Media: Dear columnist, I hate you

Journalists are easily reached by e-mail. But is it just an excuse for abuse?
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE already approximately 10 million Britons with access to the Internet and you could be forgiven for thinking that most of them are journalists, given the ubiquity of the e-mail addresses that have sprung up around newspaper columns. The Sun's Deidre Sanders (of "Dear Deidre" fame) has, like most agony aunts now, an e-mail address at the bottom of her column. Della Pickles, one of Deidre's counselling team, says the office receives more than 100 e-mails a week, and it shows no sign of decreasing.

"We do get some quirky ones," Della admits. "Certainly most of them are of a risque nature, it's a different catchment area." Della explains: "You have no pointers as to whether it's genuine or not. We've had some where we have had to say `this is just not true' due to the total implausibility of it."

But what kind of person would spend time writing hoax e-mails to "Dear Deidre"? It all sounds rather infantile. Predictably, penis size is a favourite subject for e-mailers.

"Yes," Della sighs, "we do get a big spurt in hoax e-mails after the examinations have finished in the summer, say from schoolchildren trying to set up the history teacher."

Gossip columnists, like advice columnists, have become e-mail devotees in the hope of receiving celebrity tip-offs and tit bits. However, the reality is somewhat different. "I get a fair few abusive e-mails," says Dominic Mohan, of The Sun's "Bizarre" column. "Most recently, I was congratulated on winning the Stars in Their Eyes final - someone thinks I look like Chris De Burgh! Someone else told me to get my hair cut because I looked like Liam Gallagher after a heavy night on the town."

Celebrity lookalike Dominic is not alone in being abused. The Mirror's Matthew Wright says he receives all sorts of e-mails from all sorts of people. "The vast majority are horribly derogatory, so those would be from my mother, my wife and my work colleagues," Matthew jokes. His favourite piece of recent e-mail is a joke from a reader that I shall reproduce in full: "This dyslexic man walks into a bra..."

You might expect broadsheet readers to be a trifle more serious. Eleanor Mills of The Sunday Times is a hearty exponent of e-mail contact with her readers. "It makes you realise how international the paper's readership is. Often you get quite entertaining exchanges." Although not as entertaining as Deidre's team, I suspect. Does she get any strange e-mails? Are there any cyber nutters out there? "No, that's mostly the letters, although I did call Jean Michel Jarre's music execrable once (in an interview with his British wife Charlotte Rampling) and I got an absolute volley of correspondence from the Jean Michel Jarre fan club in Holland."

Most of her correspondence is polite and supportive, though. It is usually men that e-mail her - it seems men are big on technology - and she says she receives e-mail from a wide cross section of society. "One guy who e-mailed me drove a taxi," she adds, mysteriously. "I think journalists should be called to account for what they write - the more you can reach out and touch the readers the better."

Phil Hogan who writes in The Observer is less altruistic about his reasons for having an e-mail address. "I thought I'd try to flush out some fan mail," he jokes, although it seems to have backfired somewhat.

Readers write in to complain about the grammar and structure of Hogan's column. "They say when they were at school they were taught that a sentence shouldn't be more than 25 words. I had an e-mail from one woman who asked `why do you think people are interested in what you do with your family every weekend?'... if I get any negative ones I do write back and pretend to be really charming to teach them the error of their ways."

Someone who is never short of either lunch invitations or e-mails is Michael Winner who writes in the News of the World and The Sunday Times, and can receive more than 100 e-mails a week. "I get lots from women who want to go out with me," he claims. "Women who read The Sunday Times write: `I desperately want to date Michael Winner. I only chose my last boyfriend because he looked like Michael Winner'."

It's the same story at the NoW. "The idea that the News of the World is read by illiterate navvies is just not true," says Winner. Around 60 per cent of his e-mail is from female admirers though, perhaps fortunately for these curious women, he does not reply to any of his e-mails personally. Winner says that the rudest e-mails he receives are from Conservative Party supporters. "Some of them are really very threatening because, you know, I support Mr Blair now," he says. "They threaten bodily violence, they're just lunatics. But I don't like e-mail it's very impersonal." Perhaps, in his case, with the number of threats, that's a lucky thing.