Ian Burrell: Comment isn't free when bloggers have a hidden (and lucrative) agenda

Media Studies:

When The Guardian launched "Comment is free" in 2006, the title of the opinion-based adjunct to its website seemed perfectly suited to the spirit of the internet and the concept of "open journalism", which the paper embraces.

But the slogan – based on the saying of the great Guardian editor CP Scott that "comment is free, but facts are sacred" – doesn't sound quite so noble when the comment has been carefully constructed to further a hidden agenda which the author is being financially rewarded to support.

Less than 10 days after commissioning a new online column, "On Politics and Persuasion", from American blogger Josh Trevino, The Guardian has had to axe it because of an undisclosed commercial interest.

For many reasons, the hiring of Trevino – an unabashed right-winger - has been a disturbing experience for the paper. Readers' editor Chris Elliott has blogged on the "bruising 10 days for The Guardian" and admitted the episode "could have been handled better". Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Guardian US, said the paper had "learned several lessons" after "an eye-opening week".

How could one blogger cause so many problems? For one, Trevino is given to appallingly callous outbursts. Most notably, he sent a tweet last year saying that if the Israeli army was to start shooting at a humanitarian flotilla to Gaza, "most Americans are cool with that. Including me." The flotilla included author Alice Walker. He also stated that America was "better off" without Furkan Dogan, an 18-year-old Turkish-American killed on a Gaza flotilla raid in 2010.

It was not what The Guardian had been thinking of when it trumpeted Trevino's arrival with the promise that he "brings an important perspective our readers look for on issues concerning US politics". The Guardian's survival plan depends heavily on increasing its brand profile and audience in America and Gibson, under pressure to broaden its appeal, was impressed by Trevino's past experience as a speech-writer for the George W Bush administration.

But though Trevino's outrageous flotilla comments led to howls of protest to The Guardian from liberals such as CND vice-president Bruce Kent and Jeremy Corbyn MP, they were not the reason for his column being so swiftly dropped.

Trevino, who describes himself as having a "background in communications and activism" and set up the conservative activism site RedState, has other interests besides the politics of the Middle East. One of the more lucrative is Malaysia, where he has been one of a number of American journalists actively promoting the Prime Minister Najib Razak and attacking the leader of the opposition Anwar Ibrahim.

In parting company with Trevino, The Guardian complained that the blogger had written a piece for its website referring to Razak and that the author had not disclosed that he "was a consultant for an agency that had Malaysian business interests and that he ran a website called Malaysia Matters". Trevino said in the statement that "nothing unethical was done" in his work for the paper.

The Independent reported last year how Razak's Malaysian government had paid £17m for a "global strategic communications" campaign from London-based FBC Media (UK), which was run by two prominent American journalists, Alan Friedman (formerly of the Financial Times) and John Defterios (now a presenter with CNN). The company made television programmes about Malaysia for the BBC and other broadcasters for minimal fees.

The BBC was forced to issue a global on-air apology for broadcasting the FBC programmes, some of which dealt with Malaysia's controversial palm oil industry. The FBC affair, which included programmes about the company's other commercial clients (including dictatorships and global companies), has been under investigation since last year by the broadcast regulator Ofcom and I understand the scale of the matter is such that it is unlikely to report until 2013.

Among the services FBC promised to clients was "special blogging that should provide a blanket of positive messaging". Once such a message had appeared in the Western media, the plan was to "bounce back into the local press… this international recognition".

FBC's activities were written about extensively by the British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, author of the "Sarawak Report" website which highlights environmental and human rights issues in the remote Malaysian state where large areas of forest have been cleared for palm oil cultivation.

After the FBC scandal came to light, evidence emerged of so-called "sock puppet" activity by an internet user identified only as Yaya222010 on the Wikipedia articles (pages) of Rewcastle Brown, Defterios and Friedman. An investigations report found that attempts had been made to "remove coverage of a controversy involving Defterios and Friedman and making subtle negative… edits to the [Rewcastle] article". Trevino said he had no knowledge of Yaya222010.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was angered by the episode and similar examples of concerted tampering with the site, such as that by British PR firm Bell Pottinger exposed by The Independent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. "We investigate carefully all complaints of this nature, and it is much easier than most people realise for us to track this. The usual outcome is embarrassment for the PR firm and their clients. We take a very dim view of this sort of nonsense," Wales told me.

Rewcastle Brown – sister-in-law of Gordon Brown – has also come under fierce attack from American blogsites including "New Ledger", which is edited by Ben Domenech, Trevino's co-founder of RedState. Trevino wrote for New Ledger attacking the Malaysian opposition leader. He listed "columnist for The Guardian" as his main job description on his Twitter account and spoke of the "tremendous honour" of writing for the paper. But his undeclared interests in the murky world of Malaysian business and politics have ended that relationship.

Contributions to newspaper websites from bloggers are often insightful and allow readers to engage with titles in a way that was once uwnimaginable. But facts remain sacred and – as The Independent is about to launch its new digital platform, "Independent Voices" – professional editors and readers alike must remain vigilant to the threat of secret agendas.

Cher's Snickers treat tweet paves the way for rest of us

Commercial messages are set to become even harder to decipher with the start of a service on Twitter that encourages us to become advertisers and be paid money to market products to followers.

Some Twitter users were unhappy when Rio Ferdinand, singer Cher Lloyd, and other celebrities used their accounts to advertise Snickers bars – the complaints were rejected by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Now "ordinary Twitter users" are being recruited to compose endorsements of 140 characters or less, meeting "briefs prepared by advertisers". Users who are "influential within their social circle, particularly those with a large following" can command higher fees, provided the tweet is "in line with the advertiser's core values". The onus is on the "ordinary user" to attach the addendum #ad so that their followers know that the tweet has been paid for.

"On social networks like Twitter consumers are heavily influenced by the recommendations of real people," says Sean Riley, CEO of London-based Ad Dynamo, which is in talks with several British brands to provide the service and already has South African clients signed up. "Third-party recommendations are highly valued because they're impartial and based on personal experience."

Impartial? When there's the incentive of a fee involved, how can we be sure?

Should Apple be censoring apps?

Almost a year after the death of Steve Jobs, Apple retains its deserved reputation for functionality and design. But it's less impressive when it comes to handling issues of content, as The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) has discovered.

On its website, the BIJ compiles details of America's "covert drone war" recording strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Developer Josh Begley was anxious to highlight the work by turning it into an app.

But first Apple told him the material was "not useful or entertaining enough" and then, following a further submission, that the app "contains content that many audiences would find objectionable". In fact, the content remained the same.

The BIJ's Iain Overton is disappointed. "For Apple to justify rejecting this app because its customers might find it 'objectionable' is worrying. It smacks of censorship of the wrong sort. I am sure that many Apple customers would find the bureau's work on drones of great interest. Surely they should be allowed to decide if they want to download this app or not?" Begley, meanwhile, may take his product to Android.

i.burrell@independent.co.uk / Twitter: @iburrell

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed