Today (13 August 2004), the Western Daily Press reluctantly reveals why it believes two of the top men at the Countryside Alliance must go. This newspaper has been in correspondence with the management of the Countryside Alliance over the contents of this paper’s letters pages since April.
Both Tim Bonner, head of the organisation’s media department, and its chief executive, Simon Hart, accuse the paper of printing letters that contain what they believe are factual inaccuracies.
They are demanding that the Western Daily refuse to print what they consider to be offensive and inaccurate letters about the highly controversial subject of hunting.
In a letter to editor Terry Manners on April 29, Mr Bonner criticises this newspaper for what he sees as the selective editing of a letter from Mr Hart.
But he did not stop there, accusing the Western Daily of subjecting pro-hunters to reams of abuse.
“I cannot believe,” he writes, “other minorities taking part in legitimate activities would be subjected to the level of sustained abuse that we have through the letters page of your newspaper.”
He ended his correspondence with an inferred threat that they were considering sanctions against this paper, “unless I receive immediate assurances from you (the Western Daily Press) that such material will not be published in future.”
Managing editor John McNeilly replied the very next day.
He explained to Mr Bonner that the letters pages of the Western Daily were there to reflect the opinions of readers.
“We may not agree with many of the views expressed on either side of the many issues on which our readers feel strongly,” he wrote.
“But it is a fundamental right of a society with a free press that we respect their right to air their views.”
Mr McNeilly added that this newspaper did its best to be fair to all, but there were occasions when false claims were made.
This, he said, was why so many letters pages contained running arguments between correspondents. Mr McNeilly added: “For our part, we will not bow to pressure from anybody to change our policy on giving the fullest possible access to our letters pages.”
On August 5 Mr Hart weighed into the debate. He further accused the Western Daily of printing offensive and inaccurate letters.
He referred to correspondence from a reader which questioned whether it is acceptable to train dogs to “chase to exhaustion, drag down and maul pregnant deer to death”.
Mr Hart took exception to this letter, saying that skilled personnel shoot deer during hunting and “to suggest otherwise is inaccurate…”
On August 10 this newspaper ran an editorial comment piece about the ongoing debate.
This was not a news item.
The next day Mr Bonner sent an email and a letter.
“The Countryside Alliance has prepared a complaint for the PCC,” he wrote. “Our correspondence with you has always been reasonable and temperate,” he added.
And yet, he continues, this newspaper had continued to print letters he finds offensive.
Mr Bonner then asked for an immediate correction and apology or threatened another complaint to the PCC.
Today the editor of this newspaper refuses to back down.
What they had to say in their letters barrage
Here are extracts from some of the letters sent by the leaders of the Countryside Alliance to the Western Daily Press.
…the claim from a Mr Franklin that the Quantock Staghounds killed a cat is entirely inaccurate, as is the claim that Mr Person (Jan 19) was assaulted by hunt supporters.
In light of the freedom you allow your [readers] to abuse hunting people I found it especially ironic that the WDP chose to edit a recent letter from our chief executive.
Hunting is debated on the letters pages of newspapers across the country without resort to the sort of viciousness and insult which seem to be entirely acceptable to the WDP.
My request is not that you restrict access, but you consider issues of offence and accuracy on your letters pages as you would elsewhere in your newspaper, and edit the letters pages accordingly. I will otherwise be forced to seek redress elsewhere.
I refer you in particular to the first paragraph of the letter: ‘Why is it perfectly all right for hunts to train dogs to chase to exhaustion, drag down and maul pregnant deer to death.’ Dogs used for hunting deer do not ‘drag down’ or ‘maul pregnant deer to death.’ Skilled personnel shoot deer culled at point- blank range during deer hunting, to suggest otherwise is inaccurate to those involved in controlling deer populations.
If a correction and apology are not forthcoming we will be forced to consider whether the misrepresentation of our correspondence in your editorial warrants another complaint to the PCC.
I am also willing, if necessary, to test the accuracy of descriptions of people who hunt as ‘intellectually inferior’, ‘barbaric and cruel’, ‘morons’ inflicting ‘agony and terror’ etc… and claims of mistreatment of hounds.
I would ask that you urgently review your editorial policy regarding the publication of offensive, abusive and inaccurate letters from anti-hunting [readers].
Can you honestly say that the WDP would publish a description of an ethnic or sexual minority as intellectually inferior or moronic, or infer that they were child abusers, as you seem to think it acceptable to hunting people.
A letter printed in your newspaper Hooligans on horses take note made several claims that are inaccurate, misleading and distorted…
In all our dealings with the UK’s regional papers none has ever blatantly misunderstood the point we are making. Nor have we ever failed to reach an amicable solution (short of courts or PCC) if errors have been made.