Letters to the editor – open letters to newspapers, what is the point? To let off steam I suppose, get something off one’s chest, tell the world how idiotic it can be. The use of open letters to newspapers with dozens of signatories has become an increasingly common form of protest of late. Fifty-three MP’s urged reform of drugs policy, 46 actors protested about cuts to regional theatre, 33 barristers opposed a British Bill of Rights. Twenty Church of England Bishops have written to condemn benefit cuts. Although addressed to the editor, the letters are obviously meant for a much wider audience, politicians in particular, sometimes to possibly open a debate on whatever subject is being aired. The array of acting talent that wrote to the Observer about arts funding, including Helen Mirren, Kenneth Branagh and Julie Walters, was stellar enough to make the news section. Likewise, when business figures have grouped together to support or attack the government's economic policies, it has invariably made a splash. Recently supported or condemned are forest privatisation, changes to the NHS, arts funding cuts, tuition fees hike, Bill of Rights, drugs policy and high-speed rail. I’m sure there must also have been letters for or against any extension to Heathrow. But do these letters really have any influence? It’s a tradition evidently that goes back to the 18th century when newspapers were taking off. The anti-slavery movement in the early 18th Century and early 19th Century used the national press like the Times, but provincial papers like the Manchester Guardian and the Leeds Mercury were even more important.
Two famous letters in history are those penned by Emile Zola and headed “J’Accuse” taking the French government to task and accusing them of anti-Semitism in the trial and imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus. The French government didn’t take too kindly to that with the result being Zola, convicted of libel, was forced to flee to England.
The other was from Martin Luther King written from jail in Birmingham, Alabama which contained the famous line, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
One of the most influential letters in England was sent to the Leeds Mercury in 1830, by English labour campaigner Richard Oastler and entitled ‘Yorkshire slavery.’ It read, “Thousands of our fellow-creatures and fellow-subjects, both male and female, the miserable inhabitants of a Yorkshire town, are this very moment existing in a state of slavery, more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system 'colonial' slavery.” The concern and debate it generated helped his campaign to bring about the 1833 Factory Act, which restricted the use of children in the textile industry.
What started me thinking about this is that, in all my years in England I did write a few letters to various papers, none of which was ever published whereas here in Greece, letters I have written to The Athens News have all been published. For those of you who don’t read The Athens news, in my next Blog I will print out my last letter. Now, if you can hold yourselves in anticipation and for a couple of days not get too excited, isn’t that a treat to look forward to?