30 September 2013


The Age newspaper has been trying to tell its readers - old and new - how independent they are, and this large advert in recent papers is to persuade us that we really can accept that items published in Farifax appear without fear or favour!

Preserve us from such pious platitudes!

After a lifetime of reading newspapers in many countries and experiencing the downgrading of journalism and reporting in Fairfax in recent years, we can but despair that papers which were so good in past eras can be so bad in the current times that they cannot be trusted to tell the truth, nor to report - critically - matters which should be analysed, dissected, discussed and show honesty and lack of bias.

For many years of my long life I wrote letters to newspapers in whichever country I happened to be living in, and the topics were many and varied. I used to get letters published from time to time and certainly one's expectations were based on the fact that space for letters has always been limited and the number of letter-writers has been rising over time.

However, many years ago, when I was living in Sydney and writing letters on a regular basis to the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and which were just as regularly not ever published, a reader - and writer of letters - wrote in to say - and it was a published letter - that he or she had written about 100 letters to the SMH in a certain period of time and a certain number had been published - and was that a record?

So I wrote a letter to the SMH - which was of course NOT published! - stating that I had written about 100 letters in that same period of time, and NOT ONE had been published, and I was sure that was a record!

I also accused the letters editor of keeping a little black book with the names of people whose letters were not to be published, and the letters editor of the time had a weekly review column on letters sent in to the paper, and my black book suggestion was utterly refuted with all sorts of justifications given as to why my letters may not have got themselves published.

All nonsense, of course! My letters were not published in the SMH - and later not in The Age in Melbourne - because the respective letters editors and their chief editors didn't like what I had said on certain topics and they were certainly not going to print those letters!

So, back to the huge advert above of Fairfax damning themselves with this rubbish and also the following items which have been appearing in The Age since Saturday 28 September 2013:


Never too serious or silly for poised pen

September 28, 2013

Alex Kaplan

Each morning Myra Fisher reads the front page of The Age, thinks ''Bugger that …'', and fires off another missive to the editor.
With almost 500 letters to her name in the past 15 years, it's no surprise she has taken up the mantle of legendary late letter-writer Constance E. Little.

Myra Fisher has had her 10 pennies' worth for 30 years. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

For Mrs Fisher, having her ''10 pennies' worth'' is her sport. ''I love it,'' she says. ''I pit my wits against politicians, against sportsmen, against radio announcers.''

Like Constance E. Little, who when her health was failing contacted Mrs Fisher asking her to keep up the penmanship, no topic is too serious or too silly to tackle.

Mrs Fisher has shot politicians (Amanda Vanstone) out of cannons and given them the rude finger. She's dished out advice on the cooking of Patagonian tooth fish (fried better than poached) and observed the delight of a kiss (I said to my husband of 54 years, ''Kiss me like you used to''. He did. Oh, what joy!)

Being a leftie, she has not hesitated to give a tick to Julia Gillard (After a long labour - it's a girl!) or a kick to Tony Abbott (Face it, Tony, women are just ''not that into you''.)

The Letters page, she says, gives ordinary people a place like no other to have a voice. ''It's a forum, and it's a democracy. I can have my little say, and how wonderful is that? I mean, I'm nobody.''

Myra Fisher was born in London's East End in 1931, the daughter of Jewish migrants. She left school at 15 and trained as a hairdresser.

''I'm not highly educated but highly attuned,'' she says.

Her family journeyed to Melbourne as ''10-pound Poms'' when she was 17. Three years later, after a five-month courtship, she married Ron Fisher. ''He was so handsome - it was 'lust' at first sight!''
They raised a son and two daughters, one of whom died in 2001, aged 45.

Her observations, at 82 and a grandmother of five, often move her to write. ''The world has changed,'' she says. ''We've got to go along with it.''

A discussion this year about the unwillingness of men to wed prompted a longer, more personal letter about Ron, who died on St Valentine's Day this year.

''My husband volunteered into the navy when he was 17 … he spent his 21st birthday alone on guard duty at Chatham Barracks. What a man he was. Responsible and funny and mature.

''I look at my grandsons, and I love them to bits, but they're boys.''

When Mrs Fisher began writing to The Age more than three decades ago, she would read out letters on the phone to the paper's copytaker to type up. But as the internet age dawned, she refused to be left behind.

