Here are some comments you haven’t read on Mumbrella in the last month:

“This guy is a douche”
“Xxxxx is a prick.”
“I think we all know what she really needs.”
“Boring work.”
“Smug little suit…a nasty performance from the pommy bastard. Self-satisfaction is the order of the day!”
“Same old shit from the Xxxxxx team.”
“He was useless in his last job. He’ll be useless in this one.”
“Moron”
“He really is a sad, abusive, supercilious twat.”
“He seems like a little worm”

You wouldn’t have seen them though, because of our comment moderation policy.

The reason for mentioning this, is that The Australian has today put on the record an issue which has been going on behind the scenes for some months now. The Communications Council, which represents the advertising industry, would like the trade press — including Mumbrella, Campaign Brief, AdNews and B&T — to ban all anonymous comments. Only those with a pre-registered and checked identity should be allowed to comment, they argue.

We first became aware that they were taking an interest in the issue back in July. We were tipped off that it was being discussed by the Comms Council so we asked them for a comment thinking, just as The Australian has today, that it was perhaps worthy of reporting.

The Comms Council firmly denied there was anything going on. But a few weeks later, chairman Anthony Freedman and CEO Daniel Leesong (who abruptly left the organisation last week) dropped by the office. They asked for the meeting to be off the record. Despite what we felt was somewhat bad faith on the part of the Comms Council regarding their earlier denial, we honoured that request.

I’ll leave the detail of what Freedman and Leesong had to say off the record, but The Oz is accurate in reporting the Council is arguing that nobody should be allowed to comment anonymously.

I do have some sympathy. It can be too easy for rivals to take easy shots at another agency’s ads. And certainly the worst behaviour tends to come where creative work is being discussed. The next step was for the Council to organise a sit down between the trade press editors.

I’ve no idea if the others all agreed to attend. Certainly I did, and the meeting was set for a breakfast at Bill’s in Surry Hills on October 20. Late the afternoon before, the meeting was abruptly cancelled and never rearranged. So I’m not entirely sure if this does actually remain formally on the Council’s agenda.

In all honestly, I remain somewhat agnostic on the issue, although I do lean slightly in one direction. Had the meeting taken place, I would have argued that denying users anonymity because of the actions of a minority was probably not the answer. However, I was, and remain, open to persuasion.

We’ve already moved away from post-moderation, and we now edit comments before they are published.

Post-moderation worked well enough for our first year, when our audience, and the comment community, was smaller. But two incidents in rapid succession occurred. A highly libelous (and needless to say untrue) comment was posted about adman Sean Cummins. It was rapidly removed while only a very small number of people had seen it, but he was still rightly deeply hurt.

And at about the same time, a comment was posted on Mumbrella purporting to be from somebody at one organisation saying something unpleasant about their new boss. What made it even more worrying for me was that there was evidence that it was actually a dirty trick from somebody who had reason to wish us ill. It looked like a clumsy attempt to get us into legal hot water. So we moved to pre-moderation.

Broadly, our moderation rules are that if comments are negative, they should be about the work or the issue, not the person. So personal abuse is not allowed. And if the comment is negative, it should make a more constructive point than simply “this is shit”.By the way, a big caveat comes here. Since launching three years ago, we’ve carried 67,956 comments. For the most part, they’ve been moderated by myself or my colleague Robin Hicks. With that volume, sometimes we make mistakes, I’m sure. When that happens, other commenters often alert us to it. Or sometimes we make the judgement call one way, and others disagree. But if ever you spot a comment that you believe is personally abusive, old or new, let us know. If we agreee that it is, it will be removed.

As it happens, I also moderate our sister title Encore. One regular commentator there has set up his own blog in protest at our moderation policy, which he sees as censorship. So fair to say there is a spectrum of views.

A further point is that there may be an element of shooting the messenger going on. For the most part, these unpleasant comments come from staff at the agencies whose membership make up The Communications Council. I’m not sure many staff take seriously, or are even aware, of the Council’s code of ethics. Particularly point number eight: “Compete fairly. Be honest in commenting on competitors and our industry. No dirty tricks in new business. No misrepresentation of the capabilities of you (sic) business.” I wonder how many times this clause has been enforced?

And let’s not forget that in a fair number of cases, the real problem is this: the work actually is bad. An agency that has worked hard on it, will often lack the perspective to see that though.

Similarly, I get the sense that these same member organisations do little to stop their staff from spamming our posts with astroturfed positive comments about often average work.

By the way, our view that personal abuse should not be permitted is not shared by all sites. Campaign Brief has posted in recent weeks comments about me that include describing me as a “dung beetle”, that I have “an aggressively unpleasant personality”, “scum”, “short and certainly NOT handsome. I don’t like him. Eeewww”, “Timmy Tabloid is more like Perez Hilton (and just as whiney)”. You’ll forgive me if I don’t actually provide a link to the comment thread in question. I’m not sure if I’m special, or if that policy goes for abuse about their non-rivals too.

So, yes, I do understand what it is like to be the target of anonymous personal abuse.

But I’m still not sure the answer is to take away everybody’s right to comment anonymously because of the behaviour of an angry few.

I know that in our case we have more intelligent, anonymous commenters than we do unintelligent, anonymous commenters. Many of them have good reasons that mean they would simply be unable to add to the debate if they put their real names to their comments. The likes of Groucho, AdGrunt and Gezza, all add entertaining, irreverent, informative perspectives that Mumbrella would be poorer without. It doesn’t matter that in most cases I don’t know who some of these regular commenters are.

And the case remains that comments from those who share their name do have more credibility.

Which brings me back to moderation. I’d still argue that it remains the least imperfect solution.

*This article was originally published at Mumbrella. Crikey’s moderation policy can be found here — we use a combination of post and pre-moderation, depending on the nature of the story.

Peter Fray

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