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Open door

Moving in the correct direction

The readers' editor on righting wrongs at the BBC and elsewhere

Ian Mayes
Saturday December 11, 2004
The Guardian


High on the list of questions most frequently asked of me is this: If having a readers' editor or ombudsman is such a good idea why do so few newspapers have one? To avoid disappointing you later let me say now that I do not know the answer.

In the United Kingdom the Guardian's only close follower is the Observer - where the readers' editor convincingly demonstrates his independence in the role despite necessarily having other responsibilities on the paper. The Independent on Sunday and the Daily Mirror also have readers' editors who practise their own variants of the role. It has been like that for several years.

However, interest in this particular form of self-regulation - characterised in its most effective form by the independence and accessibility of the ombudsman - seems to have greatly increased in recent months, at least outside the UK. (This week I have spent some time with journalists from Slovenia and Italy curious to know about the job - neither country at present has any news organisation with a dedicated ombudsman.)

The international Organisation of News Ombudsmen, of which I am vice-president, has been undergoing modest expansion, which seems likely to continue or even to accelerate, particularly perhaps outside the United States, the land of its birth. One hopes it will get a boost from the location of its annual conference next year in London. The total member ship of Ono - to use the irresistible acronym - is between 80 and 100 and roughly half of those are now working in countries other than the US.

Ono also has an increasing number of members working in broadcast journalism. There will be sessions at next year's conference devoted to the business of correcting broadcast errors.

The present president of the organisation is the ombudsman for National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington. He, like other broadcast ombudsmen, demonstrates that the idea can work effectively on radio and television, greatly facilitated now by the existence of related websites. During a brief visit to him last week the two of us took part in a phone-in programme on NPR and it was clear from the callers and from those who emailed later that the presence of the ombudsman is greatly appreciated.

Although the BBC has not appointed an ombudsman, there are now visible results from the overhaul of its complaints system that began at the time of the Hutton inquiry into the Andrew Gilligan affair. One of these is a website called NewsWatch (address below), concerned entirely with the news output of the BBC. It is linked from the home page of the BBC website. It has a corrections and clarifications column, news about BBC news, and a section of editorial notes that promises to be extremely informative and useful.

Leading these this week has been a note giving the BBC's response to the Bhopal hoax, in which a person posing as an official of Dow Chemical spuriously admitted Dow's responsibility for the Bhopal disaster of 1984 and promised billions of dollars in compensation. An interview with this man was broadcast first by BBC World and then by BBC News 24, Radio 2, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live.

NewsWatch, which gives the text of the retraction that was subsequently read on air, also quotes Richard Sambrook, now the World Service and Global News director, on the internal inquiry that is taking place.

Mr Sambrook says: "However, as important as that is, it was also essential for us to be seen to act quickly to correct this error and to be completely open with our audiences about what had happened and what we were doing about it.

"If audiences have confidence in us acting responsibly when this kind of thing happens, they will continue to trust our journalism."

It seems almost churlish to say that the appointment of an ombudsman might further enhance that trust. Mr Sambrook's remarks, though, very nicely illustrate the question that all news media organisations considering a form of self-regulation should ask: What kind of relationship do we, as journalists, want with our readers or listeners or viewers?

Self-regulatory systems should make the open and civilised relationship that we presume we all want a little easier to achieve. They will not impede or restrict any honest intention to inform. They will liberate and support it.

· For information about ONO: www.newsombudsmen.org The BBC's new service is at: www.bbc.co.uk/newswatch

· Readers may contact the office of the readers' editor by telephoning 0845 451 9589 (UK only, calls charged at local rate) or +44 (0)20 7713 4736 between 11am and 5pm UK time Monday to Friday excluding UK bank holidays. Mail to Readers' editor, The Guardian, 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3ER, UK. Fax +44 (0)20 7239 9997. reader@guardian.co.uk




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