OPINION: The perilously thin line between being racy and racist

A word of advice for wannabe newspaper columnists: if you want an editor to give up precious column inches to entertain your opinions, don’t be vanilla.

Any publication worth its salt wants writers who provoke – even anger – to keep the title engaging and spark healthy debate on the letters page. When it comes to columnists, only knickerbocker glories need apply.

Jewish News is no different. It proudly seeks out columns to get “indignant from Golders Green” and “huffish from Hampstead” furiously spitting out their Friday night chicken soup. A prime example was a recent piece backing cuddly Ken Livingstone’s claim that Hitler supported Zionism, which sparked incandescent rage among many readers and was subsequently cited by the former London mayor in his defence against being suspended by the Labour Party.

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Of course, there is a perilously thin line between provocative and repulsive, controversial and irrational.

It’s a line an editor is duty bound to flirt with but never cross, hence significant time and thought is given to the tone and content of every submission on its journey from pitch to print.

Occasionally, as in the case of Kevin Myers’ column for last weekend’s Irish Sunday Times, the editorial wheels fall off in spectacular fashion, leaving the publication’s reputation in tatters.

In a piece on BBC salary sexism, Myers noted that Vanessa Feltz and Claudia Winkleman are well paid because they are Jewish.

This claim, of course, isn’t so much overstepping the line as wilfully leaping over it like a cheating Pakistani fast bowler [there’s that line again].

Bizarrely, Myers’ vile observation was out of step with his long record of public support for the Jewish community [he once wrote in the Belfast Telegraph: “No other people in history has done more to benefit mankind or enrich our common civilisation than the Jews]. How Myers’ column reads may well not be how it was meant.

Sunday Times editor Martin Ivens apologised personally to Feltz and Winkleman for the “unacceptable comments both to Jewish people and to women in the workplace”.

The Irish edition, edited by Frank Fitzgibbon, will carry an apology this weekend. Myers, meanwhile, has been sacked by the newspaper and fallen on his sword, saying: “It’s over for me professionally I am very, very sorry.”

All of which seems like a suitable outcome. Less satisfactory, however, are all the unanswered questions hanging over the editorial process – or lack of – at one of the world’s most esteemed newspapers that led to it trotting out the shabbiest anti-Semitic libel in the book.

Why didn’t the comment editor reject Myers’ column off the bat? Why didn’t the sub editor responsible for editing his piece raise the alarm? And why didn’t Fitzgibbon, who may have hired Myers in the first place, do his job as the ultimate gatekeeper and bin it? The newspaper’s mea culpa is well and good, but it doesn’t answer these questions, or the central one of this sorry affair. To paraphrase the BBC’s [no-doubt underpaid] sports commentator Barry Davies during the men’s hockey final at the 1988 Olympics: “Where was the editor?”

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