What’s Gone Wrong at The Guardian?

Something has gone badly wrong at The Guardian. In the name of "robust debate", the venerable left-leaning liberal newspaper has effectively given its stamp of approval to speech that goes beyond mere hate, speech that clearly crosses the line into incitement to murder unarmed civilians and journalists. What lies behind this worrying development, and what does it tell us about the state of media in general?

On 15 August, the Guardian announced the hiring of Joshua Treviño as a correspondent with the paper's US politics team. Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of the Guardian US, said that Treviño would bring "an important perspective" to readers.

Treviño is a Republican party operative, paid political consultant and ideologue for hire. But while some may not like those attributes, they would not make him unique among columnists. What does distinguish Treviño is his propensity to call for violence.

Endorsing the killing of unarmed civilians

In June 2011, as several boats carrying unarmed civilian activists attempted to set sail from ports in southern Europe to break the blockade of Gaza, Treviño tweeted out a message to the Israeli army: "Dear IDF: If you end up shooting any Americans on the new Gaza flotilla – well, most Americans are cool with that. Including me."

When another Twitter user called on Israel to "sink the flotilla", Treviñochimed in that the effort to reach Gaza was "not morally different from a Nazi convoy". A third Twitter user asked Treviño point blank if he was "Endorsing killing Americans overseas," and Treviño left no room for doubt: "Sure, if they adhere to our enemies. Flotilla participants do."

Among the passengers, whose killing by Israel Treviño endorsed, were poet and author Alice Walker, elderly Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein and several journalists, including Joseph Dana on assignment for The Nation.

I'll lay my cards on the table. I had many friends and colleagues who travelled on these and previous boats, and I do take calls for their murder personally. And Treviño knew that a year earlier, Israeli forces had shot dead nine unarmed civilians attempting the same journey aboard the Mavi Marmara.

The Guardian responds

I wrote to the Guardian's editors, including Gibson, sharing with them a blog post I published expressing outrage that they would hire a columnist who "who openly called on the Israeli army to kill Americans".

I also asked the editors if they had been aware of Treviño's violent statements – and whether publicly calling for the killing of those whose positions you disagree with is merely another opinion we are bound to respect and tolerate.

The response was disappointing. "We have long held that a range of voices is one of the great assets of The Guardian's comment section" the company's press office said in an emailed statement. "We look forward to the open and robust debate that we are sure will follow between Josh and Guardian readers," the statement added.

The press office also sent me the link to a piece Treviño wrote – no doubt at the urging of his new bosses – to counter the growing outrage over his calls to kill flotilla passengers.

Disingenuous and dishonest

Treviño's response, titled "My 2011 Gaza flotilla tweet: a clarification" (notably not an apology or retraction) is a disingenuous and risible piece of spin in which he further maligns flotilla passengers as seeking to "render aid to their country's enemies" and implies that Gaza's entire population of 1.6 million – half of them children – amounted to a "terrorist group".

He argued that the words in his tweets did not mean what they plainly mean and that readers had just misunderstood.

Treviño claimed he wasn't calling for flotilla passengers' deaths, but merely saying that it is "mainstream" opinion that if Israel killed US citizens aboard the boats, it would have been their own fault. "Any reading of my tweet of 25 June 2011 that holds that I applauded, encouraged, or welcomed the death of fellow human beings, is wrong, and out of step with my life and record," Treviño wrote, "I do not apologize for my views or my ideology."

Who is Treviño kidding? He never managed to explain away his tweets actively endorsing sinking the flotilla and killing fellow Americans – whom he deemed "enemies" just because they tried to sail to Gaza.

Nor did he address the fact that, a year earlier, as the first reports of the massacre aboard the Mavi Marmara came in, he tweeted: "Whether you're for the #flotilla or against it, we can all agree on one thing: its dead are with Rachel Corrie now."

This was a sneering reference to the American student and solidarity activist killed by Israeli occupation forces in Gaza in 2003 while attempting to block the demolition of a Palestinian family's home.

"Let me be clear: even if the worst reports of Israeli actions on the #flotilla are true – and I doubt that – Israel is still right," Treviño added. Treviño did not need to wait for any additional facts before concluding that Israel was right, because in his eyes Israel is always right.

Neither was that apparent glee at the killing of unarmed civilians out of step with Treviño's record when it came to Iraq. In 2007, Treviño had called on the United States to follow the example of the colonial British in Africa during the Boer War of the early 1900s.

"The British achieved victory over the Boers by taking their women and children away to concentration camps" and "by laying waste to the countryside," Treviño wrote admiringly, and suggested the US apply similar tactics to quash resistance in occupied Iraq.

