Ian Mayes is readers' editor of The Guardian and was recently elected vice-president of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen.
Happy honeymoon, Michael 3
Mary Riddell - Blackadder bites back 7
Stewart Purvis - And finally? Not quite yet 15
Elizabeth Day - Why women love journalism 21
Samuel Pecke - Local heroes 26
George Melly - The jazzman cometh 31
Mike Jempson - Clearing up our own backyard 36
Jackie Errigo & Bob Franklin - Surviving in the hackacademy 43
J M Wober - Top people write to The Times 49
Tessa Mayes - Here is the news-as-views 55
Bill Hagerty - Still on the waterfront 60
Ian Mayes - Trust me I'm an ombudsman 65
BOOK REVIEWSWill Wyatt on Simon Rogers 71
Charles Perkins on Jayson Blair 74
Bernard Shrimsley on Toby Moore 77
Nicholas Jones on Andrew Blick 79
Patrick E Tyler on Tom Rosenstiel 82
Alastair Brett on Joshua Rosenberg 85
Since I became the readers' editor of The Guardian in November 1997,
appointed to discuss publicly and impartially in its pages complaints and
queries about its journalism, the idea has not exactly – to quote the editor of
the paper, Alan Rusbridger – caught on like a bush fire. Clearly, it still seems
eccentric to some: flagellation and/or exhibitionism. The principle is a
simple one: news organisations that, almost by definition, constantly call
others to account should be more readily accountable and open themselves,
and should be seen to be so.
Not to be too glum, there has been some movement. Three other British newspapers quite quickly appointed readers' editors, The Observer, The Independent on Sunday, and the Daily Mirror. All continue to publish corrections, and the two Sunday papers regularly carry columns discussing issues raised by readers. Like The Guardian, they all give their contact details, and in addition the Daily Mirror tells readers how to contact the Press Complaints Commission. The Guardian provides a low-rate telephone line for readers within the UK who wish to complain or comment. A link to the day's corrections is provided from the home page of The Guardian website. And significant corrections are now attached to the top of stories in the electronic archive, reducing, one hopes, the perpetuation of errors. Several other newspapers now carry a paragraph expressing their willingness to correct mistakes, although they seldom seem to find it necessary to do so. Nevertheless, I think, as a cautious generalisation, you could say it is a bit easier to get something corrected in a national newspaper and The Guardian's systematic approach to the business may have played a part.
I am still the only person in Britain who does the job full-time and daily, working inside the paper from a position of independence and not involved in any way in The Guardian's production. Washing (not whitewashing) the paper's dirty linen in public, as one U.S. ombudsman has put it. In the time I have been doing it, about 50,000 readers have been in touch to register a complaint or query, now levelling off (perhaps) at about 10,000 a year. These calls, now mostly by e-mail, have led to an average of 1,500 notes a year in the corrections and clarifications column, carried daily on the leader page of the paper. Journalists who err are now apt to anticipate complaint and turn themselves in. A quick correction has often preserved a valued contact.
Because we have logged everything since I began, we have accumulated what is possibly a unique database of feedback from readers. Their views have been fed into The Guardian's editorial code and into its style guide, both of which are published on the paper's website where readers can see the results of their interaction with the paper – complaint, comment and suggestion as a form of participation. More newspapers will, I believe, come to see this high level of exchange with readers as not just inevitable but desirable and beneficial as the technological revolution makes a more passive, traditional relationship seem increasingly redundant. At the same time, I hope, the value of having a resident independent mediator will become easier to argue. What evidence there is (a couple of polls by Politiken in Denmark, and a limited one by The Guardian) suggests that the presence of an ombudsman, and in particular the systematic correction of mistakes, increases trust in a paper and its journalists.
Editor has no vetoAt The Guardian I have been given an unusual degree of independence and freedom even by the standards of the relatively few people doing similar jobs in media organisations around the world. I cannot be dismissed by the editor within the period of my contract, except by a decision of the owner of The Guardian, the Scott Trust. The editor cannot veto or interfere with what I write in my weekly column, in which the paper is often taken to task. And although he has the right to decide whether or not a mistake merits an apology as well as a correction, in practice that too has been left to my discretion. My terms of reference are published on The Guardian website (www.guardian.co.uk/readerseditor). They include explaining to its readers the way the paper works so that criticism of it might be better informed.
This degree of freedom is apparently inconceivable to some readers. After a recent column in which I discussed and dismissed two complaints about the manipulation of pictures, a reader, although not a very attentive one, wrote: “You admitted your paper doctors photos in a previous article that you penned while bent over the table with your editors close behind you. Why do you persist in being so uncritical of your employer? Your fear is obvious. The bias is pathetic” etc. I am occasionally reminded of the words of P G Wodehouse's Psmith, who was moved to remark, during his tenure of Cosy Moments: “We court criticism, but this is mere abuse.” Clearly not everyone will be convinced. The previous article to which this reader referred was one in which I criticised The Guardian for bleaching out a severed limb in a photograph showing the immediate aftermath of the bombs at Atocha station in Madrid; in effect, toning the picture down. I thought I had said clearly enough that The Guardian should not have done it.
