Lindsay Tuffin As Tasmanian Times readers are aware TT has a Code of Conduct for all contributors (here). Concerned that a Dr Kevin Bonham comment on this article breached that Code, as well as being possibly defamatory, I referred Dr Bonham’s comment to TT’s independent adjudicator. They replied with a lengthy response in which they expressed concerns about its legal standing and outlined several points which may have breached the Code of Conduct. On their recommendation the comment was taken down. The adjudication was forwarded to Dr Bonham. Below we publish Dr Bonham’s response (Comments will not be taken on this thread):
The Rise Of Non-Consistency And The Departure Of Bonham
It is with some regret, but with a sudden certainty that I am now doing what has to be done, that I inform readers that I have decided to leave Tasmanian Times both as a writer of articles and a regular commenter. I do not rule out rare returns to posting, but if they occur at all they will probably be confined to:
(i) exercising right of reply against personal criticism in situations where all else has failed
(ii) correcting howlers relevant to my fields of scientific expertise.
My conditions for return beyond that are stated at the bottom.
For those who do not need to know the reasons, but simply want to know where to find my new material, my temporary home is at http://kevinbonham.blogspot.com.au/ and you can also follow me on Twitter (finally!) at https://twitter.com/kevinbonham I look forward over time to developing new independent psephological and political comment resources where I will no longer have to put up with the problems I have had with TT’s moderation. If I feel the need to respond to any comments posted in reply to this piece, I will do so on the blog.
I first discovered Tasmanian Times in the very early days of its existence, and still have a copy of the very first email I sent to Lindsay Tuffin in November 2002, which accompanied a short letter commenting on an article Greg Barns had written comparing Bobs Brown and Santamaria, and responses to it. My email referred to an abandoned longer version of the letter which was “starting to digress into too many of my other pet issues (eg the lack of generally libertarian-leaning political parties in Australia and the increasing hostility between Greens and scientists)”. In a way, it completes the circle that it is the flashpoints of liberty and scientific fact in conservation debate that have caused me to depart.
From the start, it was obvious that the Tasmanian Times poster and writer base skewed heavily to the green left. But on investigating the site I found that it still met my one criterion for posting my opinons, which was that all sides were given a completely fair go and a completely level playing field, the editor’s political leanings notwithstanding. That was something I found very admirable. So long as I still considered I was on that level playing field I would remain, but once I found this was no longer the case, I would be out of there.
For a very long time TT was extremely anarchic. Almost nothing was moderated except for defamatory posts. This was not entirely a good thing since many debates quickly diverted into abusive personal flamewars often riddled with false statements about opposing posters. Flogging the more hapless cases who had picked flamewars with me was lots of fun, but not surprisingly it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Over time a degree of regulation came in, formalised in the TT Code of Conduct, which has evolved a few times since its introduction.
From the earliest days of the Code I had concerns about it – not so much the concept as whether the content was quite right, and the consistency of the enforcement. I am, by nature, someone who likes to know what the rules are in a situation, to follow those rules, and to expect that others will do likewise. If I think the rules are terrible, I do not play, or I play to make a mockery of them by obeying them scrupulously. If there are no rules, then at least that is the same for everyone, but in online debate a few of them do help. In “Tuf Voyaging”, a relatively little-known early SF satire by the now, to my surprise, mega-famous George R. R. Martin of “A Song Of Ice And Fire” fantasy series fame, the protagonist states “Rules are the essence of games, the very heart of them, if you will. They give structure and meaning to our small contests.” That is a thing that I believe in – but not if they are applied inconsistently.
My first problem has been that while I have long tried to obey the Code scrupulously since its introduction, overstepping only very rarely and always unknowingly, there have been a small number of posters who have violated it continually, knowingly and deliberately. A modest number of their posts have always got through comment screening and as a result, just to maintain the level playing field of both posting within and being posted about within the Code, I have had to spend many hours writing emails of complaint to get blatant violations deleted. That disadvantages me because it means I must consume effort just to attain equal standards – and to do so in reply to posters who most of the time are barely even thinking.
Worse still have been instances where it has been agreed that a violation by a poster against me will be let go and that an effective suspension of the Code exists, only for that to be later withdrawn when the other side complains because they dished it out and couldn’t take it. In one instance of this, I was illegally harassed offline by a gloating troll from overseas as a result of a particularly bad decision. But this sort of thing happened rarely and on issues that, while they wasted my time and annoyed me, were small fry.
