No, I’m not going to give my opinion on the origins or details of the current occupation of Gaza: There are plenty of people doing that. What interests me is that nothing provokes a debate in quite the same way. I’m looking at a piece by Elizabeth Wurtzel which the Guardian has decided to put in its ‘Comment is Free’ section, where the good and the bad, the bright and the dense, can have their say. I have to say that the ‘Cif’ section is a world leader. Few mainstream news operations have managed media convergence and user-interaction (call it user-generated content if you will) with online news in such a manner.
Yet I think that posts like this go further than trying to give two sides to the story. Clearly, the Western media is feeling a great deal of sympathy to the Palestinians at the moment. And clearly, left-leaning publications spearhead this. But when you see well over a thousand comments – from the wise to the mad to the anti-semitic (of course, many of those get deleted) you have to ask whether The Guardian really should publish the piece. Does antagonising readers count as informing them? I’m not so sure. Broadcasters have to give a balanced view, but online newspapers do not. The Guardian obviously wants to occupy the moral high-ground by giving ample coverage to both sides of the story, even if its core readership is in distressed awe at the views occasionally opined.
But with the odd Cif offering, you can’t help but get the feeling that readers love to hate, and the editors in charge know only too well what will stir their readership. Brian Cathcart, in a piece entitled ‘Go on, wind us up’, wrote in July of newspapers publishing pieces they know will enrage their readers. It seems the Guardian is no better, and switching stories of parking attendants for Israeli army apologists does the trick just as well. Allowing everyone to have their say afterwards merely proves the success of this tactic. Having 1000+ comments is absolute good news for The Guardian, but you have to assume that some thought goes in to how much this tactic is used – I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the meetings where the line is drawn.