Journalists, too, sometimes look askance. After a debate in the editor's conference, prompted by the publication on the Comment pages of a lengthy extract from one of Osama bin Laden's tapes, I e-mailed all journalists asking whether they thought the paper was right or wrong to run it in that way and in that spot. In a media diary item in the Telegraph this became “a panicky global e-mail”. The results of the survey were incorporated in my column. On another occasion I responded to complaints attracted by a column about transsexuals in the Weekend magazine by agreeing that the complaints were justified and that the piece had abused a minority that The Guardian might have been expected to protect. A transsexual journalist, writing in The Journalist, said: “There were so many complaints that the paper's readers' editor had to write a column distancing himself from [the author's] comments.” Both of these snippets fundamentally misconstrue the way I work and imply involvement at the expense of independence – suggesting, so to speak, that the referee is playing on the home side.
My independence has, in fact, been independently tested in the High Court where a judge capped the damages against The Guardian in respect of a defamatory article because of the efforts I had made – unsuccessfully – to agree a form of apology. The Guardian had called me as a witness. After examining the correspondence with the complainants and the two authors of the article, the judge said I had acted “honourably, independently and competently” (an action brought by James Mawdsley against The Guardian, July 2002). Incidentally, the judge tacitly endorsed the customary position of the corrections, on the leader page of the paper, as an appropriate place for the note that was finally agreed in this case.
Without this independence I could not have worked in the way that I have. In my weekly column I have discussed complaints about the coverage of a fatal train crash, including charges of intrusion into grief and privacy; accusations of anti-Semitism in the paper's reporting of the Middle East; the propriety of the paper carrying pictures of dead people and whether black and white people are treated equally in this respect; the relative news values that consign 2,000 people killed in an African ferry disaster to a few paragraphs on a foreign news page; the paper's reporting of suicide and mental illness; pejorative references to minority groups; electronic lobbies; plagiarism, and so on. It is important to my mind that these discussions take place in the main broadsheet paper and not in the media section. I am not a media correspondent. In the course of assessing a complaint I rarely compare what The Guardian has done with the treatment given to the same material by other papers. In the column I discuss the story that has prompted the complaint with those responsible for writing and editing it, which sometimes includes the editor of the paper, and then I usually, but not always, come to a conclusion of my own.
Legal traffic is reducedI do not have a brief to defend The Guardian. I do have an obligation to reject unfounded complaints against it and its journalists and I do that quite frequently. Complainants who are unhappy about my conclusions are free to take their grievance to the Press Complaints Commission and, if necessary, are advised how to do that. Once they follow that course I play no further part and the matter will be handled by the managing editor of The Guardian. On rare occasions a complainant will sue. However, resistance to carrying regular corrections through fear of litigation, which may still be a brake on any inclination to do so, is misplaced. The head of legal affairs at The Guardian believes that the activities of my department reduce the traffic to her by between 30 and 50 per cent. My experience and that of other media ombudsmen elsewhere suggests very strongly that in their initial contact even those with very serious grievances want to have their complaint properly considered and some appropriate action taken: they want recognition not retribution. The culture of the industry remains, despite signs of change, far too conservative and defensive.
Why hasn't the idea moved faster and farther? After all, it has been around for almost half a century. Crises such as the Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times and that involving Andrew Gilligan at the BBC have focused minds. The New York Times, although it has been an assiduous corrector for years, had always resisted the idea of having an ombudsman. In the words of its former executive editor Joe Lelyveld, “We are the ombudsmen.” It has now, post-Blair, appointed one. The BBC is also rethinking its system for responding to complaints. Alan Rusbridger, whose idea it was to introduce an ombudsman to The Guardian, keeps making the point that in the rapidly changing media environment trust is becoming more important than ever. He suggests that in this context the idea of an editor dealing with complaints in which he or she is an interested party is a bit bizarre, let alone the impossible demands made on an editor's time.
Both I and Stephen Pritchard, the readers' editor of The Observer, belong to the international Organisation of News Ombudsmen, of which I am a board member. It has one other listed member in the UK, William Newman, the ombudsman on The Sun, who is, in fact, one of the longest-standing members of the organisation. His services, like those of someone similarly designated at The Guardian and several other British newspapers in the past, are not, I think it is fair to say, really advertised to readers but have to be discovered by actual complaint. I hope I have made it clear why I favour high visibility and easy accessibility, which are characteristics that most of the members of ONO – to use its wonderfully appropriate acronym – have in common.
ONO has grown and evolved out of pioneer beginnings in the United States in the 1960s. It now has about 80 members worldwide of whom roughly half are in North America and the others spread, thinly it has to be said, round the globe. Nearly all the present members figure prominently in their newspapers, radio or television networks, and enjoy a high degree of independence. Well over half of them write columns, to which links are provided from the ONO web site (www.newsombudsmen.org). The current president, Yavuz Baydar, is the reader representative of the Istanbul daily Milliyet, and a strong internationalising influence. As I write, he is preparing to preside over ONO's annual conference, held in May this year at the Poynter Institute in St Petersburg, Florida. He describes the ombudsman's role as opening a window on the inner working of news organisations. “We try to make sure that reporters, editors, managers and executives know what readers, listeners and viewers really think. Then we make sure that people know that their comments and feedback have reached a destination that matters – we all work to raise professional standards.”
The Poynter Institute (www.poynter.org) has compatible aims. It describes itself as “a school for journalists, future journalists, and teachers of journalists” with special reference to the role of journalism in a democracy. “It stands for a journalism that informs citizens and enlightens public discourse.” In 2005, ONO's conference will be in London, hosted by The Guardian and Observer, and it remains to be seen whether the occasion stimulates further appointments of ombudsmen in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe (there are no ombudsmen in Germany or Italy, for example). I hope it does, because as I approach seven years in the job, I still feel quite evangelical about it.