Back in the early 1990s, Ian Dowell – editor of what was then the Birmingham Evening Mail – took a phone call from a ‘green ink’ letter-writing reader.
You know the type I’m referring to: those with seething, extreme opinions that they demand to be reflected in their local newspaper.
I cannot remember the exact subject, but suffice it to say that however much Dowellie tried to be polite and reasonable in explaining why the letter would not be published, the more offensive, loud and expletive-ridden the reader’s tirade became.
The first us reporters knew about it was when Dowellie, by now pretty annoyed, started marching up and down his office, I think kicking a bin and certainly throwing random papers around in frustration.
Finally, with his office door wide open, we heard his closing words as he slammed the phone down:
“Sir, let me tell you my final decision on this matter. You are now BANNED from EVER buying the Evening Mail again.”
It was rare but memorable moment, and it came to mind when I read last week’s story on HoldtheFrontPage about the Manchester Evening News, the Liverpool Echo and The Journal, Newcastle, coming off the fence to tell readers why they should vote ‘Remain’ in tomorrow’s EU referendum.
I liked the front pages, but what I really admired was the response of the MEN when its stance was criticised on Facebook by some Brexit-focused readers:
“The decision to support remain is an independent one. No one is forcing us to, and no one has paid us to do it … Lots of people have pointed out we ‘are backing the losing side’. We don’t know that – but it wouldn’t change our views if we were.”
Well said. When the worst of the national press is so intent on whipping up hateful frenzies, it’s time for strong regional editors to air a more rational voice – even if this is counter-intuitive to some readers.
A good regional should on occasion challenge ‘public opinion’, especially when such opinion is threatening to become a bandwagon of Little Englanders reacting to certain politicians spouting 2016 versions of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
For that reason alone – Enoch’s infamous speech back in 1968 was delivered in Birmingham – I was pleased to see the Birmingham Mail follow its Trinity Mirror sister titles with its own ‘REMAIN’ front page on Monday.
Yes, the Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham papers risk annoying some readers, as was pointed out by various HoldtheFrontPage commenters, including Steve Hutchings, of Exeter, who said: “Absolutely foolhardy in my view. At a stroke they have alienated half their readers. A wise move in an era of declining newspaper circulations? I think not!”
But I think that annoyance – for most – will pass after tomorrow, especially because the regionals involved were so calm and careful with the language in their editorials, trying to provoke intelligent thought rather than just cheering on an enraged mass in the repugnant style of The Sun.
And if there are a few fully paid-up UKIP members or other far-right readers who continue to phone the editors concerned, screaming and shouting their outrage, you know should happen, don’t you?
Yep, do a Dowellie: ban any out-and-out extremists from ever buying the paper again. Now that would make a good splash.
▪Talking of good splashes, didn’t you just love Algemeen Dagblad’s Union Jack front page last Wednesday?
This headline was followed by a sentimental subheading in the centre of the flag that translated something like: ‘The British can be a right pain, but we don’t want to be and can’t do without them.’ Quite.