WITH disappointing predictability, the comments on our online article about Gypsy leader Billy Welch going into schools to build bridges with the settled community in Darlington had to be closed after just a couple of hours on Thursday.

While some commenters held a healthy discussion about the integration of different groups in the town, many resorted to lazy stereotypes and downright abuse.

The decision to close articles to comments is not designed to shackle free speech, as some users suggest, but instead is taken because we are not willing to host such offensive remarks.

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This goes for abuse directed at any community or individual, whatever their race, religion, gender or sexuality.

As well as being illegal in some cases, these spiteful comments actually deter others from taking part in a rounded debate on many issues. How is it possible to fairly examine all sides if half of the people involved in the conversation will only engage in petty name-calling?

The Northern Echo has never shied away from reporting the harsh realities of life in the communities we cover, whether that relates to crime, poverty or social injustices. We do not aim to paint a rose-tinted picture of our patch.

But comments such as those regularly posted on our website serve only to drag the region down, building an image of an insular, angry population who mistrust their neighbours and dislike anyone who looks different to them.

We know this does not represent the people we speak to every day, and that’s why we refuse to give their hateful comments the oxygen of online publicity.