A third problem has been that some offenders, when prevented from engaging in some forms of unacceptable behaviour, simply switch to others, and the Code has not been updated fast enough to respond. Thus, for instance, one poster with a long-standing personal grudge against me is permitted under the Code to respond to anything I say by extremely blatantly, indisputably and cynically misrepresenting it, and over 80% of his responses to me are of such a nature. My calls for an explicit ban on strawmanning having not been heeded, I have sometimes got that poster moderated after he has posted his nonsense, but it would be better if he was simply not allowed to do it in the first place.
A fourth problem has been that there is no price for repeated violation, and hence nothing to deter certain posters from continuing to breach the Code knowing full well that some portion of their breaches will get through and be published. Often TT has decried the time required to wade through posts and ensure they are compliant. That time would be so much less if repeat offenders – those who will never learn nor repent – are eventually suspended and if necessary permanently banned.
A fifth problem has been the “elves” – mysterious assistants, unknown to the public and unaccountable because TT editors do not put their names or even a consistent alias to their edits, who at times moderate comments while Lindsay is away or busy. Some of these assistants are obviously not committed to Lindsay’s own views on fair debate as I have in the past understood it, and it has been necessary for me to take steps to avoid their capricious, sometimes clueless and certainly biased interventions. I doubt those steps would have been available to posters who were less useful to the site.
Posting on TT as a commenter, for some time, has been a surreal experience. I have felt that I was only barely maintaining the level playing field for myself, yet some have believed (or trolled) that it was skewed in my favour because of my psephological contributions. They ignored the fact that in most cases what was happening was that I wrote a comment consistent with the Code, someone else wrote a reply inconsistent with it, and the other party, being the one breaching the Code, naturally got moderated. Hardly any evidence of bias there.
It has also been a vaguely disquieting one, because I have come to suspect that after a certain point my pseph contributions became the only reason I still had my tenuous hold on that level playing field. There seemed to be an enormous difference between the treatment I received and that received by other contra-green posters considered to be “pro-forestry”, many of whom I noted being modded on a regular basis although they didn’t seem to be prone to misbehave in what posts of theirs I saw. Was the difference really down to them sporadically behaving worse than even the scruffier end of the deep green faction? Perhaps it was, but I could not help feeling that the proverbial Jews and communists were being taken away and that I was saying nothing only because I was (barely) happy with my own treatment as a commenter. Without seeing their moderated comments it was difficult to know, and knowing might well have meant leaving. But now I am doing that anyway.
Recently an essay by Richard Flanagan was published on this site entitled “The Decline of Love and the Rise of Non-Freedom” (here). You can read that essay yourself. For the most part, it is a good article that says noble things. It has some lapses, to be sure, and I would nominate the incorrect too-casual analysis of why Craig Thomson was endorsed in 2010 (it had much more to do with his incumbency in a marginal seat in a desperately close election than the sort of person he was – he was nominated in spite of his suspected nature and not for it.) I would also nominate the description of ipads and iphones as “non-freedom” as dangerously if fashionably muddled, since if we do not want such gadgets we have the freedom not to buy them, while some of us find the freedom to buy them extremely useful in living our lives as we want.
But my biggest issue with Flanagan’s article was my view of the messenger conveying it. He portrayed himself passionately as on the side of freedom, truth and even science, in arguing for what he considered “freedom” and against what he considered “non-freedom”. But conceptions of these things vary wildly, and I suspect that as a former student of political philosophy with a great interest in libertarian thought I’ve spent a lot more time getting my house in order on these concepts than Mr Flanagan has. I would say, even, that the ruling question of my own political thought is: “In what circumstances is it acceptable to deprive someone of any kind of liberty?” (Note that I am not actually a libertarian; I think there are many cases where it is acceptable, but whenever doing it, we should not do it lightly.)
Anyway, I have a very different view of the Richard Flanagan I have locked horns with from time to time in public debate to his award-winning essay’s self-portrait. For instance, I have found that in his essays on forestry, Flanagan shows all the skills in broad-brush polemical narration that one would expect from a talented novelist, but not the skills that one would expect from the most thorough science-savvy researcher who is more concerned with getting the story absolutely straight than whether or not that story fits his picture. (“Getting the story straight” is, of course, a misnomer. The most accurate stories are often tangled and twisted and clouded by doubts and uncertainties, and there is little room for these things in political polemics.) I have also never seen Flanagan engage in detail with debates about factual errors in his forestry polemics, post revised heavily corrected versions of them, come on to TT to thank people for finding mistakes in his work, or any of the other things that go with my sort of support for truth and scientific fact. To be clear, I am not accusing Flanagan of lying, nor of being deliberately careless about or disinterested in the factuality of his work. But I do think that when it comes to the nuts and bolts of getting facts straight on some of these questions, he simply has never got it, and he doesn’t really “get” science at all. And this is partly why I consider his contributions on many issues to be so vastly overrated.
