Saturday, August 28, 2010

Free speech or a platform for bigotry?

Quite a furore has erupted over a letter published in the Lewisham and Greenwich editions of the News Shopper this week. The author describes gay people as "perverted" and "unnatural" and calls on the paper to "stop advertising lesbian, gay and bisexual clubs".

Offensive stuff, certainly. But everyone is entitled to their view, however bigoted most people will find it. But what has caused astonishment and more offence is the decision of the paper to award this nasty missive the accolade of "Star letter" and give its author a prize.

A lengthy row soon erupted on Twitter, and various websites have followed up the story. The News Shopper has maintained that it does not endorse the views expressed in the letters it prints. Well, obviously not. It also claims the awarding of "star letter" and a prize to the author is not an endorsement either. So what IS the prize for?

The answer, according to the News Shopper is that the author was "Being thanked for sending in a letter that we thought would spark debate, which it has."

A debate certainly has been sparked, but not about the views in the letter - the debate is about the News Shopper's conduct and editorial policy. Is it right to print a letter which will be highly offensive to many readers just because it will provoke a response? Is it right to reward someone for writing in this manner?

You can follow much of the row (and related links) on the local 853 blog, which has been leading much of the online criticism. My own view is that this was clearly a big error of judgement on the part of the News Shopper. Printing such an offensive letter at all was questionable; rewarding its author with a prize was inexcusable. The News Shopper should ask itself the question - would they have printed a similar racist rant and rewarded that with a prize? No. Quite.

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