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Homophobia in Lewisham?

August 29, 2010

It’s all kicking off in Lewisham this bank holiday weekend. Whilst everyone parties at the Notting Hill Carnival, it seems that staff at the local newspaper the Lewisham and Catford Newsshopper are doing a spot of firefighting with a series of editorial decisions made during August. A rubbishy story, with a straggly, manky looking tail getting all sorts of people hot under the collar.

And a look at the @Newsshopper public timeline shows that Web Manager Simon Bull has been hard at it engaging and deflecting with the audience over the matter like any good website producer should. Lets hope he’s getting time off in lieu or has the opportunity for an overtime payment. Given the way local news is going, I suspect it will be the former.

All this makes for delicious Bank Holiday reading, not least because it’s those moments when I’m most relaxed I feel most compelled to approach my newly tidied office, pour myself a large glass of wine and tackle a local issue head on. After all, if I don’t move swiftly enough, it will just be tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.

Forest Hill

Picture published by Flickr User Nicobobinus and used here in accordance with the terms of the Creative Commons License

What’s to chew over? Let’s break it down.

The story which kicked off the letter from Mrs Fitzsimons (now proud owner of a pen from Websters pen shop) is a good place to start – many people haven’t focused on it.If there’s a question over whether or not the letter should have been given “star status” or not, then I’m amazed no-one has questioned whether or not the story itself should have been published in the first place.

The “story” draws its evidence from the Cruising Gays website. For those who don’t use it, have never considered using it or who haven’t already worked out what others might use it for, it’s premise is simple. If you’re a gay man in search of sex, visit Cruising Gays website and find out where to go locally for sex (assuming everyone has rejected you on GayDar and Grindr already). You know the stuff I mean. That knee-trembler stuff. It’s a free service too. And it’s on the internet. And has been for quite a while.

The big question for me is whether or not even publishing a story about where the local cruising grounds were in Lewisham and Greenwich was such a good idea. Certainly when me and a colleague at work observed the development on 9 August, our eyebrows did raise just a little bit. Might there be suitably geed-up homophobes looking for a fight who drew on the locations detailed in the Newsshopper piece and used the data to help them search for a potential target? Was it irresponsible to publish such a story?

One might argue that because the website and it’s data was in the public domain anyway, then publishing a news story about it wasn’t that much of a big deal. If you were being really bitchy (both me and my colleague were at the time) you might even suggest it was a spot of lazy journalism. In all truth, it did rather smack of a headline in search of some detail. But hey ho. The deed was done on 9 August.

Set against this – possibly ludicrous – backdrop, the publication of the letter responding to the piece is put into context. The content of the letter is – at best – evangelical, at worst potentially laughable. Is it anti-gay though? I don’t see the letter itself as anti-gay so much as the belief rooted in religious doctrine being anti-gay. And, as far as I can recall there are quite strict laws protecting religion in this country, hence why we’re a multi-cultural society.

The letter also doesn’t represent a consensus. If it did, I seriously doubt the consensus would be reading the Newsshopper anyway. I can’t remember the last time it was delivered to my home (they used to be so particular about ringing up and checking we’d had it delivered) and the man down by the station who normally takes a massive delivery of the publication in shopping trolleys to distribute every week appears – unless I’m very much mistaken – to have been laid off. Maybe he’s got other work.

Anyway, aside from the content of the letter which – let’s be quite clear about it, this isn’t inciting homophobia amongst the populace of Lewisham – the big question is whether or not the letter should have been published. And, more pertinently whether it deserved or should have been assigned the status of “star” and the allocation of a pen from Websters Pen Shop.

Technically speaking one could argue that they were OK to publish it. If you were being strict about it you’d have hoped sub-editor would have corrected the grammar, but even so if it doesn’t incite hatred (more than the potential the original story had) does publishing it mean they agree with the views of the correspondent? Well no. The point of letters is that they’re meant to spark debate. And one look at the internet proves that’s the case. Look at the most recent response the Newsshopper gave to @BrockleyCentral at the time of writing. Gosh.

Even so, did it need star status?

And then I stop and remember. Hang on. What the hell are we talking about here? A local newspaper nobody across the country had heard of until now who’ve published a letter by a woman who lives in South Crescent, Lewisha.

Finding Hell is Easy

Picture published on Flickr by Glen Scott and used here in accordance with the terms of the Creative Commons License.

Which leads me on to the next thing.

The cynic screaming blue murder from the back of my mind says this is – without a shadow of a doubt – a waste of time. The letter is poorly written. The argument against homosexuality makes no sense (just as the many fluroescent posters inviting me to make friends with Jesus in the area display similarly hideously grammatical errors and typographical crimes in equal measure) and there’s a massive question over whether or not Mrs S Fitzsimons exists at all (a brief period spent researching her and her address saw me end up in a number of blind alleys – no pun intended – still at least her address exists on Google Maps, that’s a start). Of course, if it is the case that Mrs Fitzsimons doesn’t exist and the letter itself is made up then that – frankly is even worse).

But the bottom line is this. Just as there are lots of different people with lots of different people living in my vicinity who do – I know for a fact – have wildly different views on the community I live in than I do, so I don’t see this letter in a local rag as being any more surprising than the man who tries in vain to convince me that Jesus really can be found on the corner of Oxford Circus on a rainy Saturday if only I’d be arsed to stop and talk to him.

As a gay man, I’m quite happy. And I’m happy because (touch-wood) I’ve not suffered from homophobic abuse nor not witnessed it first hand in this area of London. I know others have differing views. I know too that some of those people often have difficulty with words. And I know too that the Newsshopper has a massive problem with design, layouts and font selection.

I should also like it to be known that if anyone gets me a pen from Webster’s pen shop I’m more than likely to return it. I have very expensive tastes after all. Be warned.

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One Comment
  1. Good commentary, thanks.

    For me, the story is about three things:

    1. The Shopper editorial team don’t appear to consider their actions at all – either with the original story or the impression they would create by being seen to reward homophobia. As I wrote on Brockley Central, I think this is forgiveable considering how stretched the team probably is. Useless, but forgiveable.

    However, as is often the case, it was what happened afterwards to compound the problem that created the storm.

    2. Instead of acknowledging the concerns of their readers or apologising for giving the impression they supported homophobic views, they played ridiculous semantic games over whether a star letter status was in some way an endorsement of quality. Even it was not their internal policy, it was clearly understood that way by an external audience, which is what actually matters. This letter got shoved thousands of letterboxes across the area with what many readers will see as the paper’s seal of approval, whether that was their intention or not. They say they didn’t mean to give that impression, so why not a simple apology for having done so? Only journalists and politicians would consider a simple apology a humiliating climbdown.

    3. The bit I took issue with in particular, was the behaviour of a Lewisham Cllr, who treated this as though it was a freedom of speech issue (no one that I ever saw suggested that the letter should not have been printed) and condemned those complaining. I questioned the judgement of the Cllr, who gradually backtracked on his original position, to the point where he even suggested writing to the editor to complain about falling standards (not something I advocate).

    Above all, it stuck in my craw to hear the News Shopper talk about their cynical, online traffic-chasing tactic as though they were only interested in the noble pursuit of truth and Socratic debate. The only debate the letter caused was about their own shoddy work and only then among people who didn’t need to have it pointed out to them. You can be sure they’ll print a few counterpoint letters next week, but only as a result of this hoo-ha.

    Basically, this is about poor product made worse by poor customer service, wrapped up in knee-jerk and self-righteous gobbledegook about freedom of speech. It was a good illustration of a top-down media organisation struggling to come to terms with the idea that they are accountable to their readers in the digital age.

    That this “debate” they wanted to start went off in a different direction to the one they intended (and not on their website either, so they didn’t even get the traffic) ought to give them pause for thought about the possible consequences of their casual and reckless editorial approach.

    If their behaviour on Twitter is anything to go by however, they won’t give it any thought at all…

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