I believed it was also important to point out that the same Richard Flanagan has been (and for all that is known, is) an ardent opponent of many aspects of what used to be the Tasmanian forest industry, one whose views on such debates have not fallen on the side of the putative economic freedoms of those who have wanted to work in the industry. Whether their freedoms should be violated is another question, but let’s not mince words that when you restrict an industry in the name of the environment, you are usually denying people the freedom to deal with each other in the market and the freedom to earn a livelihood a certain way as a result. This is something which I doubt Flanagan’s supporters would contest, or even consider to be insulting to him in any way.
Forestry is not an isolated instance, and it occurred to me in a second post (which never saw the light of day) that another example was my own fight for freedom in the Voluntary Student Unionism debates of the 1990s and early 2000s. In those, I fought for the freedom of students to join a university without being coerced into funding a whole manner of things they did not support or believe in, including fundamentalist Christian religious societies among other examples. Mr Flanagan, for whatever reason, was vigorously on the other side of that battle. (I am pleased to report that the widespread rumour that he decked me at a rally where I heckled him is bollocks, and indeed I’ve had several pleasant chats with him in person since.)
I did not say all of this in my deleted post, and I say it now to hopefully spell out where I am coming from in enough detail to escape being modded a second time for possible defo. But defamation was not the main problem – if it had been, I would be staying.
To ensure that my comments re Flanagan’s relation to science and truth were seen to be substantiated, I posted an example link to an old post where I found about a dozen statements in a Flanagan piece that were either wrong, or else attempts to definitively state scientific fact where science had not even begun to determine the story. The anonymous “arbiter” who responded to a third-party (ie not by Flanagan) complaint about my post wrongly interpreted this as being an attempt to sidetrack discussion into age-old debates. While the posting of the examples might have had that effect, that was not my intent, which was to do the right thing and substantiate my core theme that what we had in Flanagan’s essay might be noble words, but were noble words said by someone who I did not believe had always lived up to them, something that I consider to be a matter of legitimate public interest.
Apparently, it all makes no difference; I am simply not allowed to take that line in the comments section on TT at all. To argue an opinion about whether or not an influential, famous politically active person who espouses certain standards has lived up to them in the past is, according to the TT “arbiter” (and as a real arbiter – of chess – I find that designation a total joke), “off-topic” in discussion of those standards.
Well perhaps he/she should put in for Speaker of the House.
We recently saw a blistering speech by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in which she took to task the Opposition Leader (but watch that space) Tony Abbott for his comments about departed speaker Peter Slipper. The speech is a bitter, angry masterpiece. I have watched it four or five times already; watching it being the only way to comprehend it fully. It was brilliant not on account of fairness (indeed in some respects it was unfair and over the top) nor because it was an effective attack on what Abbott actually said about Peter Slipper, nor even because the ALP’s side of the vote was necessarily defensible. It was brilliant because it took a stand against double standards, thwacking the Opposition Leader from pillar to post for daring to attack the government on the issues of sexism and misogyny, when Abbott’s own form showed that he had no business speaking on such matters and was doing so out of utter political opportunism with a trollish disregard for personal consistency. That most of the speech was off-topic to the question of whether Peter Slipper should have been booted from parliament mattered little to the reasons why the speech was important and should be remembered. That Gillard herself is guilty of inconsistency in passionately opposing discrimination against women while enforcing it against same-sex couples took, I thought, a little away.
My post was hardly as memorable as Gillard’s, but I honestly feel about the same way about Richard Flanagan speaking in defence of science and against its opponents in public debate as Julia Gillard felt about Tony Abbott that day, except that I think Flanagan is a good deal more sincere than Tony Abbott and may not even know how inconsistent he is being. I feel strongly that it is wrong that he lectures on these topics and more wrong that his comments are lauded – and lauded not for what they are but really for who has said them. I think I should be allowed to say so, and I should be allowed to say why, and I should be allowed to say it on the same thread where the comments that in my view demonstrate his inconsistency are posted. These are legitimate questions that are in the public interest when considering the thought of a public intellectual. It is clear from the ruling I received that the TT “arbiter” does not agree with that, even as a general principle of thread moderation, irrespective of any specific issues raised in my post.
