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