If you’re currently an Indy reader it’s probably easy to agree on why the newspaper shouldn’t be entrusted to Rod Liddle’s editorial caresses. But why should his potential employer care about Liddle’s reputation? Maybe Lebedev thinks the Indy would be more profitable with Liddle’s paranoid rants deciding the front page. Maybe he’s blithely unconcerned about monkemfc’s preferences in violent sexual contact with female newsreaders. But even if the content of Liddle’s message board contributions doesn’t trouble Lebedev, the fact that everyone now knows about them should.
If Liddle is hired, he’s probably going to be overseeing the paper’s gradual move away from print and into predominantly online distribution, yet he’s already shown himself thoroughly incompetent in online communication. He treated published comments on a message board as though they were private statements, and although he’s claimed that the most outrageous of the monkemfc posts were made by a hacker, he didn’t have the nous to protect his online reputation in a forum where he was still an active member by getting the alleged hacker’s posts deleted.
Interviewed by Kate Silverton on 5 Live this morning, he said: “I didn’t have time to go back and check the URL on every post,” suggesting a breezy disconnect from the words published under his name – not exactly taking ownership of his output in the way that an editor really ought to. This could be the why the monkemfc comments are ultimately damaging to Liddle: not because they show that he’s prone to blurts of contrarian offensiveness (because we knew that already) but because they show that that he doesn’t understand the medium he’s going to be working in. He can’t manage an online reputation and he can’t control the words that appear under his own username on a forum, never mind across a whole newspaper.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010
Freedom of speech is a solid old principle. Shame, then, that it gets rolled out so often by dullards trying to shield other dullards from criticism. Catherine Bennett is – I’m guessing – aware that no one is trying to ban Rod Liddle. The campaign to stop him from becoming editor of the Independent has a pretty clear aim: to let the potential proprietors know how utterly Liddle’s appointment would alienate the readership. I’d suggest that Lebedev should be grateful for the anti-Liddle Facebook group giving him a preliminary market research report for free, only the mismatch between Liddle and the Indy is obvious like a flasher’s knob (and even more so now we know about his message board comments).
So, there’s no organised effort to get Rod Liddle imprisoned, tortured, fined or even made to sit on the naughty step for what he’s published. Just a strong and widespread feeling that he’d be a disaster in the job. And despite what Bennett suggests, freedom of speech means, exactly, freedom of speech. Not “freedom to edit national newspapers”. And definitely not “freedom from being criticised by anyone who doesn’t have a newspaper column”. Because when Bennett worries that “Public figures will become ever blander in their views” if they continue to be exposed to opposition, what she’s arguing is that public figures should be protected from opposition.
There’s a depressing implication here: Bennett is positing free speech as an end in itself, not as the necessary preliminary to debate. If Bennett was the Lord Chamberlain of the internet, presumably we could all say exactly what we liked about anyone or anything, so long as we weren’t rude enough to offer anything as ghastly as a direct response. It’s the same measly logic used by Nick Cohen: freedom of speech, if it means anything, means journalists never having to be told they’re wrong. It’s astonishing that people with such an infantile idea of civil liberties can offer themselves seriously as defenders of democracy, but there you are.
Because if you’re making lofty civic claims for journalism, I don’t think – and hug yourselves now, because I’m about to be shocking – that being bland is the biggest thing you have to worry about. I’d be busier stressing the importance of getting stuff right, which is hard to do when you’ve ruled all criticism illegitimate. And if Bennett thinks that Lebedev is going to bring devastating redundancies to the Indy, maybe she should take a moment to imagine the sort of restructuring it’s going to need once Liddle has managed to repulse every loyal reader.
See also: Next Left, “Do Rod Liddle’s human rights trump yours?”
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010
There can’t be many people with any affection for the Independent who are happy about the idea of Rod Liddle becoming editor. But there probably aren’t very many people left with much affection for the Indy at all, because the brand seems to have specialised in weird and reputation-squandering reversals. Its Sunday version campaigns for the legalisation of cannabis, but then decides that skunk is actually a deadly menace. It doesn’t support the Iraq war, but then recruits the Observer editor who put the made-up case for war on his front page.
Appropriately, Liddle was indirectly behind one of the other great journalistic screw-ups of the Iraq war – as editor of Today, he recruited Andrew Gilligan, who both found an internal source to blow the whistle on the exaggerations and bad intelligence in the “45 minutes” dossier, and then ruined the story’s credibility by mishandling his quotes and revealing his source.
But Liddle had left the Today programme the year before “sexed up” became a slogan, in 2002 – after a column he wrote for the Guardian was deemed to have shown unacceptable bias. (Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s director of news from 2001-4, hinted at the challenges of employing Liddle in a tweet, above.)
Since leaving Today, Liddle has concentrated on obnoxious opinionising for the Times and the Spectator. And, in the same way his Guardian fox-hunting column relentlessly tracked the grossest prejudices of his presumed readers (toffs are loathsome because, well, they’re toffs), his later ones have offered racial determinism and climate-change denial to right-wing readers. He has a talent for presenting exactly what he thinks his readers want to hear as though it’s a consensus-shaking blast of radicalism, and no facility for (or interest in) figures or facts.
If Alexander Lebedev gets the Independent, and if Liddle gets the job, it might be that Liddle’s crowd-pleasing reflexes will give Indy readers something to grab onto and stop them drifting away. Or he may retain that reactionary edge, and the Indy could become a new middle-market tab – an aspirational answer to the Express. Both of which feel like things that journalism could do without.
Update 9 January 2010: Sunder Katwala thinks all the speculation is a bit premature.
© Sarah Ditum, 2010