Matt Nippert - PhD (spin), Wellington

Friday, April 16, 2004

Man of letters

Who is Stephen D Taylor, and why do you have a nagging suspicion you know him? It's because he's a fixture in the letters to the editor pages - in newspapers across the country.

After Russell Brown exposed a particularly nasty letter (resulting in an apology to Tim Barnett from the Herald), I thought a bit of investigation was required. Who is this man? How successful is the Maxim Institute 'Wizard' in propagating views?

He told Otago student newspaper Critic last year that he's "a fundamentalist Christian who has declared a holy war on political correctness." And a cursory search through newstext (that only covers 14 of the 76 publications the Wizard reaches) shows that Maxim's magic works.

Mr Taylor (he seems to have changed his signature from Steve to Stephen D towards the end of 2003) has had 40 of his letters published 68 times in the last 18 months. Don't worry, most of those appearances are in relatively small-circulation outlets. Mr Taylor, of Auckland, has been published in the Timaru Herald 27 times, and 17 in the Waikato Times. Some of these letters have been published in more than one publication - what this means for newspaper editorial policy will be considered later.

Choice examples of Taylorism are displayed below:

With the National Party now polling 45% and rising, "middle New Zealand" is extending a collective middle finger to the politically correct status quo.
- Sunday Star-Times and Waikato Times, Feb 2003.

The over-the-top outcry of the insipid politically correct elite over Paul Holmes' comments relating to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is yet another example of zealous left-wing ideological inconsistency...
If we really want to show concern for anyone, then we need to be reminded that charity begins at home. Our wellbeing must not be in the hands of a cowardly multi-national self-interest group such as the United Nations, which is advancing many of the conventions which we seem to be unwittingly adopting through politically-sanctioned "back-door osmosis".
- Timaru Herald, October 2003.

When bureaucrats, academics, politicians, and self-serving lobbyists enthusiastically quote "statistics", "research", and "evidence" to back up their latest ideological hobby horse I am often dismayed they don't seem to have the same enthusiasm in making this information available to the public.
- Timaru Herald, May 2003.

Geographical and circumstantial evidential factors for both creationism and Christianity are well documented and easily accessible to the enquiring and open minded researcher.
- Southland Times, May 2003.

And my personal favourites, incidentally the first and last letters I could find published by Mr Taylor:

True compassion values the life of another; it does not seek to take it. Murder is murder, regardless of any convenient ideology that may attempt to convince us otherwise.
- Waikato Times and Timaru Herald, April 2004. (On the conviction of Lesley Martin for attempted murder.)

The farcical situation of a private prosecution against a police officer carrying out his sworn duty, facilitated by the "Judas" that is the New Zealand judiciary system, defies both common sense and belief.
- Waikato Times, December 2002. (Concerning the death of Steven Wallace by police gunshot.)

Anecdotally at least, the letters to the editor pages are the most read part of any newspaper. It is supposed to reflect 'word from the street', reaction to issues of the day, and provide all of us a barometer as to what the 'public' is thinking. It's focus-group polling for those of us who can't afford pollsters. What does it mean when these pages, while not monopolised, are increasingly dominated by sophisticated moralising propagandists?

At the least it'll skew peoples opinions about what the rest of us are thinking, at worst it'll lead to politicians shifting policy in response to perceived public attitudes. (Interestingly enough, that other forum for public venting, talkback radio, isn't susceptible to this sort of spamming.)

And the final issue that deserves to be raised: what about newspaper policy on printing spammed letters? The Press (who only printed 1 Taylor missive) requires all letter-writers to "say whether the letter has been or will be submitted elsewhere." The Otago Daily Times (who don't feature in newstext) say "we don't publish letters submitted elsewhere." And the Herald (who to their credit published Mr Taylor for the first time this week) has no published policy, the same as the Dominion Post (who ran 7).

Editors on the letters pages take note: you're being taken for a ride. Taylor has gotten over 13,000 words of moralising rhetoric into newspapers around the country (not counting smaller community newspapers who, if anything, are more likely to print spammed mail), probably at the expense of people expressing genuine, local concerns. Taylor may have a point, but it's an underhand way of spreading it.

I might even feel moved to write a letter myself.

Aside: I've written a piece a piece in the Weekend Review section of tomorrow's Herald. About prisons, and why we're going from seventh to third in the OECD in imprisonment rates by 2010. We'll overtake Mexico and Slovenia, and internationally be sandwiched between Libya and Israel. Don't miss it.