The prospect of making people chuckle keeps her going.

''Such a miserable bloody world some mornings, you wake up and read the paper. So if you can bring a smile to somebody's face, how lovely is that?''

Her occupation as a letter writer has taken on a life of its own. She burst into tears upon hearing from Constance E. Little. ''I was just knocked out.''

Having a letter published is a privilege, she says. ''I don't take that lightly.''

Alex Kaplan is Letters Co-editor.

Pardon me for mentioning… Unpublished letters to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald (Allen & Unwin) is available now. RRP $24.99



Our passionate people of letters

September 28, 2013

Elizabeth Minter

Julia Blunden was 11 when she first started voicing her strong opinions as a primary school student. Her contributions to ABC radio's Argonauts Club were regularly read out on air.

More than 50 years later, Julia is still trying to influence public opinion, regularly writing letters to the editor on issues close to her heart such as public transport and climate change. Writing letters to the editor is a family affair in many Age readers' households. Julia's husband, Ralph, who has a master's in moral philosophy and a doctorate in education, is also a regular contributor. Occasionally the couple discuss issues and suggest improvements to each other's letters, but there is little rivalry in who gets published. ''We tend to stick to our areas of knowledge,'' says Ralph Blunden. ''While I used to write long-winded missives, I have learnt over the years to be much more succinct.''

Peter Allan, another regular over the past decade, says his introduction to The Age was through Odd Spot: ''In high school my friends and I would go to the library at lunchtime and get a chuckle each day.'' Allan says The Age then became ''my paper''. Just like some people can't start the day without a shower or a cup of coffee, ''I can't start the day without my Age''.

Peter Allan and his daughter, Kate, are both regular letter writers to The Age. Photo: Angela Wylie
He is also pleased to claim some credit for inspiring a new generation of writers.

His daughter, Kate, 23, a history honours student, recently had her first Age letter published, while his son and some of their friends have also picked up their pens in the cause.

''I am encouraged that I have helped inspire the next generation to get involved and not just sit on the sidelines.''

Kate Allan says that knowing her father had been published gave her confidence to start contributing. Gen Y representatives regularly join in online debates but Allan says there is something special about an argument being printed. ''What you are saying just doesn't disappear into cyberspace and there is much more accountability.''

Matthew Van Wees had his first letter published as a 14-year-old, when he made a cricket wisecrack about John Howard and Shane Warne.

In a remarkable show of perseverance, he continued to send in letters for another eight years before he was published again. Now a pharmacist, Matthew, 24, and his brother Nathan, 22, who has also begun contributing, indulge in some healthy sibling rivalry. Matthew is currently just pipping his brother in the publication stakes.

Letters that are accurate, factual and topical help a writer get published. Writer Barbara Chapman, for example, always provides references for claims made in her letters and regularly champions the causes of the voiceless in society, such as refugees and domestic violence victims. About seven years ago, after witnessing several disturbing events in adult education where she worked, she received a letter from a senior bureaucrat warning her not to speak publicly. ''I was initially intimidated … but about 12 months later, I reclaimed my voice. And the warning had the reverse effect.''

She began writing to the paper more regularly. ''Silence is consent, and I couldn't be silent in the face of institutional misconduct. It can be a formidable task to get another perspective out there because of the power imbalance in society, but that is why the Letters page is so important. It is one of the last bastions of democracy and truth.''

Some letter writers express frustration with what they see as a perceived bias of the page. They believe that while readership of the newspaper would be evenly split between Coalition and Labor/Green voters, the letters do not reflect this, with a far higher proportion criticising the Coalition than Labor.

However, letters are published in strict proportion to the numbers received on any topic. Recently, for example, The Age received more than 80 letters critical of the Abbott government's male-dominated cabinet, while just over 10 letters backed the new Prime Minister's decision to have just one woman.

Barrister Douglas Potter believes the page falls for party-political campaigning. ''People have obviously been given a script with talking points and the writers make those same points. I don't think it is a coincidence that so many letters are published on a certain topic from day to day.''

Thomas Hogg, an economist who has been writing letters for more than a decade, is dismayed by what he calls an appalling understanding of economics generally, but especially from politicians and opinion makers.

