Wow. I knew the News Shopper deciding to reward the writer of a letter branding gay people as “perverted” with a star letter prize would create a stir – but I was taken aback by the strength of feeling it generated. Naturally, it was picked up by the gay and lesbian media (G3, Pink News, So So Gay), but it also hit media trade site journalism.co.uk and Londonist.
After letters page sponsor Webster’s Pen Shops distanced itself from the letter, it’d be natural to expect the News Shopper to adopt a more concilliatory approach to the avalanche of criticism it faced. Instead, it tried to capitalise on the row by publishing the letter on its website and inviting readers to comment there.
Over on Twitter, despite its sponsor having to disassociate itself from the letter, News Shopper web editor Simon Bull seemed proud to have angered a chunk of its readers. Here’s a few exchanges.
So it’s a thank you for upsetting readers? Keep on digging, Simon… sadly, that exchange was with the Greenwich Conservative councillor who’s led that party’s attack on council propaganda paper Greenwich Time, somebody the newspaper might like to keep on side. Whoops.
But people don’t ask to receive the News Shopper. It comes through people’s doors. People might not want to get this crap pushed through their letterboxes. Highlighting that intolerance is still out there? You don’t need to reward it with a nice pen from Webster’s. I came across some National Front graffiti in Deptford a couple of weeks ago. Did I laud it as an expression of free speech? No, I got Lewisham Council to paint it over.
So the gays are an acceptable target, then? Oh dear.
The problem here is that the News Shopper, a local paper, thinks it is starting a debate about morals. What it actually got was a debate about its own conduct – and when it realised the game wasn’t going its way, it responded with insults and sarcasm.
Yet nobody woke up on Thursday or Friday and thought – “let’s pick a fight with the News Shopper”. Even I don’t want to completely fall out with the paper, despite my criticisms, I’ve tried to maintain a cordial tone – after all, local papers can come in handy, whatever their shortcomings. Yet it seems determined to burn its bridges with a load of its readers – especially ones who know what they’re talking about.
Many of those taking part in the debate were media professionals themselves – other journalists, PR people, web experts – with experience of these issues. They weren’t there because they wanted to pick a fight, they were there because they were horrified at what the News Shopper had done. Brockley Kate, herself an ex-national newspaper journalist, had a similar Twitter run-in with the paper last month over its reporting of the Tidemill School story. She hit the nail on the head in a comment on this site:
What I find amazing about both cases was that News Shopper was, primarily, being criticised by other journalists, many of them very experienced. And yet whoever runs the News Shopper Twitter feed either didn’t realise or didn’t care that they were being roundly trashed by their peers. Not by the ill-informed, unpredictable consumers who all journos moan about from time to time – but other hacks. And yet they were totally unwilling to even engage.
What hope is there for a local paper which doesn’t have the respect of journalists in its area, for heaven’s sake? Hug The Mercury close, it’s all we’ve got.
Still, the News Shopper was defended by Lewisham Labour councillor Mike Harris, who seemed to completely misunderstand the questions being asked.
The paper also boasted of having this endorsement from someone called Andy Dedman, who tweeted: “Hilarious letter from a religious nutcase. Quite rt 2 publish it! How ppl cnt get when yr tongue is in yr cheek is beyond me!” [sic]
Hilarious, eh? In the real world, encouraged by seeing views like the ones rewarded by the News Shopper, people are attacked for their sexuality. That’s people who might even read the News Shopper, or whose family, friends and loved ones might read it. A handful, sadly, have been killed because of it. Two years ago, a man who lived in the street behind mine was killed after a barrage of homophobic abuse.
Still, homophobia’s hilarious, eh? Shame on you, News Shopper.
(UPDATE 10:45AM – I added the Twitter message at the top of the page to illustrate my point a little bit further. The Guardian’s Ben Goldacre joined the row last night.)