Friday, 5 February 2010

Complaint to the Guardian reader's editor

Andrew Brown (the editor of the CiF Belief website at the Guardian) has been in the habit of taking ad hominem potshots at prominent atheists. His latest diatribe (that really is the only word for it) is on the subject of the complaint made by Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society concerning what appears to be Cherie Booth's decision to take a person's religion into account in giving a more lenient sentence to a man who had committed an assault, breaking the jaw of a member of the public.

Andrew Brown seems to have parlayed this into a belief that the NSS is calling for offenders who are religious to have increased sentences!
In Sanderson's world, judges should say things like "Although you have no previous convictions, you are none the less a follower of Pope Benedict XVI and so unable to tell right from wrong. I therefore find myself compelled to impose a custodial sentence"
At the time of writing, the article has collected 630 comments. The number is rising fast, and they are almost uniformly highly negative. Andrew has commented below the line as well, and in the process has been digging himself even deeper into his hole.

It is one thing to write an inflammatory article. It is quite another to be quite so cavalier with the facts. I've therefore written a complaint to the Readers' Editor of the Guardian, as follows.


Andrew Brown's piece on this subject ( spends less time on Cherie Booth's actual remarks than on entirely imaginary remarks supposedly by Terry Sanderson of the NSS.

In doing so, Andrew Brown grossly misprepresents the public views both of the NSS and of Terry Sanderson. Examples are
The real disagreement is whether being a devout Muslim (or Christian) is in itself a sign of good character. Cherie Booth seems to be arguing that it is, though less important than his previously spotless record. For Sanderson and those who think like him, being a devout believer is quite the opposite. It's evidence of bad character.

In Sanderson's world, judges should say things like "Although you have no previous convictions, you are none the less a follower of Pope Benedict XVI and so unable to tell right from wrong. I therefore find myself compelled to impose a custodial sentence"

Later, in comments below the article, he says (describing Sanderson)
Yes, but I was talking about the one who works full time for a pressure group trying to drive religion out of public life.
And later
The NSS is trying right now, FFS, to stop the Pope's visit to this country because he's the Pope.
And later
The people claiming that he and the NSS are indifferent to religion, and perfectly happy for the Pope to come here, providing he pays his own way, I find hard to take seriously.
Except that this is precisely the position of the NSS and the subject of a petition to that effect.

On being hammered about that in comments, he appeared to retract to some extent, when he said:
OK. On reflection, the NSS is not campaigning to stop the Pope coming here. If their campaign were to succeed, and he were to be treated as someone who was not a head of state, he might not come; but that would rather spoil the theatre of the whole thing.
But then he rather spoiled the effect by saying in a later comment
"On reflection" meaning that the Pope's visit will mean lots of publicity for the NSS. So of course they want it to go ahead.
He also misrepresented a comment by "helen01" who said that she was a JP and who commented on Charie Booth's comments. She decidedly did not appreciate the distortion of her words, replying
I didn't say anything about being insulted as an atheist - I said, as you yourself quoted:

Cherie Blair was quite clear that the defendant's religion affected her decision to suspend the sentence.

I was talking about justice being seen and heard to be done!

You are good at this distortion thing aren't you????
My complaint concerns the following matters

1. The article and subsequent comments are not restricting themselves to commentary, but are making up facts, which is against the spirit of CP Scott's essay which supposedly underpins the ethos of the site.

2. The article and his subsequent comments breach item 1 of your community guidelines "We welcome debate and dissent, but personal attacks (on authors, other users or any individual), persistent trolling and mindless abuse will not be tolerated."

It is perfectly clear that this is a personal attack on Terry Sanderson.

3. The article and his subsequent comments breach the spirit of item 2 of your community guidelines "We acknowledge criticism of the articles we publish, but will not allow persistent misrepresentation of the Guardian and our journalists to be published on our website. For the sake of robust debate, we will distinguish between constructive, focused argument and smear tactics."

It seems that you will not allow persistent misrepresentation of the Guardian and its journalists, but you do permit persistent misrepresentation by them. Andrew Brown is very much in the habit of deliberately distorting and misrepresenting the views of prominent atheists. This is but the latest in a long series of articles in which he has engaged in similar tactics. Three common targets are Sanderson himself, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If you require it, I can provide a list of relevant articles.

4. The article and his subsequent comments breach the spirit of item 5 of your community guidelines. "We will not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia or other forms of hate-speech, or contributions that could be interpreted as such. We recognise the difference between criticising a particular government, organisation, community or belief and attacking people on the basis of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation."

Strictly speaking secularism or atheism is not a religion, but since it is a philosophical stance concerning religion, it ought to be protected in the same way. Andrew Brown appears to be in the habit of attacking atheists and secularists because of their views, rather than making any attempt to engage with the views themselves.

