start. I’m also happy to host responses here on my blog (for example this and this).

The idea that disabling comments is returning to a model where journalists told the audience things, and the audience mutely accepted what was slopped out, is nonsense. Even the most generous estimates reckon only 1 per cent of readers leave a comment. So banning them doesn’t stop people having their say: it stops one in a hundred people creating an aura of authentic grassroots reaction.

What does abound in comment sections, of course, is abuse: racism, sexism, homophobia. In the wake of stories about “internet trolls” targeting Louise Mensch, Noel Edmonds and Fabrice Muamba, there has been a great deal of agonising over why the people involved don’t know what they’re doing is wrong. There’s a glaringly simple answer: they look around, see an internet reduced to a Giant Lavatory Wall, and decide to get in on the act themselves. Their misfortune is to target celebrities, and to get caught. There are thousands of others out there who abuse the powerless, and stay anonymous for ever. Anonymity encourages irresponsibility, and “one-up-manship” sees threads degenerate into name-calling quicker than you can say Godwin’s Law.

Until this point, however, I’d naively assumed that comments were part of the deal: they encouraged clicks, which made money, which paid for loafers like me to eat swan and dictate the occasional blog from my chaise longue between puffs on a silver cigarette holder. Then I read this piece by Joel Johnson at Animal New York (which, incidentally, deals with points I won’t go into now, such as the fact that the occasional good comment thread makes us dramatically over-estimate the worth of all the rest).

He writes:

Comments are likely a cost-of-doing-business for most content sites, not a revenue generator. This has been somewhat known for years for any high-volume site that is forced to require human content moderation–humans cost money, whether they are hand-moderating content, shepherding conversation, or building automated tools to allow user-moderated content.

Moreover, the most active commenters are given a sense of entitlement by the deference they’ve been given by media experts and all-internet-is-good-internet cheerleaders over the years, leading to authors who live in perpetual fear of shaming by the very people who are supposedly their most ardent fans. We somehow fooled ourselves into thinking we owed random people the right to comment on our work literally on our work, that this was somehow an integral part of the commons. 

One of the most active cheerleaders of commenting is the Guardian, which employs a dozen or so moderators, plus another dozen “community co-ordinators” who monitor Facebook, Twitter, Tumblrs and so on (the paper doesn't give out an exact number). Assuming these people are on a modest £20,000 each, that’s nearly half a million pounds a year spent on making sure that the “community” – 1 per cent of readers – is well-served. It’s a sizeable outlay, and therefore it needs a sizeable justification. Sometimes it might be: specialist blogs, for example, do get engaged and informative comments threads (I’m thinking, for example, of the Jack of Kent thread on “David Rose”). But for generalist publications it’s harder to make the case.

Anyway, by way of irony, I’ve decided to leave comments open on this post. Have at it. Alternatively, write a thoughtful, considered comment and put your real name next to it, to prove me wrong.

Troll Hunter: Noel Edmonds. Photo: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty Images/Ian Forsyth
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The big battle in Corbyn's Labour party will be over organisation, not ideas

Forgotten and near-moribund institutions of the parliamentary Labour party will become vital once again, explain Declan McHugh and Will Sherlock. 

“Decidedly downbeat” was Chris Mullin’s assessment of the first Parliamentary Labour Party meeting following the 2001 landslide General Election victory. Blair was “received well, but without elation … the managing director was treated to some blunt warnings that this time around the boys and girls on the shop floor expect to be treated with more consideration.”

Assuming he wins the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn’s first PLP meeting will be anything but downbeat. The ‘shop floor’ will be more akin to a Lions’ Den. Labour’s new figurehead will face a PLP overwhelmingly opposed to him. Many will question the legitimacy of his election and some will reject his authority. From day one, he will face a significant number of Labour MPs not merely against him but actively out to get him. There has probably never been a situation where a leader of the Labour Party has been so far removed from the parliamentary party which he supposedly commands.

The closest historical parallel with Corbyn is arguably George Lansbury, another ardent socialist who took charge of the party after serious electoral defeat. But the comparison doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Lansbury may have been on the left but he had been a leading figure at the top of the party for many years. Corbyn has never been anything but part of the Labour fringe – rarely even attending PLP meetings.

Nevertheless an immediate move to oust him is unlikely. Whatever their concerns about the circumstances of his election, the scale of the contest will make MPs nervous about executing a coup. And crucially there is no obvious alternative leader waiting in the wings.

