In August 1922 a newspaper publisher named Robert W. Sawyer attempted to define what constitutes “news”.   The nearest he could come, he said, is: “If the paper wants it worse than the person handing it in, it’s news….if the person handing it in wants it published worse than the newspaper, it’s advertising.”

A variant of this has been attributed variously to Lord Northcliffe, William Randolph Hearst and others: “News is what people do not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

It helps to keep this principle in mind when reading the “Letters to the Editor” section of one’s newspaper.

The letters page with which I am most familiar is that of the Irish Times, which newspaper I still consume daily — albeit sometimes with gritted teeth, thanks to its over-concentration and preachiness on gender issues, an approach exemplified by (but not limited to) Una Mullally.

If you think that the “Paper of Record” would have the sense to shield its readers from too much propaganda and special pleading in its letters page, think again. Most days, the letters originate from people who have a vested interest in the matter on which they are commentating, and the writers appear to be given free range by the editor to bang their own drum.  Maybe the editor reckons that the readers of the Irish Times are a sophisticated lot who can see through such obviously self-serving contributions.  Or maybe he is fixated with the concept of “balance” and is afraid to close off his columns to all and any hired guns – sorry, lobbyists – sorry, I mean spokespersons.

Today’s letter page is not untypical. A mere 6 letters, so a bit smaller than usual.  But they include letters from:

  • three “masters” of Dublin maternity hospitals, explaining why the mastership system needs to be retained;
  • a senior executive with the International Energy Research Centre, advocating greater stimulation by the government of low-carbon technologies;
  • a representative of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation LGBT Group, voicing concern about how teachers are expected to deal with the recent papal document Amoris Laetitia;
  • a resident of one of Dublin’s most expensive neighbourhoods arguing that the local property tax is unjust and should be the subject of greater agitation (as in water-tax-protests).

Insofar as I can tell, the remaining two letter-writers have no vested interest in the matter about which they are writing.

So two-thirds of the letters appear to be from people expressing views which they are paid to propagate or which are in their own personal interest. This is not to say that the views being expressed are wrong, or that they are not genuinely held; however it is helpful (nay, vital) to understand the context in which the letter-writers operate, and how that context might be influencing or accentuating their views, or making it much more likely that they will feel the need to publicly advocate them in the letters pages of our newspapers.

So I have adopted an invariable practice when reading these letters: start at the end of the letter, and take note of what role the writer performs or is representing. Not only will this help to put the content of the letter in its proper context (as Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”), but it also allows me to forego reading the letter completely on some occasions, on the grounds that my store of objective truth will not be thereby enhanced, and life is too short to waste on mere propaganda.

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