Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Comment isn't free when bloggers have a hidden (and lucrative) agenda

When The Guardian launched "Comment is free" in 2006, the title of the opinion-based adjunct to its website seemed perfectly suited to the spirit of the internet and the concept of "open journalism", which the paper embraces.

But the slogan – based on the saying of the great Guardian editor CP Scott that "comment is free, but facts are sacred" – doesn't sound quite so noble when the comment has been carefully constructed to further a hidden agenda which the author is being financially rewarded to support.

Less than 10 days after commissioning a new online column, "On Politics and Persuasion", from American blogger Josh Trevino, The Guardian has had to axe it because of an undisclosed commercial interest.

For many reasons, the hiring of Trevino – an unabashed right-winger - has been a disturbing experience for the paper. Readers' editor Chris Elliott has blogged on the "bruising 10 days for The Guardian" and admitted the episode "could have been handled better". Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Guardian US, said the paper had "learned several lessons" after "an eye-opening week".

How could one blogger cause so many problems? For one, Trevino is given to appallingly callous outbursts. Most notably, he sent a tweet last year saying that if the Israeli army was to start shooting at a humanitarian flotilla to Gaza, "most Americans are cool with that. Including me." The flotilla included author Alice Walker. He also stated that America was "better off" without Furkan Dogan, an 18-year-old Turkish-American killed on a Gaza flotilla raid in 2010.

It was not what The Guardian had been thinking of when it trumpeted Trevino's arrival with the promise that he "brings an important perspective our readers look for on issues concerning US politics". The Guardian's survival plan depends heavily on increasing its brand profile and audience in America and Gibson, under pressure to broaden its appeal, was impressed by Trevino's past experience as a speech-writer for the George W Bush administration.

But though Trevino's outrageous flotilla comments led to howls of protest to The Guardian from liberals such as CND vice-president Bruce Kent and Jeremy Corbyn MP, they were not the reason for his column being so swiftly dropped.

Trevino, who describes himself as having a "background in communications and activism" and set up the conservative activism site RedState, has other interests besides the politics of the Middle East. One of the more lucrative is Malaysia, where he has been one of a number of American journalists actively promoting the Prime Minister Najib Razak and attacking the leader of the opposition Anwar Ibrahim.

In parting company with Trevino, The Guardian complained that the blogger had written a piece for its website referring to Razak and that the author had not disclosed that he "was a consultant for an agency that had Malaysian business interests and that he ran a website called Malaysia Matters". Trevino said in the statement that "nothing unethical was done" in his work for the paper.

The Independent reported last year how Razak's Malaysian government had paid £17m for a "global strategic communications" campaign from London-based FBC Media (UK), which was run by two prominent American journalists, Alan Friedman (formerly of the Financial Times) and John Defterios (now a presenter with CNN). The company made television programmes about Malaysia for the BBC and other broadcasters for minimal fees.

The BBC was forced to issue a global on-air apology for broadcasting the FBC programmes, some of which dealt with Malaysia's controversial palm oil industry. The FBC affair, which included programmes about the company's other commercial clients (including dictatorships and global companies), has been under investigation since last year by the broadcast regulator Ofcom and I understand the scale of the matter is such that it is unlikely to report until 2013.

Among the services FBC promised to clients was "special blogging that should provide a blanket of positive messaging". Once such a message had appeared in the Western media, the plan was to "bounce back into the local press… this international recognition".

FBC's activities were written about extensively by the British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, author of the "Sarawak Report" website which highlights environmental and human rights issues in the remote Malaysian state where large areas of forest have been cleared for palm oil cultivation.

After the FBC scandal came to light, evidence emerged of so-called "sock puppet" activity by an internet user identified only as Yaya222010 on the Wikipedia articles (pages) of Rewcastle Brown, Defterios and Friedman. An investigations report found that attempts had been made to "remove coverage of a controversy involving Defterios and Friedman and making subtle negative… edits to the [Rewcastle] article". Trevino said he had no knowledge of Yaya222010.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was angered by the episode and similar examples of concerted tampering with the site, such as that by British PR firm Bell Pottinger exposed by The Independent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. "We investigate carefully all complaints of this nature, and it is much easier than most people realise for us to track this. The usual outcome is embarrassment for the PR firm and their clients. We take a very dim view of this sort of nonsense," Wales told me.

Rewcastle Brown – sister-in-law of Gordon Brown – has also come under fierce attack from American blogsites including "New Ledger", which is edited by Ben Domenech, Trevino's co-founder of RedState. Trevino wrote for New Ledger attacking the Malaysian opposition leader. He listed "columnist for The Guardian" as his main job description on his Twitter account and spoke of the "tremendous honour" of writing for the paper. But his undeclared interests in the murky world of Malaysian business and politics have ended that relationship.

Contributions to newspaper websites from bloggers are often insightful and allow readers to engage with titles in a way that was once uwnimaginable. But facts remain sacred and – as The Independent is about to launch its new digital platform, "Independent Voices" – professional editors and readers alike must remain vigilant to the threat of secret agendas.

Twitter: @iburrell

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