A departing readers’ editor

By Chris Elliott

The Guardian

One of the many things this job has taught me is how careful you have to be about the dangers of plagiarism, even when accidental. Therefore I should say that I think it was David Blundy, that fine foreign correspondent, killed in San Salvador in 1989, who likened weekly journalism to a cold. In his case it was working for three Sunday newspapers – the Times, the Telegraph and finally the Sunday Correspondent. Even humble readers’ editors, far from the front, have similar feelings as deadline approaches.

As a weekly columnist you get up on Monday feeling fine, but by the evening that first slight headache sets in as you begin to wonder what you will write about. As Tuesday passes into Wednesday your nose begins to stream and by Thursday the fever has really taken hold as the deadline charges head-on at you.

This, my last column as Guardian readers’ editor, was no different. The issue most complained of last week was the use of the picture of two female victims of the bombing of Brussels airport, which ran across the front of the newspaper on Wednesday 23 March, as well as online. Readers felt outraged on behalf of one of the women, whose yellow top had been blown off to expose her midriff and bra.

This email was typical of a dozen we received: “I am appalled that the Guardian has chosen to include on its front page today the picture at Brussels airport of a woman left half-dressed following the explosions. Why are you adding to her distress by choosing that shot? What would you feel if that was you or a friend or family member? I had thought better of you.”

Others felt it was voyeuristic, an intrusion into her privacy, and had taken away the woman’s dignity. The shot, taken in the immediate aftermath by Ketevan Kardava, a special correspondent for the Georgian Public Broadcaster network, was used by news organisations around the world to capture a moment after the bombs went off.

As Nadia Khomami, reporting for the Guardian 24 hours later, wrote: “The woman has since been identified as Indian air stewardess Nidhi Chaphekar, a mother of two from Mumbai who arrived at the terminal ahead of meeting her colleagues for a flight to Newark in the United States. Chaphekar was at the check-in in the departures area when the explosions occurred, bringing down the ceiling of the building and killing 11 people, with dozens more wounded.”

Complaints from readers about the use of photographs taken in the aftermath of violent events have featured in Open door columns before, one reason I hesitated about returning to the subject.

Many readers, especially in a digital age where the images will be accessible for a very long time, feel that the privacy of the individual is more important than the photograph.

However, many readers have a different concern: that the Guardian tones down the pictures it uses. There was a readers’ backlash when the Guardian manipulated a photograph in the wake of the Madrid train bombing 12 years ago to bleach the blood out of a severed limb in the foreground of the image.

It is important to tell the story honestly, even if that means using difficult images. I think the Guardian was right to use that picture last week. This was debated at the Guardian’s morning conference, where opinion was divided. However, as I wrote in my replies to readers’ emails: “It was the terrorists, not the photo, that took her dignity.”

I know that many readers will disagree with my view – that’s the nature of this job for whoever has the privilege of holding it. The new Guardian global readers’ editor will find no shortage of readers expecting to challenge and be heard. In my experience this is not a sign of their hostility but commitment to their understanding of what the Guardian stands for and should be.

There is one other great quote from David Blundy, which was remembered by his former editor Harry Evans at Blundy’s memorial service and is reproduced in the epilogue to The Last Paragraph, a collection of Blundy’s journalism brought together by his great friend Anthony Holden. According to Evans, Blundy once looked up from his notebook as he hunched over his typewriter: “Do you find a problem,” he would say, “of getting the words in the right order? What’s it all about?” That doesn’t change.

This column was originally published in the Guardian on 28 March 2016.

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