Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The blogosphere as a whole is guilty for the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ hoax

A blogger creates a false identity and feels free to tell a whole multitude of lies, without any concern for those he is deceiving or for the dangerous consequences for some of them. The Pope is Catholic. Bears crap in the woods. The Tom MacMaster scandal is merely the tip of a very ugly iceberg: the blogosphere.

In some other places and at some other times, people were prepared to suffer persecution as the price of speaking out. Dissidents were ready to spend decades in prison and endure torture and ruin, or risk assault or assassination, because they spoke in their own name. There were gods other than comfort and self-gratification. Unfortunately, things are different today in the Western democratic world, where people have become so pampered by freedom, and so averse to anything that smacks of risk, that they indulge in the pleasure of speaking their mind without accepting the responsibility that comes with putting their name to what they say.

That a society which upholds freedom of speech, and which provides its citizens with unprecedented opportunities to exercise it, should also be one in which the vast majority that comments on the internet does so anonymously, is a symptom of the cowardice and the corruption of spirit that are corroding Western public ethics. Not for us, the path of a Martin Luther King, an Andrei Sakharov, a Vaclav Havel or an Aung San Suu Kyi. No, your Western blogger or commenter is unwilling to write under their real name, because they fear ‘problems in the workplace’. Or else the poor little darlings are worried that they may say something embarrassing and not be able to delete it afterwards. It’s a jolly good thing that earlier generations did all the hard work of fighting for democracy and human rights, because our present generation clearly would not be up to the task; would not be willing to risk so much as a scratched finger in the cause of struggling for freedoms that we take for granted.

From there, it is a short step to feeling possessed of the right to create false personas, then multiple false personas, so that every other blogger becomes an aspiring little Talented Mr Ripley. Inevitably, some, like MacMaster, will become so carried away by their adventures of deceit that they will end up seriously hurting or endangering others. Scams like his are structurally inherent in the nature of the blogosphere.

This is part of a more general malaise of selfishness that is eating away at the Western world. People fetishise rights and freedoms but despise duty and responsibility. They don’t want to pay taxes so that other people can have free university education, or even free healthcare. Some, probably most extremely rich people think it is entirely appropriate to make vast sums of money through the existing order, yet to evade as much as possible giving any of it back in taxes. Others see nothing wrong with spending their whole life living off state benefits, without any attempt at getting a job. Men and women have extraordinarily high expectations of romantic relationships, yet are frequently unwilling to give even a fraction emotionally of what it takes to make a relationship work.

Having said this, I do not blame any individual for choosing to blog or comment anonymously; some, if not most, of my favourite bloggers do so. It is the collectivity that is to blame; it has created an atmosphere in which it is more and more psychologically difficult for people to write under their real names – like being the only nudists on a crowded beach. Fear of writing under one’s own name may be justified, in some cases at least, given the toleration accorded by lazy comments moderators to abuse and even violent threats; their creation of an atmosphere that encourages intimidation. The selfish, spoilt, decadent, phoney morality of the blogosphere privileges liars, frauds, trolls, bullies, libellers, rumour-mongers, hate-mailers, stalkers and vulgarians over honest, decent commenters – all in the name of a ‘freedom of speech’ that it clearly does not understand.

Let me spell out a few truths that should be obvious but apparently are not. If a woman office-worker turns up at her office and finds the notice board covered with anonymous messages calling her a ‘bitch’ and a ‘slut’, and accusing her of sleeping around to gain promotion, and she complains to the manager, and if the manager then refuses to allow the messages to be removed, then he is not standing up for ‘freedom of speech’; he is colluding with sexual harassment. If an ugly, overweight or mentally retarded teenage girl is mercilessly teased by her classmates at school until she is finally driven to hang herself, the teachers that failed to stop the bullying were not ‘respecting freedom of speech’; they were criminally negligent. Yet blog (non-)moderators apparently don’t understand the difference between harassment and ‘freedom of speech’.

