Hearing all sides of the debate

First published in From The Editor's Chair The Northern Echo: Blog: Editor Peter Barron by

OUR letters page has been called “Hear All Sides” for as long as I can remember – and it has that title for a reason.

We try to allow as broad a range of views to be aired as possible.

But when should letters be censored for fear of causing offence?

One letter in particular, from Susan Willis, of Middlesbrough, provoked a huge reaction last week.

She wrote in response to a threat from the British government to withdraw overseas aid from countries which class homosexuality as an illegal activity.

Click here to view the letter and the comments from readers

“Privately, most people regard homosexuals as perverts. The media, even The Northern Echo, give the false impression they are accepted as normal,” she claimed.

A number of people wrote to say the letter, which had been heavily edited, should not have been printed. Others defended the decision to publish.

For the record, I personally find the view expressed by Susan Willis as abhorrent. But is that a reason not to publish her letter?

The Press Complaints Commission’s code of conduct says this on discrimination: The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

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The letter did not attack any individual so I do not believe the code was breached.

Several letters have since been published, condemning the Susan Willis view, and we should be encouraged by that reaction. There is a line to be drawn on Hear All Sides but, in my view, this wasn’t the right place.

And let’s not forget that the offending letter was actually criticising this newspaper for its acceptance of homosexuality.

WE do, however, need to draw a line to be drawn on our use of the term “wheelchair-bound”.

Janet Seymour Kirk, chair of North Yorkshire County Council Physically and Sensory Impairment Board, wrote to say the term gives a false impression of disabled people.

“Wheelchairs are an aid that allows freedom to those who are unable to walk at all or have difficulty in walking for long periods; these people are not ‘bound into them’…wrapped in bandages to stop them getting out,” says her letter.

I have written to our journalists advising them from now on to avoid “wheelchair-bound” in favour of “wheelchair user”.

There may be exceptions when someone truly is confined to a wheelchair and it is relevant to the story.

I am also long enough in the tooth to know that misuses of “wheelchair-bound” will continue to slip through, but we will do our best to weed them out.

THE nicest task of last week was to break the news to Shildon mum Linda Rowland that, out of 12,000 entries, her name had been picked out in our win a car competition.

But it wasn’t quite as straight-forward as I’d hoped. ..Eddy Bryson, of Sims Suzuki, promotions executive Jenn Brown, cameraman George Horsley, and I turned up mob-handed at Linda’s house at 6pm last Tuesday.

The “BEWARE THE DOG” sign was the first obstacle. The second was that Linda wasn’t home from work.

Like private detectives on a stake-out, we had to hide in an unlit car until she arrived an hour and a quarter later.

She was, of course, thrilled at the news but we nearly didn’t get chance to tell her.

“I thought you were councillors after my vote – I was going to slam the door in your faces,” she laughed.

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