Please send us your letters, but only if they are genuine

Arlene Foster is interviewed by Mark Carruthers on The View, BBC One Northern Ireland, February 16 2017
Arlene Foster is interviewed by Mark Carruthers on The View, BBC One Northern Ireland, February 16 2017

Our lead letter on Tuesday has been shown to have been fake.

It was fiercely critical of the BBC handling of Arlene Foster’s interview on the The View last month, as pictured above.

Letters to Editor

Letters to Editor

Thanks to Mark Devenport who spotted the con.

We want to express the contempt we feel at the News Letter towards whoever sent the letter. It should not have appeared, because we have verification procedures.

It is particularly frustrating for me that this has happened because in recent years I have steered our letters page away from anonymous contributions.

Regular readers will notice that letters written under pen names rarely appear. Regrettably, this has lost us some trusted voices. Recently I reported the deaths of two veteran writers, Neil C. Oliver and a man who went under the name of Veritas. The latter’s final contributions had not been used because of our move away from anonymity.

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor, in the paper's Belfast offices

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor, in the paper's Belfast offices

We have not gone as far as the Irish News did some years ago and stopped anonymous letters.

Barring them reduces an already diminishing pool of contributors. But attentive readers will know that on the occasions we do use an anonymous letter, we try to give gender, initials and location. Someone with my name and address would appear as Mr BL, Belfast. This is done after we talk to the author.

In a recent example we decided to publish a Fermanagh woman who had not written before. But other requests to appear this way have been rejected.

Verifying contributors takes time. Imagine if BBC Talkback had to verify all callers.

It is hard for us, a small paper with a small team. Recently I called an IRA member who lives in the Republic but did not give his address. I emerged confident that I had indeed talked to him and the letter appeared.

We have alarmed readers who have sent letters by text by calling the number to find out who the sender is.

The fake letter arrived in one of our two offices, Portadown, where it was typed up and put in the system without verification.

It is grim to read that Mr Devenport has found that the Armagh address does not even exist, because beside my desk in the Belfast office I have the last phone book for all Northern Ireland (2001) to help find contributors. This is partly because elderly people can give an address but no number. Their hand writing can be hard to decipher.

Mark Carruthers, who conducted the BBC interview, has had the decency not to complain to us, even when we illustrated the letter with an image (the one above) in which he is visible.

It is understandable that in Northern Ireland many people will not put their name to political views. One reason we are getting more strict with letters is to prevent party operatives sending bogus letters.

We still have too many politicians in our letters, and want more variety.

Recently a regular writer, Micheal O’Cathail wrote a thought-provoking letter criticising Martin Luther and the reformation. It sparked passionate replies, and was a classic robust exchange of views that any good letters page will have (scroll down this link here to find them).

But it is a struggle in the digital age to keep the letters flowing. This fake is a setback but we will be even more vigilant now.

Sometimes we get fascinating hand-written letters with neither address nor number. We cannot even contact the author to ask if they would reconsider anonymity.

The fake attacked the BBC but we run letters criticising our coverage and indeed my own column.

There is a perception among unionists that the media is against them. Alistair Bushe, the editor, and I have had calls from readers angry at our RHI coverage. Our editorial line is unionist but we will not be uncritical of unionists.

I ask honest voices among the thousands of people who buy us daily: please send us your views (to letters@newsletter.co.uk).

• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor