This post follows on from my commentary about how Andrew Bolt has framed his current ‘dilemma’ about comment moderation.

Andrew Bolt’s explanation of his current ‘dilemma’ is that the inappropriate comments are a product of his site’s promotion of free speech and open debate. I disagree; aside from the obvious failure of moderation practices, my view is that Andrew Bolt has managed his site in a way that allows arguments based on stereotypes, divisiveness and personal attacks to thrive. In that context, objectionable comments of the sort raised in recent days are hardly surprising.

Any web site (or at the very least, any web site on politics and social issues) that allows reader comments is going to face decisions about what is appropriate. And any web site that moderates comments before publication is likely to make some mistakes – as Pure Poison and Crikey have in the past, and as Andrew Bolt has too. When those things happen, the best you can do is address the objectionable comment by removing or editing it and offering apologies to those affected, and then attempting to improve moderation practices so the problem doesn’t happen again.

But Andrew Bolt seems to think that those are the only ways a site author can affect commentary – that there is a direct trade-off between freedom of speech and the risk of objectionable content. I disagree with that view – the site author sets the tone of debate through their own content, and can shape the tone of the debate by engaging with the site’s commenters, reinforcing good commentary and disagreeing with – and, where necessary, reining in – comments that are heading in an inappropriate direction. In short, even setting aside any questions of moderation the site authors can influence the culture of commentary on their blog.

And this is where Bolt fails. His own approach to commentary shows contempt for reasonable debate – and comments deriding the character, personality and even the appearance of people and groups who disagree with conservative positions are published but not denounced as being below the preferred level of debate. Contrary to claims of valuing open debate and disagreement, the publication of respectful disagreement at his site can be patchy – as we and our commenters have documented on this site and its predecessors. The topics and line of debate in his posts commonly focus on defining outgroups – “What is it with the Left and …”, Aboriginal enough or not Aboriginal enough?, Muslims and the problems they bring into this country, etc.

What sort of readers does Andrew expect to attract with that approach? What sort of comments does he think they’ll be inclined to make? And if he doesn’t indicate that he sees limits to what is acceptable debate, why is he surprised when he gets such unacceptable comments? Perhaps asking some of those questions might save him some of the thornier questions about censorship and free speech.

UPDATE: Scott has a piece in today’s Crikey email that expands on a lot of the issues I’ve mentioned here.

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