Our passionate people of letters

Julia Blunden was 11 when she first started voicing her strong opinions as a primary school student. Her contributions to ABC radio's Argonauts Club were regularly read out on air.

Julia Blunden was 11 when she first started voicing her strong opinions as a primary school student. Her contributions to ABC radio's Argonauts Club were regularly read out on air.

More than 50 years later, Julia is still trying to influence public opinion, regularly writing letters to the editor on issues close to her heart such as public transport and climate change. Writing letters to the editor is a family affair in many Age readers' households. Julia's husband, Ralph, who has a master's in moral philosophy and a doctorate in education, is also a regular contributor. Occasionally the couple discuss issues and suggest improvements to each other's letters, but there is little rivalry in who gets published. "We tend to stick to our areas of knowledge," says Ralph Blunden. "While I used to write long-winded missives, I have learnt over the years to be much more succinct."

Peter Allan, another regular over the past decade, says his introduction to The Age was through Odd Spot: "In high school my friends and I would go to the library at lunchtime and get a chuckle each day." Allan says The Age then became "my paper". Just like some people can't start the day without a shower or a cup of coffee, "I can't start the day without my Age".

He is also pleased to claim some credit for inspiring a new generation of writers.

His daughter, Kate, 23, a history honours student, recently had her first Age letter published, while his son and some of their friends have also picked up their pens in the cause.

"I am encouraged that I have helped inspire the next generation to get involved and not just sit on the sidelines."

Kate Allan says that knowing her father had been published gave her confidence to start contributing. Gen Y representatives regularly join in online debates but Allan says there is something special about an argument being printed. "What you are saying just doesn't disappear into cyberspace and there is much more accountability."

Matthew Van Wees had his first letter published as a 14-year-old, when he made a cricket wisecrack about John Howard and Shane Warne.

In a remarkable show of perseverance, he continued to send in letters for another eight years before he was published again. Now a pharmacist, Matthew, 24, and his brother Nathan, 22, who has also begun contributing, indulge in some healthy sibling rivalry. Matthew is currently just pipping his brother in the publication stakes.

Letters that are accurate, factual and topical help a writer get published. Writer Barbara Chapman, for example, always provides references for claims made in her letters and regularly champions the causes of the voiceless in society, such as refugees and domestic violence victims. About seven years ago, after witnessing several disturbing events in adult education where she worked, she received a letter from a senior bureaucrat warning her not to speak publicly. "I was initially intimidated ... but about 12 months later, I reclaimed my voice. And the warning had the reverse effect."

She began writing to the paper more regularly. "Silence is consent, and I couldn't be silent in the face of institutional misconduct. It can be a formidable task to get another perspective out there because of the power imbalance in society, but that is why the Letters page is so important. It is one of the last bastions of democracy and truth."

Some letter writers express frustration with what they see as a perceived bias of the page. They believe that while readership of the newspaper would be evenly split between Coalition and Labor/Green voters, the letters do not reflect this, with a far higher proportion criticising the Coalition than Labor.

However, letters are published in strict proportion to the numbers received on any topic. Recently, for example, The Age received more than 80 letters critical of the Abbott government's male-dominated cabinet, while just over 10 letters backed the new Prime Minister's decision to have just one woman.

Barrister Douglas Potter believes the page falls for party-political campaigning. "People have obviously been given a script with talking points and the writers make those same points. I don't think it is a coincidence that so many letters are published on a certain topic from day to day."

Thomas Hogg, an economist who has been writing letters for more than a decade, is dismayed by what he calls an appalling understanding of economics generally, but especially from politicians and opinion makers.

As a public servant - he headed up two state government departments and was the chief executive of the Australian Manufacturing Council - he was constrained from speaking publicly. But when Jeff Kennett came to power and Hogg was made redundant, he became free to comment. He also believes the page is too heavily biased towards "inner-city lefties".

Potter also dislikes the anonymous contributions allowed by other media. "If you really believe something, you should stand up and be counted." Yet newly published writers can feel daunted. Kate Allan said she felt good at having her letter published, "but it soon turned to a feeling of paranoia that someone might cut down what I said".

"Because I am still quite young I am a probably a little more thin-skinned than older writers."

This is why Chapman has respect for letter writers. "They care enough to write in, even though they can expose themselves to possible ridicule, contempt or even hostility."

But despite the brickbats and bouquets, one message is consistent: the desire to be heard and make a difference to society lies at the heart of most writers' motivations.

The importance of the page to readers as they go about their daily life is also a common theme. Says Peter Allan: "I like the fact that the page is a conversation with a lot of people. It is like attending a rally when a few hundred or even a few thousand people attend. The rally might not achieve much but when you see a huge crowd of people that hold the same values as you, it feels good to know you are not fighting these issues alone."

Allan believes readers have a strong sense of ownership of the page. That writers are regularly allowed to criticise actions taken, or articles published, by the paper adds to its integrity, he says.

At its most basic, "everyone writes in because they are trying to make the world a better place, even though we do not all agree on how to do that".

Pardon me for mentioning... Unpublished letters to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald (Allen & Unwin) is available now. RRP $24.99

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