Hard News by Russell Brown

Wiki Trouble

My column in the next issue of The Listener looks at the troubles rising at Wikipedia: internal fighting, edit wars, entries that degrade over time. Brilliant idea, shame about the humans. It turns out that the Helen Clark entry is fairly troubled.

The article has suffered various idiotic acts of vandalism and appears to have become a vehicle for some people to work out their boundless frustrations about Clark. Even the present entry qualifies the apparently clear-cut fact of Clark's considerable lead in current preferred Prime Minister polling with pointless, redundant verbiage like: "Incumbent Prime Ministers are usually most popular in these polls but Clark's current lead is relatively substantial." (Well, duh. Do readers really need the "relatively substantial" judgment when the figures - Clark 57%, Brash 22% - are in the previous sentence? Previous iterations were sillier.)

This isn't particularly new. In February, editors were removing badly-written POV waffle like this:

… although there is much debate about whether this was through Clark's policies or as a product of the extensive economic and social reforms in New Zealand throughout the 1990s. The theory that she inherited a revitalised and strong economy has gained much momentum due to the fact that long term indicators are starting to show that Clark's policies are pushing the NZ economy into recession.

Again, these figures are under dispute, and many claim that this was only achieved by moving many unemployed onto other welfare benefits, such as Sickness Benefits.

As people have noted on the Talk Page, "This is supposed to be an encyclopedia article, not a list of reasons to dislike Helen Clark, or a source for anti-Labour propaganda," … "the controversies section is totally out of control" … "sounds like it comes straight from an ACT party blog."

Now you've got Si Humphreys' AL making lengthy and conspiratorial litigation on the Doone business (all the lying media's fault, as usual) and complaining that the entry is "low on facts and high on blandness." A good deal of history has been written and rewritten about Mr Doone (the New Zealand Herald's editorial didn't need the PCA report to declare in January 2000 that "A demoralised and embarrassed police force needed a new face at the top … Prudence should have dictated that when his partner's car was stopped, Mr Doone insisted that she be breath-tested … Mr Doone's departure, welcome even if belated, will allow the police to put a series of debilitating episodes behind them.") and to some people in the blogosphere he seems to have become an odd kind of hero, but I doubt whether Wikipedia is right place to pursue such an argument.

The "controversies" should be in there, and - as most of those involved seem to agree - the "Achievements" section needs someone to come in and beef it up and try and impart some balance and usefulness to the article (to make it, say, as straighforward as the Brash entry - well, actually, it doesn't really need to be quite as cuddly as that one). My fear is that that will simply escalate the edit war. The entry has already been put forward for a POV check on the basis that it is not conforming to Wikipedia's " "absolute and non-negotiable" Neutral Point of View standard.

Clark, of course, is not the only national leader to have this sort of trouble - the George W Bush entry has been locked off after spending about 80% of its time vandalised, and some clown keeps trying to add the bogus claim that David Lange was a vegan to his page. But if people want Wikipedia to live up to its vision, they need to realise that it's not the place to work out personal agendas.

I do expect that saying this will bring down on me usual scorn and abuse, but what's going on there isn't very encouraging. I'd be interested to receive comment on this, particularly from active Wikipedians.

PS: Okay, who's editing the Roger Kerr entry? Spot the difference. Someone at the same IP address has also been busily at work on edits to entries concerning the BRT and Deborah Coddington. I'm agnostic as to whether the Kerr-Coddington affair should really be in an encyclopedia, but it's interesting to watch. (Hat tip: Danyl.)