My post was deemed inadmissable on the subjective grounds of tone. It was certainly scathing, but the lecture it was posted in reply to was similarly awash with examples of harsh tone yet is the TT Lecture of the Year 2012 (despite being neither a TT lecture nor from 2012, which is all a bit feeble, but I digress.) My post was deemed “aggressive and overly personalised”, as if it is possible to avoid personalising a point that is about personal inconsistency. (I’d like to see this “arbiter” try.) More aggressive material is published on TT constantly, much of it in reply to me, and Flanagan is hardly a shrinking violet in his essay or his other essays. He does not need this sort of defending from a probing examination of whether his ideas are consistent, and indeed to wrap him in cotton wool defeats his purpose and diminishes him.
A claim made by the arbiter was that because I am a regular TT writer, “readers are likely to view his comments as indicative of the standard allowed on TT under the code. If numerous others penned similar comments, would these be viewed as consistent with the code? Would they help achieve the purposes of TT?”
That means that because I am a regular writer I have less latitude to stray from the arbiter’s interpretation of the Code than someone who is not. And that is an automatic confession that the arbiter thinks about imposing a biased standard in moderating my comments. Indeed it presages unfair moderation of disputes involving me, since I am expected to play nice to set an example, but the no-name flaming me is not covered.
Never mind that my behaviour has negligible influence on the behaviour of other posters anyway. Firstly, it’s completely obvious to most that Jekyll-Bonham the psephologist and Hyde-Bonham the contra-green nuisance adopt very different approaches to posting. Secondly, my generally scrupulous adherence to the Code in comments has done nothing to encourage better standards on TT, largely because most of the worst-behaved posters here disagree with me anyway and couldn’t care less what my views on poster behaviour were. Similarly, if the posters on my broad side of the forestry divide have been encouraged to post mildly by my articles, it sure hasn’t stopped them getting modded to blazes.
The only point raised by the arbiter that even went close to justifying moderation is that one sentence could be read as legally problematic. I would have been happy to reword that sentence – as I have done in the past in a few cases when I accidentally said something that carried a second meaning I hadn’t considered – or just resubmit the post with that part reworded. But it is obvious from the overall context of the arbiter’s ruling that this is out of the question.
So that would appear to be it, now. It’s been a great experience for the Jekyll side in building a profile as a public psephologist over the course of seven or eight years and only yesterday I was fondly reminiscing some of the great times I’ve had here, such as the Wilkie win Denison live-blogging (here). (All Dr Bonham, here). But the Hyde side while enjoying a lot of the debate on here has finally decided there is just too much evidence that the game is no longer balanced and TT is no longer a level playing field (perhaps this has in fact been the case for a long time) – and no, you don’t get one side of my public personality without the other. Sorry!
It is possible I might return, but these are examples of the major changes that would be necessary for me to do so, and I feel it is necessary this time to make these conditions clear publicly rather than try to sort it out behind closed doors. All of these are mandatory.
1. All TT moderators to adopt an identity and sign all their edits with that identity so that it can be seen which moderator is logging an edit or comment and whether they are being consistent. Preferably they should all make their names known publicly.
2. A system for the banning of posters who persistently submit comments attacking other posters that are in clear breach of the TT Code of Conduct. As a rough indication, a breach count in double figures in one year would result in suspension for a month or so while persistent violations on return would result in longer or perhaps even permanent bans. Posters who very repeatedly violate the Code towards specific other posters would also be banned from responding to or mentioning those posters.
3. The TT Code of Conduct to specify that the strawmanning of other posters’ comments is banned and posters are required to take care to represent the views of other posters accurately and carefully and to immediately acknowledge any misreadings upon them being correctly pointed out. (This would not, of course, stop a poster continuing to legitimately argue that a post really did mean something that the original poster claims they did not have in mind.)
4. The TT moderation panel to become more balanced by the addition of a moderator who is not left-wing or green-sympathetic, and is broadly at least vaguely supportive of what little remains of the forest industries, preferably without being employed within them (not that there is much risk these days of that.)
5. TT to announce publicly that the decision against the bulk of my post was in serious error and in clear violation of the standards of equal treatment TT has in the past stood for, and the “arbiter” making it will not be used in future.
But even if I do come back, it’s time I had my own place anyway.
Some may rejoice and be pleased to be rid of me as it will make TT more the chorus of empty me-toos and mutual confirmation that they wish that it was, and they will be able to have their views reinforced with less disturbance from a disagreeing perspective that won’t let them get away with factual errors (and I understand well just how insidious and unbearably good at that sort of stuff I can be). But the more the site becomes like that, the less I believe it will be relevant. I wonder what Richard Flanagan thinks.
To those who follow me on my new adventures from here, I hope you will enjoy what I develop. Please be patient though; my life is already saturated with voluntary work and pastimes and I have to make a living sometime too.
To those who don’t, and read this far, thank you for listening even to this. Farewell.