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Star Letter – the clue’s in the name

Here’s the Star Letter in our local paper, the News Shopper, this week:

Thanks to Clay Harris for scanning this and posting it online. And here’s the response from the News Shopper this morning (read from the bottom up):

I’m not going to go into detail as this has all been covered more comprehensively elsewhere, but there is one thing: I know how to edit a “your letters” section. I looked after one, in a national publication with a significant circulation, for years, so I think I have the qualifications to say that the News Shopper’s justification here looks like nonsense.

Publishing a letter because, although you don’t agree with it, it’ll stimulate debate, is one thing. Fine. Publishing a bigoted letter? I’m not entirely sure that there would never be a circumstance where this would be reasonable, given enough of a caveat stating that it’s not the opinion of the publication and some kind of editorial context for the discussion, but I’d want to think very long and hard about it first, and in most cases these should be consigned to the bin. Combining the two – publishing a bigoted letter simply to provoke a response – seems to me clearly inappropriate.

But here the letter hasn’t just been published: it’s the “Star Letter”. Publishing something as a Star Letter” clearly implies some degree of endorsement. The clue’s in the word “star” – if the aim was to merely highlight this as a point for discussion (not that I’m suggesting that this would be appropriate here, but still), then there are plenty of formats for that: “Debate of the week”, “Your Say”, “Have Your Say” and so on.

The Star, on the other hand, is the foremost, the best, the brightest of all. Star of the show. Movie star. Star columnist. Star letter. You get the idea. It’s not just the place for any old talking point – and here, it even wins a prize (whose sponsor has issued a statement here*).

I’d hope that the News Shopper will realise that it has made a serious error of judgement here and do the right thing – I’d say a simple apology from the Editor would go some way. As it stands, though, it’s just another depressing stage in what appears to be a protracted vault over the proverbial shark (see also the amply-chested lady on Page 3 of one edition and the whole Hitchcockamamie Attack Crow saga, for starters) and into the mire. A great shame, as with council cuts looming large a strong local press could be of great importance.

* And the pen shop is quite correct – I would never expect a Star Letter sponsor to have prior knowledge of the content of each prize letter. There’s a certain amount of trust involved in this kind of relationship.

UPDATE

Later on yesterday one of my local councillors wrote this on the subject, and I got rather annoyed. Brockley Central reported it here, where I added the following comment:

As a Lewisham resident and Labour voter I find Councillor Harris’s comments extremely depressing. And as such this is a long comment. Apologies.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere (http://bit.ly/bLVozz), choosing a letter as the “Star” is a tacit endorsement. I know this not only because I know what “star” means in the non-celestial sense, but also because I’m an editor and sorting out letters pages was, for years, part of my job. As another editor (@adambanksdotcom) succinctly put it on Twitter today, “That’s what it means”.

By making this letter the Star Letter – not a “Have Your Say”, or any such content – the NS has implied endorsement for it. And yes, I do believe that the perceived endorsement of bigoted views by the media gives support to those who share them. Any homophobes reading this letter, and seeing the award of a prize and the Star Letter tag, could be forgiven for believing that the paper supports their opinion. Will a reply from another reader lost on its website, or buried in the letters page next week, change that? I’m not sure it will.

But the councillor’s original comment on Twitter didn’t concern the Star Letter, it concerned whether it should be published at all (“The idea that my local paper the @NewsShopper should not publish a letter because it’s bigoted, is far more offensive than the letter itself”).

As I noted on my blog, I don’t believe in a total no platform policy for offensive views – I can see occasions where publishing such a thing could be justified. One that springs to mind is to provide an opposing viewpoint to editorial content.

But that’s not to say that I think that justification necessarily applies here. The News Shopper cover last week was hardly a positive piece about gay culture – rather a ridiculously sensationalist story about a cottaging website, presumably dug up via a Google Alert for “Lewisham” (and note that the version online of the story now appears to have been changed since the print copy). Not exactly the kind of glowing piece that might justify the publication of a “right of reply” letter from those with a bitter, miscellaneous grudge against gay people.

Instead, the NS’s only justification seems to be that it’s generated an online debate. With this conducted out of view of many of the paper’s readers, I’m not sure that cuts it. Put this letter side by side with another of an opposing view – perhaps one bemoaning that ridiculous cover story – and it might have been fair.

Moreover, as anyone who’s ever had to dig through the kind of garbage that’s bulk-mailed to media outlets alongside genuine reader letters will know, the idea that choosing *not* to publish any letter because it’s offensive is some sort of act of malicious censorship is just daft.

Newspapers, magazines and other publications attract offensive letters – often sent by email, en-masse to many publications, none of which the sender reads. Many are libellous, while some items might even count as criminal under incitement laws. Should editors be obliged to publish them all? Or perhaps a representative sample of racists and homophobes every week, month, or year?

Of course not.

Choosing which letters to print, and which to discard is not censorship: it’s professional, ethical journalism. I think most people here agree that the News Shopper hasn’t done terribly well on that score here.

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