As a public servant - he headed up two state government departments and was the chief executive of the Australian Manufacturing Council - he was constrained from speaking publicly. But when Jeff Kennett came to power and Hogg was made redundant, he became free to comment. He also believes the page is too heavily biased towards ''inner-city lefties''.

Potter also dislikes the anonymous contributions allowed by other media. ''If you really believe something, you should stand up and be counted.'' Yet newly published writers can feel daunted. Kate Allan said she felt good at having her letter published, ''but it soon turned to a feeling of paranoia that someone might cut down what I said''.

''Because I am still quite young I am a probably a little more thin-skinned than older writers.''

This is why Chapman has respect for letter writers. ''They care enough to write in, even though they can expose themselves to possible ridicule, contempt or even hostility.''

But despite the brickbats and bouquets, one message is consistent: the desire to be heard and make a difference to society lies at the heart of most writers' motivations.

The importance of the page to readers as they go about their daily life is also a common theme. Says Peter Allan: ''I like the fact that the page is a conversation with a lot of people. It is like attending a rally when a few hundred or even a few thousand people attend. The rally might not achieve much but when you see a huge crowd of people that hold the same values as you, it feels good to know you are not fighting these issues alone.''

Allan believes readers have a strong sense of ownership of the page. That writers are regularly allowed to criticise actions taken, or articles published, by the paper adds to its integrity, he says.
At its most basic, ''everyone writes in because they are trying to make the world a better place, even though we do not all agree on how to do that''.

Pardon me for mentioning… Unpublished letters to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald (Allen & Unwin) is available now. RRP $24.99


 In your own write

(editorial theage 300913)

Many are called, but few are chosen. Thus the eternal quandary of contributing to the letters-to-the-editor pages of The Age. Conversely, our letters editors, Liz Minter and Alex Kaplan, are faced with the daily task of selecting perhaps 25 letters out of about 300 submitted for publication.

It is no coincidence that The Age's editorials and our readers' letters share this space: the harmony of our opinions chiming with your opinions may contain more than a few dissonances, but this is exactly why we have always encouraged and valued your correspondence. Letters (emails, more likely) are as vital to newspapers as audiences are to a performance: without them, there can be no way to gauge the public mood - be it supportive or conflicting.

This week, some of our unsuccessful letter writers of the recent past finally receive their moment in the sun via a whole book devoted to their efforts. Pardon me for mentioning … is a compendium of unpublished letters to The Age and our sister paper, The Sydney Morning Herald. Edited by Ms Kaplan and her Herald counterparts, Julie Lewis and Catharine Munro, this book is not just an excuse to run resuscitated dead letters. It is a reminder of the diversity of opinion, quirks and foibles and downright common sense that lurks within the Fairfax readership.

On Saturday, we caught up with some of The Age's legion of letter writers - a breed that crosses generations and many differences of opinion. What they have in common, apart from their addiction to playing letter-lotto, is the desire to be heard and to make a difference. We salute them all, especially the indefatigable Myra Fisher, of East Brighton, who has written almost 500 letters to The Age in the past 15 years. To all of you: keep writing!


How fortunate

(letter in theage 300913)

As a fellow ''letter writer'', it was nice to put a face to your name, Myra Fisher (''Never too serious or silly for poised pen'', 28/9), and to read of the general acknowledgment for the ''passionate people of letters'' (Insight, 28/9). Whenever I submit a letter to the editor, regardless of whether it's published, I feel privileged; just as I do every time I go to the ballot box to vote. I am deeply aware of how blessed we are in Australia to not only have the freedom to express our views, but to be encouraged to do so. How many worldwide would give everything to have this right, and in fact, often do so?
Janine Joseph, Prahran East


Some years ago, when the fact that newspapers were not prepared to publish my letters became more and more apparent, I started a web page called Unpublished Letters, and managed to publish letters which needed to be out there and which had been ignored. Recently I have not been as driven to write letters to the media because I have developed my web pages more and more to reflect my politics, and the urgency of the main stream media has diminished.


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90 years old, political gay activist, hosting two web sites, one personal: http://www.red-jos.net one shared with my partner, 94-year-old Ken Lovett: http://www.josken.net and also this blog. The blog now has an alphabetical index: http://www.red-jos.net/alpha3.htm