The anonymity and the laxness of the blogosphere corrupt our public discourse, as extraordinary expressions of vulgarity, hatred and venom, or of dishonesty, or of inaccuracy and laziness in the written word, are first treated as acceptable by bloggers, after which the rot spreads to other media. Yet the brave soul who tries to take a stand against this tide calls down upon themselves all the blogosphere’s hypocritical, righteous indignation.

When an elected Conservative councillor called publicly via Twitter for the columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown – of whom I’m myself no fan – to be ‘stoned to death’, and she announced her intention of reporting him to the police, there were those who somehow believed he was the victim. Apparently, our elected representatives aren’t actually expected to set any kind of example of correct behaviour. When a frustrated traveller stuck at an airport threatened via Twitter to ‘blow the airport sky high’ and was consequently arrested under the Terrorism Act, this ‘martyr’ and his subsequent supporters apparently considered the tough job the police have to do fighting terrorism to be simply less important than the right to throw a wholly irresponsible public tantrum for suffering an inconvenience that millions of people experience every year. Hello ? Are you not aware that we’re fighting a mortal struggle against terrorists trying to destroy the freedom to tweet, and that our police have a difficult enough job to do without you adding these complications ?

Blogging is a responsibility as well as a pleasure. If you blog, you should take responsibility for what you say. If you really must remain anonymous, don’t say things that you would consider embarrassing or inappropriate under your real name. Either moderate the comments ethically, or keep the comments closed; don’t pretend you’re some sort of champion of the little blogger who can’t afford paid moderators, just because you can’t be bothered to moderate.

If you write something on your blog and it turns out to be grossly untrue, it should rightly affect your reputation. The knowledge that what you say might turn out to be false should act as an incentive to be very careful with what you say. If other people suffer as a result of your words, you should rightly be held to account – not in the sense of the secret police turning up to throw you in prison, but in a manner appropriate for a democracy; you should suffer the public opprobrium. If you are dishonest, sloppy, unreliable, vulgar or abusive, you should be known as such. Your face should not remain youthful and unblemished, like Dorian Gray’s, while the portrait in the attic is distorted beyond recognition by the ugliness of your sins.

There should be no freedom of speech without responsibility of speech; no freedom without responsibility. If you aren’t prepared to pay your fair share of taxes to support the healthcare, education, welfare and security of your fellow citizens – upon whom you and your prosperity ultimately depend – you have no business making money. Progressives know this, so they should stop upholding selfishness in one field while they criticise it in others. Because quite frankly, if the ugly mess we have today is ‘freedom of speech’, then it’s time to question the concept.

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Tuesday, 21 June 2011 Posted by | Britain | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Guardian’s disgraceful treatment of Jelena Lecic

As one of the many people who unthinkingly linked on my Facebook page to the campaign for the release of ‘Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari’, a supposed lesbian Syrian dissident blogger who wrote under the title ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’ and who was supposedly arrested by the Syrian authorities, I have been following the exposure of this hoax with a mixture of outrage and fascination tinged with embarrassment. The perpetrator, a 40-year old American Master’s student at Edinburgh University called Tom MacMaster, described as a ‘Middle East activist’ by The Guardian, has humiliated and discredited those who honourably campaigned on behalf of this apparently worthy cause; put real Syrian dissidents and LGBT activists who stuck their necks out to help ‘Amina Abdallah’ at real risk; diverted attention away from real victims of the Syrian regime; and has made it much more difficult for such victims to be heard in future. It reflects an immorality of sociopathic dimensions.

Not least of MacMaster’s victims is Jelena Lecic, a Croatian woman living in London and an administrator at the Royal College of Physicians. He stole photos of her from her Facebook account and passed them off as photos of the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’. As ‘Amina Abdallah’ became a cause celebre, Lecic’s face was splashed all over websites and newspapers. This case of identity theft therefore had thousands of unwitting accomplices. One of these was The Guardian, which published two different photos of Lecic along with articles about ‘Amina Abdallah’ on 7 May and 7 June. In response to the second of these photos, Lecic phoned the Guardian at 4pm on Tuesday, 7 June to inform them that the picture was not of ‘Amina Abdallah’, but in fact of her, and demanded that the photo be taken down. The Guardian ignored this call, a subsequent call from her an hour later, and a call from her friend, demanding that the photo be removed. Lecic consequently appealed to the Press Complaints Commission, which promptly forced the Guardian to remove the photo by 6.45pm. However, the Guardian substituted it with the photo of Lecic from its earlier article.

