A year of Letters to the Editor

Mon, Dec 31, 2012, 00:00

‘EU plus IMF equals ‘I FUME’.” John Brennan’s short letter with a big message reflects the focused anger of this year’s “Letters to the Editor”. Even when the economy wasn’t the main theme, it set the tone for “big debates” on Budget 2013, the controversy over the Gathering and the two referendums. Political shenanigans, medical matters and religion featured strongly too, with waves of comment about the changing role of the Catholic Church and atheism, as well as the death of Savita Halappanavar and the question of abortion.

But even as these debates attracted many thought-provoking and knowledgeable contributions from across the political spectrum, so too the “little debates”, on personal or seemingly more trivial subjects, captured the imagination of readers, who, in their hundreds, shared their thoughts.

A news report’s innocent reference to a shopping list of Beethoven’s sparked a long-running series of letters of composer-related puns, berating The Irish Times for allowing them, even while perpetuating them (see panel). Frank McNally’s diaries on a History of Ireland in 100 Questions, Rejects, and Excuses and his Fifty Names of Irish Rain, spawned many hundreds of letters, rich in personal and cultural anecdote, some stretching the bounds of wit and wisdom to the limit.

The vast range of contributions neatly illustrates the nature of The Irish Times letters page: it is a place where readers take on the big issues: our economy, our governance, our society, our beliefs. They hold our government Ministers, our bankers and institutions, and frequently The Irish Times newspaper, to account. But in 2012, as every year, there is also space for the personal story: the missing orphans of Ballyconree orphanage; the struggle of a brave man with motor neuron disease (Simon Fitzmaurice, October 10th); the battle for Irish citizenship (Nike Ruf, September 24th), and the minutae of life – the bins, the dog poo (“Fido’s little trophy”), the naming of the new Liffey bridge.

Controversial letters – and there were many – included Mike Murphy’s excoriation of RTÉ over its treatment of the Masterpiece: Ireland’s Favourite Painting programme; and writer Colm Tóibín and Joseph O’Connor’s criticism of arts funding cuts.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin took The Irish Times to task for an editorial on abortion, while TK Whitaker joined Maurice Hayes, Mary Henry, John A Murphy, Mary O’Rourke and Bríd Rogers in trenchant opposition to the abolition of the Seanad.

Letters from long-time campaigners such as Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, Alice Leahy and Peter McVerry addressed important social issues, while several letter writers who raised strong criticisms of government pay and pensions or international affairs saw specific responses from Ministers or ambassadors appear on the letters page subsequently.

Hypocrisy

A constant refrain has been outrage at political hypocrisy. The Inkgate scandal, Mick Wallace’s tax affairs, top bankers’ and politicians’ pay – all evoked the fire and ire of letter writers.

A survey we conducted this year of 200 people who submitted letters to The Irish Times reflects the range of reasons people write. Matters of importance – particularly politics and religion – top the list. Disagreeing or agreeing with The Irish Times editorials, opinion pieces and letters, is another strong motivator, as is the wish to share matters of personal importance with a wider audience – and to amuse.

In a year that saw the volume of Irish Times online comment grow dramatically (thanks in part to a massive increase in the number of articles on which readers can comment), you’d be forgiven for predicting the number of letters to the editor would have fallen. This hasn’t happened.

We looked at international research that has examined why people write letters to the editor as opposed to online comment, and we asked contributors why they chose one type of comment over another. Some see advantages in online comment’s freer style of writing, its facility for making multiple contributions and its greater accessibility (given the limited space on the Letters page). But most choose to write letters because they see the Letters page as closer to a “public debate” than online comment: they think it a more civilised debating forum, more likely to be read by their peers and friends, and a more enduring and prestigious format. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t slow to offer us their viewpoints (see panel).

Readers of the newspaper who also read the online comment posted on our website will be well aware that the two debates can be very different beasts. The fact that letters are selected and edited means there should be less repetition on the letters page than on a comment board; plus we do our best to verify, fact-check and edit for grammar and spelling, each and every letter – treatment that online content can’t receive. Sometimes we edit for length – but we prefer if our letter writers are concise in the first place.

In some ways, the lines between “online comment” and “Letters to the Editor” are becoming blurred. While we still receive many handwritten letters (yes, occasionally written in green ink; once written on the inside of an empty cigarette packet, which made it intact through the post, complete with label and stamp on its front), the vast majority are emailed. This allows a much quicker turnaround between writing and publication than heretofore.

Some news organisations are now allowing online comment on their letters to the editor – in the same way that articles are open to online comment. Will this dilute the quality of debate? Might it open up letter-writers to an unacceptable level of personal abuse? Will it offer a more inclusive debate? And should The Irish Times go down this road? These are questions which will undoubtedly follow us into 2013. In the meantime, there are wrongs to be highlighted, hypocrisy to be exposed, strange and wonderful stories to be shared. In short, there are letters to the editor to be written. Over to you.