5. The article and his subsequent comments breach the spirit of item 5 of your community guidelines. "The platform is ours, but the conversation belongs to everybody. We want this to be a welcoming space for intelligent discussion, and we expect participants to help us achieve this by notifying us of potential problems and helping each other to keep conversations inviting and appropriate. If you spot something problematic in community interaction areas, please report it. When we all take responsibility for maintaining an appropriate and constructive environment, the debate itself is improved and everyone benefits."

It can hardly be said that the article is engaging in intelligent discussion.

6. You may also recall that some months ago, there was an article Your views on Cif etiquette which described a number of supplementary guidelines that had been suggested by readers.

Matt Seaton, in a comment on that thread, said

we'll be recommending to ATL contributors that they abide by the spirit of them

Andrew Brown's article has broken the spirit of points 1, 2, 5, 6 (arguably), and 7 (grossly). I shan't rehearse the details, I'm sure you already get the idea.

The overall issue is one of hypocrisy. You quite reasonably expect good behaviour on the part of below-the-line commenters. I am all in favour of that. You engage in debate with readers concerning what those guidelines should be. I'm all in favour of that as well. But it seems that the same standards are not applied to above-the-line comment pieces written by the paper's own editors, even when you claim that your policy is otherwise.

It is hypocrisy specifically on the part of Andrew Brown for acting in this way, as in the past he has appealed for a more civilised discourse, for instance in his article David Hume's comment policy. It seems that this applies only to others, and not to himself. It is also wider hypocrisy on the part of the editorial team as a whole, since it is hardly the first time that Andrew Brown's activities of this kind have come to notice.

I have commented on this topic in the "What do you want to talk about? threads, and received a response from Jessica Reed to the effect that the appropriate route for a complaint is to write to the Readers' Editor.

Jonathan West


  1. Well said, and, more importantly, said in a place that the (Andrew Brown directed) moderation can't reach it.

    Back on the Guardian site, we're at the stage where, in response to this:

    'A 10-year old could easily refute everything he writes - and it looks like many already have in these comments'.

    Andrew Brown wrote this:

    Really? I'd have pegged most of the commenters as much younger than that.

    Perhaps, unsurprisingly, this comment by Andrew has stayed up on the thread, while several posts responding to it have been deleted.

    So, in essence, it seems that the new moderation policy states that you can make sweeping generalisations about the mental age of MOST contributors to the thread, but yet, anyone who personally wishes to defend themselves against the accusation, is making an ad hom attack on Andrew, and therefore up for deletion.

    You really couldn't make this stuff up...


  2. MonsieurLeJongleur5 February 2010 at 15:35


    Thanks for this.

    Will be sending emails to both the Readers' Editor and Alan Rusbridger this pm and jotting a note on WADDYA.

    Keep up the good work.

    Best wishes.

  3. Well said Jonathan. Hopefully the e-i-c at the Guardian takes heed of this message.



  4. Best of luck with this Jonathan. Brown has shown himself to be intemperate, ill-mannered, offensive, mendacious (and manipulative) and is wholly unfit to hold the position he currently occupies.

  5. Excellent piece Jonathan. Otherwise, as AlisdairCameron said.

  6. All true - he is alas a notorious liar, but I'm afraid that editors regard columnists who generate a lot of correspondence as a good thing irrespective of the reason why so I would imagine that complaining will only strengthen his position. Still, if the editor replies their self-justification should at least be good for a laugh.

  7. well said Johnatan,

    I've sent them my complaint too, pretty much in line with your post. I've made the mistake of posting it on Cif Belief and been premoderated for that. Andrew Brown has crossed the line of decency many times. He's a pathological liar, and I'm sure the only reason he's still where he is is because he attracts hits and comments... and the Grauniad was going bust... until the web came to the rescue.

    Keep up the good work and good luck with this.

    PS: by the way, I know it sounds a little bit conspirationalist, but isn't he a fifth columnist? I mean, if I were on the religious camp, I wouldn't like an anti-atheist like AB even if it granted me with an eternity in Heaven.

  8. The curious thing is that while dozens of posts have been deleted from the Cherie Booth thread, and from elsewhere on CiF Belief, (including all that make any reference to my complaint to the Readers' Editor), my original comments on the "What do you want to talk about?" threads remain entirely untouched. Presumably they are beyond AB's reach :-)

    Yanpol, I think the matter of AB is rather simpler. He appears not to understand the distinction between a criticism of somebody's ideas and a personal attack on the person holding the ideas. So when you call him out for some inaccuracy, he takes it extremely personally and refuses to apologise. The refusal is taken as a sign of bad faith, and so his belief that he is being attacked personally becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    The thing is, he seems to regard liberal religion as being above criticism, which means that he can't cope with atheists who criticise the supernatural aspects of liberal religious beliefs even though they often find common cause with them on issues concerning the choice between moral consequentialism and moral absolutism.

  9. Well comments are now closed on that site.

  10. The most effective way to correct a newspaper's misdeeds is to complain to their real clients: the advertisers.
    Threaten to boycott purchases whilst the iniquities continue.
    There is nothing like an outraged advertiser to put the wind up editors!