Cllr Mike Harris on the News Shopper homophobia prize

I'm 39 and I still love rap music. But I'm tired of defending it. In the old days it was easy. You could break it down intellectually why Grand Master Flash was art... and I love all the rappers today, but it's hard to defend "I've got hoes in different area codes". It's hard to defend "move, bitch, get out the way!" It's hard to break it down intellectually … "Well, as you can see, there's a bitch in his way, that he needs to move. Thus the term, "move, bitch, get out the way". You need to open your eyes so you can see the bitches in your way!"

The trouble with ideology is that it allows people to discuss any issue at length, without ever actually dealing with the substance of the matter in question.

So, the News Shopper's decision to give star status to a poorly-written homophobic rant has been discussed on Twitter as though it was a life or death struggle between freedom and tolerance rather than a more mundane question of whether the paper's decision to give a bigot a lollipop marks a regrettable new low in local media culture. Not so much freedom of expression, but clarity of communication and responsiveness to readers - two things which ought to matter to a local newspaper.

We criticised Lewisham Councillor Mike Harris' defence of the News Shopper here. He was a pretty good sport about it but asked for a right of reply, to clarify his position, and he has provided a statement, below. In a late-night email exchange that followed, he did concede that the star status "may have been confusing for readers" - suggesting that the letter was being rewarded for the quality of its argument, rather than its ability to provoke debate (the paper's explanation).

It's on this little bit of middle ground in the argument that Brockley Central plants its flag. News Shopper can print whatever rubbish it likes so long as it operates within the law, but if it doesn't want its readers and advertisers to think it supports such views (and it claims it doesn't) then it messed up and they should have provided a simple apology instead of obfuscating. Instead, to quote journalist Ben Goldacre, they acted like "a dick about it on Twitter".

Anyway, without further ado, here is Cllr Harris' statement:

The most worrying element of this debate is the calls for ‘responsible’ journalism. Many have said the News Shopper ought to have exercised restraint and not published the homophobic letter from Mrs Fitzsimon. It’s an idea I find offensive. I do not think newspapers should be asked to police their content on the basis of criteria, that are nothing to do with the legality of the statement, such as ‘morality’, equality or the pursuit of a certain value system. In Belarus, a country I’m visiting next week, theatre companies are banned for even putting on plays about homosexuality. The police ask, why can’t people use their right to artistic expression responsibly? But free speech is never responsible.

In a theoretical example, say thirty years ago the News Shopper published a letter by a gay couple who wanted to adopt children – but due to the law at that time – couldn’t adopt, and again, the News Shopper awarded it the ‘Star Letter’ prize. I imagine we’d see as strong as response, but by homophobes. Should the newspaper have its editorial line dictated to by collective disgust? No: sometimes it is healthy for newspapers to explore issues that the majority find uncomfortable.

By awarding it the ‘Star Letter’ the News Shopper highlighted the appalling bigotry still alive today in our communities. Whereas homophobia is deeply uncouth in the liberal-biased online world, in the real world it’s as real as ever. Last weekend I witnessed four young people shout a torrent of vile homophobia at a gay couple kissing on the top deck of a night bus: the young people got off the bus in my ward.

Homophobia exists – the News Shopper decided to throw the disinfectant of sunlight on the bigotry of a particular letter-writer. I’m sure people across Lewisham and Greenwich aren’t sat in their living rooms agreeing with Mrs Fitzsimon, but it has inspired a debate about homophobia.

Blogger Daryl Chamberlain wrote that the News Shopper also displays: “a blind eye turned to offensive comments placed at the foot of news stories”

I’m worried by this intolerance of intolerance: free speech isn’t free if we can’t tolerate opinions that offend our own. That applies to religious people who are ‘offended’ by homosexuality, or liberals offended by the misuse of religion to justify homophobia.

As Dr. Evan Harris said:

The test of adherence to rights is willingness to accord them to those you disagree with or despise. And that means testing boundaries.

Mike Harris is a Labour Councillor for Lewisham Central Ward, and Head of Public Affairs at Index on Censorship

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh RIGHT, that explains why he was fixating so much on the completely off-beam 'free speech' angle - he works for IoC. Enlightenment dawns.

So what's Evan Harris's excuse?

max said...

Hi Mike,
though I quite agree with all parts of your argument I don't think that you put those parts together in a coherent way.

Yes the News Shopper is free to print whatever they want, but since their paper is distributed to each and every household it is also bound to land on the mat of some proper idiot that can't tell the difference between a intellectual challenge and an endorsement of bigotry and those that see this have the right to tell it as it is. They are playing to the lowest common denominator, it's a cynical calculation to help their circulation with a cheap substitute for proper content.