All these details come from the Guardian‘s own lengthy attempt at self-justification, written by the newspaper’s readers’ editor, Chris Elliot. In his words, ‘The Guardian did not remove all the pictures until 6pm on Wednesday 8 June, 27 hours after Jelena Lecic first called the Guardian. It took too long for this to happen, for which we should apologise (see today’s Corrections and clarifications). The mitigating factors are… [etc.]’ Elliot does not actually link to the ‘apology’ in the ‘Corrections and clarifications’ section of the newspaper, and one has to hunt around to find it, but here it is:

‘Guardian articles about Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, a blogger on the subject of Middle East unrest, carried photographs purporting to show the blog’s author. In fact, the person pictured was Jelena Lecic, who lives in the UK. We apologise to her. An account of how these pictures came to be used appears in today’s Open door column on page 27 (Syrian revolt finds an unlikely heroine – an outspoken, half-American lesbian blogger, 7 May, page 24; Armed gang abducts gay blogger, 7 June, page 14; Fears for outspoken Syrian blogger after Damascus arrest, 8 June, page 16 [all with links]).’

So ‘We apologise to her.’ is the sum total of the Guardian‘s apology to Lecic for colluding in her identity theft, in a paragraph otherwise devoted helpfully to directing readers to Elliot’s effort at self-justification. Note that this constitutes a – highly curt – apology for misusing her photos, but there is no apology for ignoring her calls and disbelieving her; for forcing her to turn to the Press Complaints Commission; or for then republishing a second photo of her after the latter had forced it to remove the first.

As Lecic told the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman [see video above], ‘most of all, I was very upset with The Guardian, because I’ve complained, twice yesterday, and nobody got in touch with me… For me, it’s been very upsetting, and obviously it got involved my family; my friends; I’ve been disturbed at work. It’s just astonishing that just anybody can use your picture and put a story together, and before you know it, it’s everywhere.’ Readers should watch the whole video, and then see if they think the Guardian‘s apology was adequate.

Also notable is Elliot’s repeated reference to Lecic, whom he describes as a ‘distraught young woman’, throughout his article by her first name. No doubt, the UK’s flagship liberal daily newspaper thinks that this familiar form of address is appropriate when referring to someone it has wronged, when that person a) works in admin; b) is a woman; and c) comes from a Balkan country.

We can compare the Guardian‘s treatment of Lecic to the rather more fulsome and generous, indeed grovelling apology it made to the celebrity radical left-wing genocide denier, Noam Chomsky, five and a half years ago, also in the ‘Corrections and clarifications’ section of the newspaper, after its journalist, Emma Brockes, had been guilty of an error of detail in describing Chomsky’s views on the Srebrenica massacre. There was certainly no reference then to the complainant by his first name, or reference to him as a ‘distraught elderly man’; it was ‘Prof Chomsky’ this and ‘Prof Chomsky’ that. One use of ‘Professor Chomsky’ and thirteen of ‘Prof Chomsky’ in the space of a single apology ! By contrast, the Guardian‘s apology to Lecic used her name only once, in full, then directed its readers to a text which refers to the ‘distraught young woman’ six times by her first name.

That, dear readers, is how women are treated by The Guardian – the flagship liberal newspaper in the land of the Suffragettes and Sylvia Pankhurst. Maybe if Lecic had published an article or two on ZNet denying the Srebrenica massacre, like Chomsky’s friends often do, the Guardian might have addressed her as ‘Ms Lecic’ ?

Hat tip: Joseph W., Harry’s Place

Monday, 13 June 2011 Posted by | Britain, Marko Attila Hoare, Middle East | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments