Who runs a newspaper – and especially a great liberal newspaper – in a digital age when liberalism often seems to be in retreat, menaced by its enemies internal and external? In the not-too-recent past, the question would be easily answered: the editor, supported by his (for in the past it was usually ‘his’) senior journalists ran the paper. Things are more complicated now.
At least they appear more complicated at the Guardian and at the New York Times. At both papers, each the proud inheritors of certain liberal traditions, one may no longer say with confidence that editorial control of the paper resides with the editorial staff.
This evening, the columnist Suzanne Moore announced she is leaving the Guardian. It is hard to avoid the thought this is intimately related to the episode earlier this year when hundreds of Guardian staff and contractors, many of them working for the paper’s commercial and tech departments, denounced a column Moore had written. Typically, they did not name Moore but the target of their ire was obvious. Moore was guilty of Wrongthink and there must be no place for her kind of feminism – especially as it relates to transgender issues – in a liberal newspaper. For if a liberal paper cannot insist upon certain boundaries, certain orthodoxies, then what kind of liberal paper is it?
A good question and one the Guardian can no more satisfactorily answer than can the New York Times. There, James Bennet, custodian of the paper’s comment section, was forced out for the appalling crime of doing his job. At the height of a summer of civil unrest across America, Bennet published an op-ed by senator Tom Cotton given the provocative headline 'Send in the Troops'.
Cue uproar; NYT employees objected to the presence of something as offensive as this in their pages. The idea the NYT op-ed pages might be a public forum, some kind of public square, certainly should not extend to publishing articles of this kind.
‘I read something in the paper and I disagreed with it’ now often seems to be considered some kind of assault upon the person, rather than being something you should expect – and even look forward to. Perhaps this should not surprise for when the personal is political and when identity is the basis for politics a mere difference of opinion – or even of emphasis – becomes a hostile act. Such things must be policed.
Which might be fine on campus but the adult world is supposed to be marginally more robust. Moore’s critics accuse her of being ’transphobic’ though these accusations never quite seem to be accompanied by compelling evidence of her guilt. (This may be because any fair reading of her work, if such a thing is still permitted, could not possible lead to her conviction on the charges levelled against her.)
It would be a mistake to suggest, I think, that Suzanne Moore has been ‘cancelled’ for she will retain her platform and doubtless find a comfortable new berth soon enough. Nevertheless, it seems equally absurd to argue that her departure from the Guardian is entirely unconnected to the internal protests against her.
Those protestors, it seems to me, appear to have made a terrible mistake when they agreed to work for a newspaper. For if they cannot cope with internal argument – and they cannot, for their reaction to Moore’s columns has not been to argue that she is mistaken but, rather, to insist she should not be published – they might more profitably seek employment elsewhere. There is an echo here of the bad old days when print unions dictated what a newspaper might or might not publish on a huge range of stories; a time when print unions had the power to close a newspaper down.
Eddy Shah and then Rupert Murdoch broke the printers. That was a brutal and sometimes bloody but utterly necessary conflict. Necessary because it was, at heart, a question of principle: should a newspaper be able to publish what it wanted (within, of course, the customary boundaries of the law) or should that freedom instead be policed by the printers? I acknowledge my prejudice in favour of the journalists but think the principle an obvious one.
Something similar may be discerned now. While the disagreements at the Guardian and the New York Times do not run along a neat division between editorial and non-editorial staff, it remains the case that the latter appear – from a hack’s perspective – to be exercising considerable, and even undue, influence upon the former.
The argument for that interference typically states that many of these people – web builders, app developers, data crunchers, commercial sales folk and so on – were lured to liberal papers on the promise of being able to play a part in, and influence, the development of great liberal journalism. This sense of mission persuaded them to forgo the greater salaries they could have earned working for the tech companies.
Perhaps there is something in this and perhaps it is stuffily old-fashioned to think ‘Well, so what?’, clinging to the notion that vital as all these roles are they are still subordinate to the judgement of the people paid to actually create the paper afresh every day. The technical staff are supposed to support the editorial workers, not the other way round.
A story is a story is a story and a good columnist is a good columnist independent of the degree to which you happen to agree with them. I doubt Suzanne Moore sees herself as any kind of ‘team player’ and where others find that problematic it is, I think, the closest thing there is to an honest place for any columnist to reside. The disagreement is part of the point but a liberalism which cannot cope with that is, in the end, a liberalism not half as strong as it thinks it is.
That seems to be what is happening at the Guardian and at the New York Times where, in each instance, there is a narrowing, and perhaps even a closing, of journalistic minds. That is very much to be regretted and is so even if you have little time for either paper or their respective worldviews. No tradition has any kind of monopoly on truth or wisdom, from which it follows that conservatives should wish to see liberalism at its best and vice versa. That cannot be achieved without a properly open space for argument.
The Guardian, an important and often great paper, is a little bit diminished this evening. Not because, as she would I fancy argue herself, Suzanne Moore is important in and of herself, but because if the Guardian cannot accommodate Suzanne Moore that says something more – and something rather depressing – about the Guardian than it does of its erstwhile columnist.