Sunday, June 12, 2005

Letters To The Editor - Part 1

I have been reading the Sydney Morning Herald since Year 7. That means I have been reading it since 1982. This is my 23rd year of reading it religiously, everyday. And who started this precedent in my life?

Was it my dad? My mum? My cricket coach? No. The trend was started by one Michael Miller, an English teacher at St Andrews Cathedral School. From Years 7 to 10, Mr Miller drummed into our heads that we must read the Herald every morning.

There were certain parts of the paper he especially emphasised. For instance …

1. The back page of the main section. Then entitled “stay in touch”, it has had various reincarnations. In 2001, when a photo of me appeared laughing whilst eating Turkish ice cream at Auburn, it was called “Sauce”. It was the place where all the smutty and silly humour was. And there was enough smut to keep private school boys entertained for hours.

2. The editorial and opinion sections. These were a must-read so that we knew what issues were being debated and re-debated and mass-debated out there in the “real” world. I hope Mr Miller was reading the Herald opinion page on April 28 2005 when his most troublesome student had his surname misspelt on that page.

3. The letters page. This was always located smack-bang between the editorials and the opinion pieces. This was wear the average punters had a go at sounding like journalists. It was also the place where short, terse, sarcastic and witty sentences ruled the roost.

Mr Miller told us that the letters page was perhaps the most influential part of the paper. Why? Because it was here that the real news was made. It was in the letters that we could read what we the readers were thinking and believing and responding to.

Letters were also what politicians, their media advisers, companies, public relations gurus, sociologists, social scientists and other miscellaneous BS-artists would read. Everyone knows what particular journalists think. But journalists only get 1 vote, just like the rest of us.

Politicians don’t know what goes through the minds of people when they vote. Political parties spend thousands of dollars doing polling and push-polling. They also rely on anecdotal evidence. And perhaps the most useful of this evidence is the letters page of daily newspapers.

People who regularly write to letters pages are often well-known in their community. Sometimes they are business people or professionals or civic leaders. Generally, they are self-opinionated gas-bags like me. Yes, we may be gas-bags. But at the dinner tables and pubs and clubs and churches and mosques and synagogues and other public places, it is the awful stench of our gases that people remember the most.

It is more than just a truism to suggest that he who shouts the loudest gets heard. The fact is that if your letter gets published in a major newspaper, thousands of people will read it. They will ring up their friends and ask if they read it. And in this age of e-mail, chances are that you will have readers everywhere from Iran to Israel, from Brazil to North Korea.

In short, if you are a regular feature in the Letters section, you are on your way to becoming an influential media star. You will wield real power in the press. Your opinions will be noted. Those choosing to ignore your opinions will have to make that choice and deliberate on it. You will no longer be casually ignored.

And how do Letters editors choose letters? Is it just a matter of whose letter best represents what the editors want people to believe? Is it a function of whose letters enclosed the biggest cheques?

Tune in next time when I continue on this fascinating topic.

(The author is a Sydney industrial relations lawyer who has been writing letters since he first learnt the alphabet. He has had letters published in the Melbourne Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph, the Australian, The Australasian Muslim Times, Australia FAIR, Insight, Australian Islamic Review, Arena (the Macquarie University Students Council newspaper) and the NSW Young Liberal Magazine Action. Some years back on Valentines Day, he wrote a letter accompanying a rose to a sub-continental Muslim girl, and was almost driven out of town by her father and other male family members. He has since learnt from that experience, and focuses his energies on writing letters to clients with accompanying bills.)

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