That tens of thousands of men, women and children died was no deterrent; "Make no mistake: those means were cruel," Treviño wrote, "I have stated previously that I endorse cruel things in war."

And there's the small matter of hypocrisy. If trying to break the siege of Gaza, or endorsing those who do, amounts to complicity in supporting terrorism, as Treviño wrote, then Treviño himself has accepted employment from supporters of terrorism since The Guardian's own editors strongly condemned Israel's lethal attack on the Mavi Marmara – placing responsibility for the bloodshed "entirely" on Israel.

CP Scott, The Guardian'slegendary editor from 1872 to 1929, famously coined the phrase: "Comment is free, but facts are sacred." What would he make of Treviño's misleading responses?

What's happening to The Guardian?

A colleague suggested that, by hiring Treviño, The Guardian was returning to its Zionist roots – indeed it had long championed the cause of Israel and Zionist settlement in Palestine. That might be true incidentally, however the motive appears to be something more mundane, but just as worrying for public discourse.

The Guardian has been losing tens of millions of dollars annually as its print circulation – like that of other newspapers – collapses. While it has an enormous and growing online audience, it has yet to find a way to sustainably generate revenue from it.

In an in-depth article in The New Statesman in May, Peter Wilby examined The Guardian's risky new strategy to try to turn things around, including a massive expansion in the United States.

To stop the losses that threaten to bankrupt parent company Guardian News and Media within a few years, its business plan calls for income from online advertising to double to $140 million by 2016.

Yet, as Wilby observes, "nobody is sure that website advertising and other digital income" can replace print advertising which still accounts for 75 percent of the company's revenue, "particularly as a left-liberal brand is an uneasy host to much consumer advertising."

The solution, it seems, is to move rightwards in search of new audiences. "If, for example, the website's American traffic reached 40 million, it would make it on to the schedules of major advertising agencies," Wilby explains.

The rightward shift already has already begun in the UK. "To show that the paper was moving out of its left-wing niche," Wilby says, editor Alan Rusbridger "recruited the former [London] Times editor Simon Jenkins and the formerTelegrapheditor Max Hastings as columnists."

Treviño is merely a harbinger of things to come. If, in the search for revenue, open calls for murder are now to be excused as merely "robust debate", and purveyors of such views legitimised as members of editorial staff, then The Guardian too will need to accept responsibility for whatever such ugly and violent discourse brings.

The future of media

The Guardian is not alone in struggling to make the transition from print to financially sustainable online platforms. Going down the Fox News "Fair and Balanced" path is one response that effectively, if not explicitly, subjects journalism to the demands of advertisers and accountants, rather than integrity and accountability to the audience.

Another approach is simply to have limitless resources pouring out of the ground in the form of oil and gas revenues, but that is not a model that produces much accountability either. As recent criticism of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyaby Sultan Al-Qassemi demonstrates, media sponsored by rulers or states is too easily swayed by personal or foreign policy agendas.

Even the BBC, once staunchly independent, now appears much more susceptible to pressure and criticism from the British government.

Is it commentary or public relations copy?

Another problem – which Treviño's hiring also neatly illustrates – is the blurring of commentary and journalism with public relations copy at the expense of transparency.

According to The Guardian's own editorial code, journalists and commentators must disclose outside work and organisational affiliations that could pose a conflict of interest.

Treviño, as has been disclosed, works as a paid consultant to Republican candidates for elected office. But there's much more readers deserve to know.

In July 2011, Treviño was caught in a curious controversy where a website in Malaysia accused him and another US blogger of running a website named Malaysia Matters, allegedly secretly paid for by Malaysia's prime minister and another politician in order to improve their image.

Treviño told reporter Ben Smith, then of Politico, that the story was "completely false". But Smith stated that Treviño "misdirected" him.

While Smith was unable to get to the bottom of the murky financial arrangements behind Malaysia Matters, he revealed that, in 2008, Treviño had approached a number of prominent US bloggers, "offering them a free 'once-in-a-lifetime' Malaysian junket, paid for, he [Treviño] said in an email at the time, by business interests associated with Malaysian politics."

When challenged on this rather odd activity for a journalist, Treviño wrote to Smith: "I also offer people paid trips to Israel" – as if that were the most normal thing in the world for a blogger to do.

Do Treviño's new bosses at The Guardian know this? Do they know on whose behalf Treviño – a former member of the advisory board of Act for Israel – is writing? And more importantly, are they planning to tell their readers?

Ali Abunimah is author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. He is a co-founder of the online publication The Electronic Intifada and a policy adviser with Al-Shabaka. 

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