Monday, 20 May 2013

The Name of the Writer

There is a letter which appeared in the JEP, purporting to be from James Pearce, of 17b Marett Court, which was critical of Deputy Montfort Tadier's recent interview in the French press. It began:
"FREE speech and speaking one's mind is all very well, but if, when speaking to a major newspaper, a States Member says something that's inaccurate, nonsense or just plain silly then they should be challenged on it."
In fact, the entire letter by Mr Pearce was full of rhetoric, but lacking in substance. And an investigation by Nick Le Cornu revealed even more about the writer:
"There is no 17b Marett Court. There are only flats with whole numbers. The woman at Flat 17 has no idea who James Pearce may be, a name not on the current electoral role"
The JEP has since acknowledged that the address is bogus, and the writer may well be using a false name. Not being able to track the writer, they are exercising caution over whether he is a real person or not.
There's been a lot of criticism on Facebook about how they should check their letters more thoroughly before printing them, for example: "The post should check before printing any letters, not very good from our local paper."
But how can they check, short of going round to the door?
If there is a postcode, addresses are relatively easy as postcode search software quickly gives the addresses on that postcode; that's what you see that on various online sites before purchases are made - you put in your postcode, and it comes up with a list of houses or flats at that postcode.
Names, however, are more tricky. They may not be in the phone book because they have decided to be ex-directory. They may not be on the electoral role. I do not know how Darius Pearce (no relation of the aforementioned James) can boldly state "I have taken the trouble to do my research and I can confirm that there is no James Pearce in Jersey"; there is simply no way that degree of certainty can operate unless you have access to detailed census returns (and they were completed accurately).
Short of going round to an address and making inquiries, how is the JEP to know whether a letter is genuine or not?
In 2010, a writer called "Ellie Light" wrote a letter which concluded:
"... today, the president is being attacked as if he were a salesman who promised us that our problems would wash off in the morning. He never made such a promise. It's time for Americans to realize that governing is hard work, and that a president can't just wave a magic wand and fix everything."
As Media Post news notes, this letter was published by at least 65 provincial newspapers in 31 states, as well as Politico, a USA Today blog, and at least two foreign publications, and the larger papers such as the Philadelphia Daily News, San Francisco Examiner, Baltimore Chronicle and Washington Times. But "Ellie Light" must be a fake, as it was discovered the addresses were false:
"In each case "Light" has claimed to be a local, claiming residence in states including Alabama, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia."
In practical terms, it is simply not possible for any newspaper to check every letter is genuine. There has to be an element of trust.
It is because of that element of trust, that the hoax letter writer can make their mark. Those of us with long memories will recall the "Henry Root letter" of 1980.
These were a series of letters sent by "Henry Root" to famous football clubs, publishers, chief constables, Margaret Thatcher, politicians, newspaper editors etc. by the real author William Donaldson, an English satirist.
There was often a rather nasty edge to the Root letters, a degree of unpleasantness in which he insulted those he had written to, or held them up to scorn and ridicule, and was pleased that he had deceived them with his fake persona.
A milder example is a letter to Harriet Harman, whom he addresses as being representative of "The National Council for so-called Civil Liberties"; he writes to her:
"I saw you on television the other night. Why should an attractive lass like you want to confuse her pretty little head with complicated matters of politics, jurisprudence, sociology and the so-called rights of man? Leave such considerations to us men, that's my advice to you. A pretty girl like you should have settled down by now with a husband and a couple of kiddies."
Fake letters and hoax letter writers are here to stay, and with the best will in the world, it is impossible to easily find them out. Fake addresses are another matter, and perhaps the JEP could exercise a little more vigilance there.


James said...

This is fair enough.

What the JEP fail to understand, of course, is that while all letters should have a genuine names and address attached to them, the policy of publishing addresses without the explicit consent of the writer is a breach of the basic principles of data protection...

crapaudmatic said...

Yet it is well accepted that comments can be published on their webiste forums under silly anonymous names. So what's the difference - apart from the forums receiving only temporary attention and then fading into obscurity, while the printed JEP ends up on microfiche at the library?

An opinion is still an opinion as valid as any other, whether there is a real name attached to it or not. The reader should still question the motive of the writer and whether they are connected to the JEP itself, either way.