In the decade since, the tenor of those comments became so personalised and abusive that the ship often drowned before making it to shore – the moderators would simply shut the thread down. When it first started happening, I took it as a personal failure – perhaps I had not struck the right tone or not sufficiently hedged all my points, provoking readers into thinking I was being dishonest or incendiary. In time, it dawned on me that my writing was the same. It was the commenters who had changed. It was becoming harder to discuss almost anything without a virtual snarl in response. And it was becoming harder to do so if one were not white or male.
As a result, the Guardian overhauled its policy and decided that it would not open comment threads on pieces that were certain to derail. The moderators had a duty of care to the writers, some of whom struggled with the abuse, and a duty of care to new writers who might succumb to a chilling effect if they knew that to embark on a journalism career nowadays comes inevitably with no protection from online thuggery.
Sure there are the letters in green ink. Always have been.
But it came as a hell of a shock to those opinion and comment writers to find out that eh Great Unwashed not only didn’t agree with their pearls of wisdom they had cogent reasons for not doing so. As Factchecking Pollyanna once noted, Polly managed 8 errors of fact in one opening sentence once.
20 odd years later we’re seeing the shutting down of that response mechanism again. It’s simply far too much of a shock to the egos of those doing the writing. After all, who wants to design a new world and then tell everyone how it’s going to be if some prole can just mention facts against it?