The internal battle against Corbyn will instead be more drawn out and fought through the internal structures of the party. The number of Labour MPs showing a sudden and hitherto undiscovered interest and expertise in the PLP Standing Orders is an indication of what is to come. When Labour is in government, journalists pay little notice to obscure internal committees. Now they are going to be the centre of attention. The PLP may be energised on an organisational front in a way that it never was during the Blair, Brown and even Miliband years. Conflict is likely to be focused in the following arenas:

  • Shadow Cabinet

Corbyn is now understood to populate his shadow cabinet by appointment, but opponents in the PLP are seeking a return to the system of elections. That will not be straightforward. Although the 2011 decision to end elections was primarily achieved by means of a PLP vote to change Standing Orders, it was subsequently agreed by the NEC and passed into party rules by Conference. It will be harder to undo that constitutional knot than it was to tie it. The PLP can vote to change Standing Orders again but the NEC and Conference will need to reflect that in further amendments to party rules if the decision is to have constitutional authority. That sets the scene for a messy clash between the PLP and the NEC if Corbyn chooses to defy the parliamentary party.

 

Even if elections are restored, it is not clear how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP will respond. MPs seeking the return of shadow cabinet elections hope to run a slate of candidates who will work to emasculate the new leader. But others have already resolved to boycott the front bench, regardless of how it is selected. Corbyn’s opponents face a dilemma. On the one hand abandoning the shadow cabinet may be viewed as walking off the pitch at a time when others are prepared to get stuck in and organised. On the other, it will be impossible to take a shadow cabinet post without signing up to some level of collective responsibility. That means undergoing the daily grind of defending the party line in front of the 24 hour media spotlight, with all statements scrutinised and recorded by Conservative researchers for future use.  How many Labour MPs would be willing to support a Corbynite line on foreign affairs, defence and economic policy? The new Labour leader will soon find out.

 

  • PLP meetings

The Monday evening meetings of the PLP are a weekly arena in which the frontbench and the party leadership are held to account by the wider parliamentary party. In the Kinnock, Smith and Blair days, although occasionally raucous, there was a degree of deference to the Leader. That has waned of late but will likely be non-existent under Corbyn. No one can remember the last time the PLP voted on a matter of policy, but Standing Orders permit it to so – expect opponents of the leadership to use this device.

 

  • PLP Chair

John Cryer, the current PLP Chair, will have his work cut out trying to manage what are likely to be stormy meetings. Moreover, the annual election of the Chair is an important barometer of the parliamentary party’s mood and the easiest means of organising a proxy vote on confidence in the leader. Importantly, the Chair of the PLP approves what motions can be tabled at the weekly PLP meeting. 

 

  • Parliamentary Committee

The parliamentary committee are effectively shop stewards for the backbenchers and the election of representatives is similarly a reflection of political sentiment in the PLP. New elections won’t happen until next May but the PLP could decide to initiate earlier elections. Labour MPs will ask whether the current committee, which includes one Corbyn nominator, is representative of the majority view. If not, a slate opposed to the leader could be organised. The Parliamentary Committee has executive powers that it rarely uses but this may change and will be significant. 

 

  • Departmental Groups

The PLP’s internal policy committees have been in decline since the early years of Tony Blair and have rarely made waves but have potentially important powers, including the right of Committee Chairs to speak from the Despatch Box. MPs may use these bodies to challenge frontbench policy positions in a way that no leader has experienced, promoting alternative agendas at odds with the leadership line on foreign affairs, defence and the economy. The Chairs have not yet been elected and this could be a key focus in the autumn.

 

  • Whips Office

The idea of Jeremy Corbyn directing the PLP to follow three-line whips is, to many, a source of amusement. A man who regularly topped the charts of rebel MPs will struggle to maintain the traditional system of party discipline – and indeed he has already indicated that he has no intention of “corralling” MPs in the traditional way. Most likely the whips will play a distinctly different role in the future, acting more as shop stewards for backbench MPs who want their concerns made clear to the Leader’s Office. And the likely deputy keader Tom Watson, who hails from the right wing union tradition but is close to some of the left, will play a major part in trying to balance the needs of the new leadership with the real anger of backbench Labour MPs.

Corbyn’s lack of authority and support within the wider parliamentary party puts a major question mark over his long term prospects as Labour leader. He would certainly lose any direct trial of strength against the PLP.

But the Corbynite group will seek to avoid confrontation inside Westminster. They believe their strength lies in the party outside Parliament and in the new influx of members and supporters. Their agenda will be to capitalise – though they might not use the term – on the leadership triumph by instituting rule changes that will revive the left within the party machine. Not just inside the NEC, the Conference and the party HQ but in the regional and constituency party organisation.

Most particularly, they are likely to seek to convert supporters into members, with a role in the selection of parliamentary candidates. By such means they will seek to apply external pressure on MPs from their own constituency parties. Labour members may be understandably wary about moving to decapitate a new leader so soon after his election. But they face a race against time to prevent him and his supporters from reshaping the party machine in ways that will undermine them from below.

 Will Sherlock and Declan McHugh are former Labour special advisers who now work at Lexington Communication.