An alert reader drew my attention recently to an interesting situation involving online comments at the cbc.ca/nl site.
On July 11, CBC ran a story about former premier Danny Willams’s plans to sue blogger Brad Cabana and Bruno Marcocchio of the Sierra Club for comments both individuals made on VOCM talk radio programs.
If you check the link below, you will see that comments have been disabled under the story.
Back in August of 2011, Brad Cabana announced plans to sue Terry French, a minister in the PC government who called Cabana a “political prostitute” and a “political scumbag.”
However, if you look at CBC’s story on this subject, you will see that comments are enabled.
And there are some choice comments indeed from a bunch of anonymous posters, calling Cabana an “attention whore,” “cabana boy,” “banana,” “idiot” and so on.
So, why are the trolls allowed to fire darts at Cabana, but not Williams? Is it because Williams’s case is an actual lawsuit, while Cabana’s was a proposed action? In that case, this wouldn’t hold up either:
In the above story, Alderon is also threatening an action on behalf of themselves and Williams. Yet, comments are disabled from this story as well.
So what’s up? I sent an email to Marc Riddell, managing editor for CBC NL, explaining the situation and asking this question: Does CBC have a policy that it applies in determining who is protected from Internet trolls and who isn't?
I didn’t hear anything back from Riddell, who may have been on vacation. So I sent the same message to Denise Wilson, Managing Director for CBC NL. Her response was brief:
“Not sure why it wasn’t open,” she wrote. “I don't think there was any particular reason but likely just an oversight.”
I replied that it seemed like more than oversight to me; that it was rare to see comments disabled from a story. Is it possible, I asked, that the web person thought twice about Williams – knowing how litigious he can be – but not about Cabana, who is taken less seriously?
“Have you asked around the newsroom about this?” I wrote. “It’s a valid question, because my concern is that Williams is hoping to throw a chill over public debate. When comments are disabled on a story, it looks like he may be succeeding.”
I sent that message on July 16, and received a reply on July 20. Here is what Wilson had to say:
“Just to clarify, all of our stories are not open for comment.
For the story in question:
I did check with the newsroom and this story was not open for comment because we didn't want to be faced with the possibility of the defamation or libel comments being repeated, for which we would then be responsible.
Instead, we opened up the question for comments during our Point of View segment on Here & Now & Facebook where comments could be closely moderated by one of our online staff. We felt this was the best way to handle it and allow the public the opportunity to comment.
I do have some comments on this.
First, it doesn’t change the fact that Cabana was treated differently. When Cabana said he might sue Terry French for libel, the trolls had a field day. Some comments were removed, but plenty of insults made it through. There is an apparent double standard here in CBC’s treatment of the privileged and the rest of us.
Second, it sounds like CBC is saying they monitor the Facebook page more closely than their own website. I find that difficult to accept.
Finally, Wilson says CBC “didn't want to be faced with the possibility of the defamation or libel comments being repeated, for which we would then be responsible.” However, they posted the statement of claim – including the so-called defamatory statement – on their site as a pdf. If they can do that, why can’t commenters repeat them (as they did with Cabana)? Yes, some comments are going to be inflammatory and over the top, but it’s the moderator’s job to reject those.
The right and most logical thing to do would have been to block comments on the Cabana item as well. Ironically, comments under the Williams story might have served a more useful purpose than the vitriol that was unleashed on Cabana.
Danny Williams may want to retreat back into private life, and what he does there is his business. But he is a former premier of this province. We are allowed to ask questions about what happened during his years in public life. That is OUR business.
After all, he did negotiate the Muskrat Falls agreement, just before resigning as premier in November of 2010. In January of 2011, he became director with a company that says it needs Muskrat Falls power to be viable.
We should not make dumb allegations about that, but we are certainly allowed to ask questions.
And some legitimate questions might have been raised if comments had been enabled.
Because questions, it should be noted, are not allegations.