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public editor

Nothing gets under some readers’ skin more than opinions they don’t like.

A large percentage of the complaints I get are about columns and editorials. One reader wrote in earlier this month saying it wasn’t appropriate for misleading opinions with inflammatory headlines to hide behind anonymous authorship with what appears to be The Globe and Mail’s support.

The reader didn’t say what was misleading or inflammatory, but the complaint came in on the day a strongly worded editorial about supply management ran under the somewhat cheeky headline “The conspiracy to inflate food prices is real. It’s time to rethink supply management.”

“The Globe and Mail has uncovered a wide-ranging conspiracy to inflate food prices, a dastardly scheme that has driven up the costs of basic groceries even as inflation pinches household budgets,” the editorial thundered with a hyperbolic touch. It went on to argue that supply management constrains supplies and keeps prices elevated.

The purpose of editorials is often misunderstood. They are anonymously written because they are meant to be the voice of The Globe and Mail and have the full support of senior editors. The team is led by editorials editor Patrick Brethour, with a core of two main writers and others regularly turned to for their expertise.

Editorials, like opinion columns, are meant to be strong views that advance the debate and may challenge your way of thinking.

At times serious, they can also be written in a fun, provocative way that draws your attention to a serious subject you might otherwise ignore, such as the dry economics behind supply management.

And certainly that editorial got people talking. What editorials like that do is spark debate that often spills into the letters page, which is the right place for such a debate.

That happened the next day with reader David Arthur of Cambridge, Ont., comparing prices of supply-managed foods such as dairy and noting that “poor Canadians are being charged almost twice as much as King Charles.”

Other letter writers that day criticized the editorial, and the letters debate continued with criticism from five farmers’ groups who called the editorial preposterous and a search for a scapegoat. That letter was bookended by reader Mark Bessoudo from London, who said food is cheaper in Britain than in Canada and that grocery chains there offer a better selection of high-quality products.

This was a great example of a very full and informed debate, from the editorial to the farmers and consumers.

When readers complain about opinion articles such as that editorial, I review to see if there is a factual error, which will be corrected. Like opinion columns, writers are entitled to take very strong positions, but they must be based on factual evidence. But if it is the opinion, tone, etc. that readers hate, the best place to address that and keep the debate going is to comment online or offer a letter to the editor. Letters such as Mr. Arthur’s – brief and with a sense of humour – are often favoured.

And as I told one reader (whose name I don’t know because their e-mail address was unclear), the tradition of editorials goes back centuries in English-language (but not French) newspapers. In the past, relatively few opinions were expressed, with editorials at the back of the news pages, pronouncing about policy problems of the day. George Brown, the first editor of The Globe, wielded a sharp pen to advance responsible government while taking shots at his foes and competitors, calling one “the literary common sewer of Toronto.”

Now, in digital and in print, many columns and opinions are published, an expansion many media have undertaken in order to offer more exclusive content.

The ideas expressed may be unpopular, but as with some editorials and columns, often well ahead of the accepted thinking of the day. For example, last year, an editorial encouraged the country to look at decriminalizing small amounts of drugs, just as a 2017 editorial urged the decriminalization of pot.