You quote Darryl's comment about their policy on online comments that indeed attract unsavoury comments, well, that's in part another thing, it's online only, but it has parallels with the letters' policy of course, Darryl is right to be disturbed by it, but he put it too mildly, they don't turn a blind eye, they positively encourage racists and bigots to let themselves loose in their comment thread, they even instituted a "rant" item where they through provocative arguments that are guaranteed to raise the interest of those that want to through in their two pence of bigoted jingoistic racist or whatever backward opinion the rant of the day calls for.

It's all legitimate, but what is it good for?
Does it make people challenge their backward ideas? Not in the slightest.
It creates the stupidest of contents that the bored flock to read for its entertainment value, that's the best you can say of that.

As I said, they can write what they want, but they can't massage their egos with he label of provocateurs of public debate, not more then Jeremy Kyle at least.

Now, I understand that as a local politician you're reluctant to criticize a local newspaper (especially the News Shopper that has been so supportive of Lewisham Labour at last elections), but I don't think you have to go out of your way to defend choices like these.

Anonymous said...

Quiet, most of the comments on here are neutral (just) about publishing it but don't buy the argument about why the letter was given such prominence. It's a brainless fart of an opinion, it's not a new or well put argument. At the VERY least it shows a lack of judgement and I suspect it's more along the lines of a sensationalist, day time TV discussion show - a not very imaginative one.

Cllr Mike Harris said...

Hi Max

I'm definately not defending the News Shopper because they were favourable to Labour in the last local elections? (Where they, they published lots of stuff from you, but none of my letters!)

I don't like the race to the bottom either. Though, if you've ever read the comments on Guardian Comment Is Free you get a good dose of 9/11 conspiracy theorists, vile anti-semitism, snobbisness and the like. Unfortunately, the free for all that is the internet does encourage the basest instincts of people.

I'm more than happy to condemn poor media standards. If, as has been suggested by many, standards in the News Shopper are falling then we ought to write to the editor. I'm particularly concerned that the current budget cuts are subject to the necessary scrutiny. That isn't sensationalist headlines with a big number (Council makes £60m cuts) but local journalists getting into the detail of the proposals.

We'll see.

Brockley Nick said...

Point of order, let's not blame the internet. The quality of debate on here and on Twitter has been high, I think. Certainly higher than that on offer in the original letter.

Deptford dame said...

I still haven't heard a good defence of why it was highlighted as the 'star' letter.

Thankfully, here in Deptford's council estates we don't qualify as target readers for the News Shopper so we have to buy it if we want to read it.

max said...

Hi Mike,

I'm sure you're not doing it because they were favourable to Labour at last elections but I'm surprised that that's news for you though.

I was mainly referring to the editorial content rather than the letters (although I don't think they published any of mine either).

In the month prior to the election reading the News Shopper you'd have thought that in Lewisham there was only one party, I saw one article on the hopes of Darren Johnson, but besides that it was a deafening silence, all feel-good news with the face of Sir Steve, week in and week out.

The worst was when three weeks before elections they re-published a 5 weeks old news about Bullock awarding the Mayor's Business Award to a pet shop with an enormous photo of Bullock holding a bunny!

When they finally did a round up of Parliamentary candidates it was a dumbed down page with big photos and biographies of the Labour candidates and a tiny little paragraph for each of the others below with a comment that it was anyway a done deal and Labour was going to win, which is of course a self-fulfilling prophecy when it's the most distributed local newspaper writing it.

I used to think that they were trying to be unbiased but in this last election they weren't in the slightest.

Honestly, their conduct at last elections makes their campaign against the Greenwich Council newspaper laughable. At least in Greenwich they know where that's coming from.

Tom said...

Not entirely convinced by Cllr Mike's example of the theoretical pro-gay adoption Star Letter in the 1980s. Here's why:

Were people at that time abused, attacked and sometimes killed by advocates of gay adoption because they disagreed with it? No.

Are gay people today abused, attacked and sometimes killed by homophobes? Yes.

Hence I think "star" endorsement of this letter, but not his theoretical one, betrays a serious error of judgement.

Also, I'm still at a loss as to how many offensive letters some of these "anti censorship" campaigners would have journalists publish.

As I suggested the other day, perhaps someone could provide us with quotas to fulfil - if we published at least one letter from homophobe, one racist and one EDL type raving about Islam per month would that be enough to avoid falling foul of "intolerance of intolerance"? Might look a bit funny in publications devoted to car sales, model aeroplanes and cross-stitch, too, but hey – if that's the price of freedom..

Cllr Mike Harris said...

Max,

Most of the letters published in the run-up to the election were anti-Labour though...

As the last local elections coincided with the general election the role of local media in shaping the result was smaller than usual. The TV debates seemed to have far more of an effect than newspaper coverage. It was certainly an unusual election and most coverage was positive for the Lib Dems and pretty critical of Labour (especially Gordon Brown).

I'm off on holiday now, so I hope my explanation of my opinion is adequate.

And yes Nick I agree that the content of the debate here and on the blogosphere generally has been high.

Garrat Elector said...

Given that News Shopper is owned by Newsquest, whose parent is Gannett Company Inc, the largest newspaper publisher as measured by total daily circulation in the United States, it should surely be no surprise if the newspaper puts forward the Christian viewpoint as "the Way, the Truth and the Life", should it?

Our so-called "local" newspapers are nothing of the sort. They are merely megaphones for multinational corporations with their own agenda.

Charlotte Dingle said...

What really bothered me was when News Shopper commented on Twitter that they wouldn't publish a racist rant because that 'would be illegal'. Erm - incitement to hatred laws also cover homophobia now, so it's just as risky to publish and endorse something like that as it would be to reward someone publicly for a rant about how black people are inferior to white people. They've also been studiously ignoring my questions about this on Twitter, too, which is a bit stupid given that I am the editor of a well-known national gay mag... Pissing the gay press off as well is not smart, not smart at all.

Anonymous said...

Charlotte - Your Tweets are protected, aren't they? News Shopper probably can't see them!

I note that News Shopper has now told Nick that it's time to end the discussion. I do love how old-media journalists just don't get the fact that they don't get to shape the parameters of the discussion in new-media space. Whether the discussion is over or not is not for you to say, News Shopper!

Charlotte Dingle said...

I've had a response... Just spotted it! 'Don't think the letter is inciting anything' - er, completely missing the point. If they use one argument to justify not publishing a racist letter, how come it doesn't apply to a homophobic one? I'm really confused!

Jimmy said...

So we have Mike and Max arguing over who had the most letters not printed (censored) by the Newsshopper, whilst the councillor encourages the Newsshopper to print anything they fancy, however bigotted and offensive the views might be to their readers. Does anybody else see the irony?

Mike Harris needs to recognise that the selection of useful letters to print is something that newspapers do every day. Furthermore the selection of star letters clearly suggests that the letter is particularly worth reading.
Selecting which letters to print is not censorship, it is common sense. Criticising the selecting which letter to award a prize to is not a call for censorship, it is about highlighting a stupid and insensitive mistake made by the paper.
Free speech and free press does not give the press the right to print any nonsense as articles or to reward any drivel written as a letter. Everyday the press decide what is suitable for us to read and see in the papers. This does not mean that our news is censored, it means that the press sometimes has a duty to stand by their editorial decisions or admit when they have made an error of judgement.

Lou Baker said...

@charlotte

It's not an offence to publish a homophobic letter or a racist one. It IS an offence to publish something which incites racial or religious hatred.

I think you're all getting worked up about nothing. This is a dumb woman having a bit of an anti-gay rant. She won't change any minds - she's just demonstrated herself to be a moron. We should never expect better of any religious nut - whatever their faith.

The paper, which may appear to have been a bit dumb to make it a star letter in the first place, has more than justified its decision by the amount of debate the decision has created.

You can bet no one will be talking about next week's star letter about school uniforms or something equally dull.

If any of you don't like it - complain to the PCC. I doubt you'll get anywhere but still ...

Charlotte Dingle said...

Lou - if you'd read my first comment properly, you'd understand my argument. I am not suggesting the letter represents an incitement to hatred, I am merely pointing out that NewsShopper said they'd never print a racist letter as it might be 'illegal'. The SAME laws apply to both racist and homophobic incitement to hatred, so how can one be possibly illegal and not the other? Journalists should be a bit more au fait with the law... It just smacks of them not taking homophobia seriously, and that makes me very angry.

Trooper Thompson said...

@ Jimmy,

"Free speech and free press does not give the press the right to print any nonsense as articles or to reward any drivel written as a letter."

Yes it does. If it doesn't mean exactly this, then it's not free speech or a free press.

@ Lou,

"We should never expect better of any religious nut - whatever their faith."

Hate speech! Incitement! Let's hope no one thinned-skinned and religious reads that, or you'll be in twubble.

Lou Baker said...

@Charlotte

Yes but the law explicitly protects those with strong religious views from expressing them - providing there is no incitement.

I think your anger is best directed at the Church rather than the News Shopper. For it is this backward looking and increasingly irrelevant organisation which
allows such homophobic views to fester within
it.

It's also anti-gender equality and full of
intolerance towards other faiths. It's also
not been many years since it was a blatantly racist organisation too. The Church of England is better than the Catholic church for sure (the Catholic church is pretty much a disgrace in my book) but it's still based on warped morals.

The News Shopper is a local rag with limited resources employing a few over-worked journos who probably don't earn much more than 15k.

This really is nothing to do with them not taking homophobia seriously.

Steve said...

Going to exercise my free speech and call the News Shopper tomorrow to insist they stop putting it through the front door.

Tamsin said...

But it is to do with them being so stupid as to give the letter the accolade of a prize award, and to have posted the incredibly childish response on Twitter. (If, indeed, that was them rather than someone hi-jacking the name. Don't know enough about how Twitter works.)

The Church of England with Dr. Rowan Williams at the head seems to be quietly moving forward - I missed most of the interview with the Bishop of Durham but it seems that through all the viccisitudes of the last ten years the top level has been steadfast in its discussions with other faiths.

B L Zeebub said...

C of E moving forward? It will always be held back because it's central belief system is a sky pixie dreamt up in the middle eastva few thousand years ago and a collection of selected writings of uncertain origin thatvhave been translated, interpreted and altered according to prevailing morals and politics of the time. It's based on a quaint myth, move on. The churches primary concern is to "stay relevant" or in other words it's changing itself as always to be acceptable and not laughed out of existence. It's purpose is survival, nothing else.

And breath.....

Trooper Thompson said...

B L,

you should have spent more time in sunday school. Not only would you have learnt something more about what Christianity is, they might have taught you to spell.

B L Zebub said...

I've seen your blog.....watch out I understand that Interpol are out to get you. The Europhile atheists will be doing unspeakable things to you in their secret dungeons

*manic laughter*

Seriously, it is a little deranged. Please tell me you don't own a shotgun.

Jimmy said...

@Trooper Thompson

With the exception of the National Inquirer newspapers are expected to tell the truth as best we know it and not to print nonsense. This is the reason that we don't often see articles or letters telling us that the sun orbits the Earth, scientists have proved that people in Brockley have three heads, that gay men eat babies, or that Trooper Thompson is the daughter or George Bush and a hampster called Gnasher.

With the right to a free press comes the responsibility of the press not to diliberately mislead the public or to incite hatred of minorities. I oppose any newspapers that hides behind freedom of the press to print insulting cartoons of Muhammed to deliberately antagonise a Muslim minority or to print extracts of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to stir up anti-Semitism and holocaust denial.

Would those who defend the NewsShopper be happy for them to award a star prize to a letter advocating the sterilisation of all black people in this country? If this is what a free press is all about I'm glad that we do not have a free press.

Tamsin said...

With freedom comes responsibility.

Trooper Thompson said...

@B L,

"Seriously, it is a little deranged",

Coming from someone who calls himself B L Zebub, and finds torture chambers amusing, I don't think it's me with the problem.

@ Jimmy

"Would those who defend the NewsShopper be happy for them to award a star prize to a letter advocating the sterilisation of all black people in this country?

As far as I'm concerned, they can print what they want. I'm surprised they gave the letter in question a star, but that's their business.

Incitement to commit a crime is not a matter of free speech, it relates to the crime which is being incited. As far as I'm aware the letter did not incite any crime, just expressed an opinion that you disagree with most strongly, which you are free to do. That's the great thing about freedom, you can have it and the person writing the letter can have it. Everyone wins.

Mel Gibson said...

Tell 'em trooper....

David Icke said...

My letter warning of the lizard menace has been sent but has either been intercepted by the states agents or is being saved for next weeks Star Letter.

I hope for the latter but fear the former, that's the world we live in people.

B L Zebub said...

I suppose it is a stretch finding the rack funny.

Brockley Nick said...

I'm planning a star letter about the plague of fruit flies I'm experiencing at the moment and how they were foretold by the Protocols of Zion.

Perhaps BC should introduce a star letter policy. Your prize? A visit from the Catman.

Monkeyboy said...

Yes, I believe the fruit flies were foretold in the little know Gospel according to St. Keith. It was supressed in the late 14th Century because the church felt his 9 "quiet annoying but not deadly plauges to make you buck your ideas up" would make the almighty seem a wimp. Some of the others included flying ants, blue bottles banging their heads against the window while your reading the paper and those big spiders you get in the bath if I recall by Sunday School lessons correctly.

V of R said...

The News Shopper is not delivered on my Road so not easy to comment.

I do find it suprising that people don't automatically realise that all major religions, founded as they were 1500-2000 years ago, are generally homophobic.

The human race was still comparatively ignorant then and not prepared to accept certain exceptions to the norm.

I would have thought that based upon this all Gay people would be Aetheists

Anonymous said...

I would like to say that thank god my daughter don't go there any more as its a dump there anyway.

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