Who guards The Guardian? Or let’s have the good censorship… the kind Waitrose would sell

To argue against The Guardian’s legal attack on a site that allows people to parody its headlines is taken as a defence of harassment. That’s bad faith debating at its finest.

This parody wouldn't have been in allowed in the UK. Read on to find out why…

The Guardian’s parent company has taken legal action to have a site that allowed users to create parodies of its headlines — specifically, those within its Comment Is Free columnist section — taken down. The action has been successful and the site is down.

Journalists — including many that I like and respect — have cheered the move as an important step in combating both ‘fake news’ and online harassment. Clearly the aspect of the GuardianMeme site that was most troubling to them was the ability to generate the headlines alongside the byline photo of a current Guardian columnist.

Im not totally cold to that argument. Certainly, the site would have been more defensible as parody if it had used stock photos and randomised names for the fake columnists but… doing that would have blunted its effect as a satirical tool. Satire often pulls on exact replicas of the clothes its target wheres, the better to strike at the heart of what it objects to. Satire isn’t a clean thing. It has teeth and bites. Satire without teeth is… Have I Got News For You?

I don’t stand with my colleagues or with The Guardian in this because I believe this kind of action — using copyright law as a cudgel to stop criticism, lampooning and satire — is a blunt instrument and it adds to poor precedents. When we observe these chilling effects in other countries, we condemn them. In fact, that ‘we’, includes The Guardian. In a leader column published in January, the paper’s official voice argued:

We are entering an age when what defines the internet may be not expansion but contraction; while the number of its users continues to grow, the imaginative and discursive space it offers is under threat. That space is constrained not only by tech firms’ decisions and customers’ choices, but by the diktat of governments.

In another leader, published three years earlier, around the time that Cloudflare finally took the decision to no longer accept The Daily Stormer as a customer, The Guardian wrote:

The internet can be a vile place, and the instinct to enforce some standards there is not misplaced. The director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, is quite right to say that crime online is as serious as crime offline. Even the Guardian, wedded to the idea of free speech, does not imagine that this is an unrestrained freedom — only that the limits that the law should set are minimal and largely concerned with public order. But some limits must exist, and they must be enforced.

I see the chilling effects and I’m concerned by them. It’s always possible to argue that censorship is necessary this time and that it is designed to protect people from abuse. But that’s always the argument as was as much part of the attempt by Jerry Falwell to sue Hustler into bankruptcy over a parody Campari ad that mocked him and the UK government’s efforts years earlier to vilify and destroy the underground press, particularly the editors of Oz.

In terms of the copyright argument, it’s worth noting that Hustler’s attack on Falwell used the copyrighted logos and trade dress of Campari. It’s just that US law has protections for parody and the concept of ‘fair use’ which allowed the publication to make its ad look real while writing an absolutely vicious parody of Falwell. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

While people are entitled to accuse me of not caring about abuse thrown at journalists, particularly those who are LBGT+ and/or POC, but that’s a manifestly bad faith reading of what I’m saying. The ‘good’ censorship this time only helps the ‘bad’ censorship next time.

One argument for the takedown of the parody site is that memes can still be made but that it will require people to make more effort to create them. As the journalist Luke Bailey put it to me: “The internet needs friction.” I can accept and understand that position. I simply worry about who gets to apply that friction and how.

If you enjoyed this article or even if it made you annoyed, I have a newsletter that’s published every day. Sign up here for free.

Writer, editor and internet arguer.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store