Fair comment? Should we let columnists say anything they like?

They’re the good, the bad and the ugly of regional newspapers.

Some of the best writing in any paper or website should be that done by its columnists.

I’ve written before in praise of colleagues who every week find something new and engaging to write about.

They surprise, they challenge, they shed light and they make sense of life.

There are papers that I would buy simply because of the brilliance and insight of a single columnist.

But there’s also another world: one of free plugs, diaries, anodyne blandness and third-rate rabble-rousing.

We have to face up to the fact that some of the material we dress up as comment, columns and opinion is simply not very good.

We perhaps give too little thought to this area of content which offers a chink of light for our print products.

For one thing, we tend not to pay for many of these pieces, relying instead on pro bono arrangements which suit the writers’ businesses, political priorities or charity choices.

Then we can miss opportunities to direct the subject matter, to weave it into packages of informed analysis and entertainment.

And we prioritise the reliable over the interesting, as we let the words touch busy newsdesks as lightly and little as possible, like some kind of pass the parcel game.

So I’m not in the least bit surprised at the mess Portsmouth News editor Mark Waldron has found himself in, having to apologise for a columnist who questioned whether people with a mental illness weren’t making a bit of a meal of it all.

I’d be fascinated to know whether Mark had the faintest idea what Clive Smith had written before he faced up to the social media storm.

I return to this great irony: the words which have the greatest potential to engage and inspire our audiences, as well as the greatest potential to damage us, probably get the least love and attention of any in our products.

At a time when universities and their student unions are redefining the concept of freedom of speech, our pages should contain ideas that have the capacity to stir things up.

But this is an argument that needs to be deployed in advance of trouble, in the secure knowledge that our ability to shout ‘fire’ in that crowded theatre has been used constructively and creatively.

Too often we end up having to defend the indefensible because we’ve taken our eye off the ball that could be our very best content.




One thought on “Fair comment? Should we let columnists say anything they like?

  1. Stewart Lee’s line on Clarkson: ‘hard-hitting controversial opinions which he has every week, to a deadline, for money’ applies to too many columnists

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