News Shopper rewarding gay rant: the aftermath

OK, so yesterday a number of SE London bloggers – including me on Londonist – wrote about the News Shopper’s decision to make a homophobic letter its ‘Star Letter” and reward the writer with a pen. See:

Note, please, that what’s being objected to is not the content of the letter – vile though it is, Mrs S Fitzsimons has the right to scribble it and the News Shopper has the right to print it – it’s the News Shopper’s decision to reward the sentiments, thereby implicitly endorsing them. The News Shopper says their Star Letter merely goes to the one they judge will generate the most debate (well, that worked for them – please see the Londonist article for tweets in which they brag of the attention it’s getting them) but, as Tom (a journalist who has edited national letters pages) points out, a paper knows, when it singles a letter out as Letter of the Week / Star Letter / Prize Letter, it’s giving the opinions prominence. The NS did not print any other letters referring to the article Mrs S Fitzsimons was writing about. They allowed her comments to be the only ones published. And they did it because they were chasing hits, irrespective of the offence it might cause.

Brockley Central covers my local councillor’s reaction – basically, “it’s all free speech, we shouldn’t attempt to censor” – which misses the point. Print the stupid bigot’s letter if you want, fine. Just don’t call it the Star Letter and give the writer a prize. That’s editorial judgement. Councillor Mike Harris’s position is that by publishing the letter, the NS highlighted a strain of prejudice and allowed readers to make up their own minds. But let’s not forget that Lewisham isn’t Islington. There are a lot of people who will agree with Mrs S Fitzsimons, and won’t see the Star Letter as an attempt to subvert such opinions by highlighting  its ignorance. They’ll see it as evidence that the NS thinks they same way they do.

And then comes Dr Evan Harris on Twitter. Oh dear. I like Evan Harris. He’s a geek hero. But he’s weighing in on the same side of “we should all be able to publish everything and it’s not for us to blame the publisher”. I couldn’t stop myself tweeting him – and could not believe this particular response I got back:

Tweet: @DrEvanHarris @tug But do they have a duty not to 'normalise' homophobia, esp in an area like Lewisham?Tweet: @bagelmouse  Hmm - are they "nomalising homophobia"? & if so do they have a *duty* not to? Maybe libraries should ditch bibles on that basisTweet: @DrEvanHarris If each Bible came with certain bits underlined and a chocolate bar if you read them, maybe. It's not *quite* the same thing.Also couldn’t quite believe this tweet:

Tweet: @ciphergoth What about organising a commercial boycott of a bookshop for selling a book we don't like?For selling a book that promotes prejudice? No. For putting it front of house in a big display saying “Book of the Week”? Yes.

Why is it so hard for people to grasp the difference between ‘publishing’ and ‘promoting’?

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3 responses to “News Shopper rewarding gay rant: the aftermath

  1. BrockleyKate August 28, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    As you say, Evan Harris is normally good on this kind of stuff. On this, he’s seriously and surprisingly off-beam. I’m very disappointed in him, tbh. Glad to see that so many other people ‘get it’, though. I can’t help but note that very few journalists/media professionals are taking Dr Harris’s line – in fact I don’t think I’ve seen any so far. Maybe because we understand the editorial judgements involved?

  2. rachel bagelmouse August 28, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    I’m disappointed too. I sent him Tom’s post about letters pages and he responded “I completely disagree with him as would many journalists.” Managed to not tweet back “Funny, all the journalists I know agree with him”, as by that point I’d given up.

    I’ve just been having an email chat with my Mum about the free papers in Spain, which often have crazy right-wing ex-pat editorial lines and even crazier right-wing ex-pat letters. She says not even they reward such letters with prizes, but in fact often add sarcastic little comments to editorialise. Score one for free English language papers on the Costa Calida!

  3. Tom August 28, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Nice of Dr Harris to cast his eye over my piece – would love to know exactly what he finds disagreeable or incorrect. Based purely on his Twitter feed (we haven’t spoken) it seems he doesn’t believe that making a letter the Star Letter, and giving its sender a prize, is an endorsement. I honestly find that rather baffling. As I said, “Star”. The clue’s right there.

    As for the “many journalists” who’d disagree with me, I’ve come across one: the News Shopper Web Editor. Nobody else. Most hacks I’ve spoken to offline have been – how can I put this politely – “vigorous” in their expression of disapproval and shock that a newspaper would do something so low.

    Then there’s the issue of if the letter should have been published at all. As I said in by Brockley Central comment (also added to the post linked above), I find the idea that this outpouring of bile was a reasonable response to the NS’s “Cottaging Shocka!” cover piece something of a stretch, to say the least.

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