Democracy, media and (cyber) ombudsmen

Former ONO president and Guardian Readers Editor Ian Mayes spoke at a national round table for Turkey in Istanbul on Sept. 21, 2010, part of a regional program for media in south-east Europe financed jointly by the European Commission and UNESCO.

“Good morning. The title of this short talk – Democracy, media and (cyber) ombudsmen – a rather ambitious title for which I think I have to thank Yavuz — is asking me to cover rather a lot of ground in half an hour. But it gives me the opportunity to make several key if rather obvious points:

1 That free open and accountable media are essential elements in any real democracy. It goes like this: a government can not be called genuinely democratic if it considers itself to be above criticism, and behaves as though that is the case.
One of the key functions of the news media in a democracy is – as someone has put it – to speak truth to power. But the media should not be above criticism either.

This is the question that I keep coming back to – and this is where the ombudsman comes in: Why should the news media which, almost by definition, call for others to be accountable for what they do, not be accountable for what they do themselves? The media should be seen to be practising what they preach. So that point again: Free open and accountable media are essential elements in a democratic society.

2 That the media themselves have been or are in process of being democratised. The digital revolution, starting with the rise of email, has led to the expectation of easy and immediate access to one another. It has followed on from that that we have come to expect free and easy access to the institutions that affect and govern our lives – and to expect a response.

One of these institutions is the media. The more confident the media are in the role they play in society the more they will relax in this new situation of being open and accountable for their own actions. Just as people in democratic societies have come to expect their complaints, let’s say, about government institutions to be heard and replied to, so increasingly they have expected the media to reply to complaints about their actions.

3 That the various forms of self-regulation of the news media are increasingly seen as preferable to regulation by law or government edict. No system of self-regulation will work unless it is underpinned by genuine commitment and is able to act independently of the hierarchy in the organisation to which it applies.

So that means it requires the strong commitment of the owners, management and editorial directors – the editors especially.

The test of this commitment in the case of those media organisations employing an ombudsman, is when the ombudsman upholds a serious complaint brought against so to speak his own organisation.

As I said, a popular argument in favour of self-regulation is that it avoids the need for, or fends off, government legislation. But it can only do that if it is seen to be effective. We would probably all describe ourselves as believers in and defenders of the freedom of the press. But – and this is something we can discuss later if you like – do we believe that that freedom is or should be absolute.

Perhaps what most of us believe in – what I believe in – is not absolute freedom in the modern complicated global context in which we now work – but qualified freedom. Or to put it another way: freedom with responsibility. And self-regulation depends upon the way in which we define this for ourselves.

4 That self regulation is made more rather than less desirable by the digital revolution that is transforming all our lives.

It is sometimes argued that the development of digital online journalism open to comment by anyone who cares to post a few words has done away with the need for ombudsmen.

The argument goes like this: the process is self-correcting, especially if it is a live blog taking account of a rapidly changing situation. It is doing in effect what an old-fashioned newspaper used to do through successive editions. But it is doing it continuously and with the benefit of input by others through their postings.

This seems to presuppose that the blog is being followed from beginning to end – and it assumes that the statements in it are reliable by the standards of normal journalistic inquiry, scrutiny and verification. We know that is not often, and perhaps, not usually the case.

I make just one observation here. It is not unethical to make a mistake. We are all human – therefore we all make mistakes. But it is unethical if knowing we have made a mistake we do not correct it. As someone has said: to err is human, to correct is divine. Actually I think I might have said that myself.

5 And this is a very positive point That the position of ombudsman is unique in that it is the only form of self regulation that gives an individual news organisation the opportunity to signal a new more open relationship with its – let us for convenience sake this morning continue to call them readers – [although it’s a term that suggests a passive role that is increasingly not the case in our multi-media participatory universe].

And that I think is the most important point that I want to make – that the presence of an independent ombudsman in a news organisation indicates a genuine desire for a new relationship between the journalist and the wider community of which the journalist and the news organisation are a part.

A few quick words of context. No-one can now doubt that we are in the midst of an amazing revolution. As it happens, I am writing the history of the Guardian over roughly the past 25 years. The paper was actually founded in Manchester in 1821 – the first issue came out on the day Napoleon died May 5 1821 in his exile on St Helena. Of course no news of that appeared in the paper for two or three months.

Today it would be instant — leaving aside the broadcast media — through email, or bloggers or through Twitter with someone keeping us posted minute by minute of the great man’s last hours on earth. But we do not need to look back that far to grasp the scale of the revolution.

There has not been any period in the long history of the Guardian – and the same could be said of any long established print media organisation – comparable with the changes that have taken place in the – never mind 25 years – in the last 10 years.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the speed of change, the difficulty in seeing exactly where the revolution is taking us, has had a certain disorientating effect – we have been until remarkably recently fixated on the effect on the print media, newspapers, and less on the extraordinary opportunities now being opened up before us.

The early years of this revolution were accompanied by a kind of Greek chorus of lament for the decline and anticipated death of newspapers. It took a while to get away from that even for those newspapers that were investing heavily in online journalism, developing multi-media websites – laying claim to a strong position in this new digital world.

I’d like to quote from a speech made earlier this year by the editor in chief of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger – and bear in mind these remarks are being made after one of the most difficult periods in the paper’s history, when its move to a new building with accompanying investment in the tools needed to equip itself for the digital future, coincided almost exactly with the plunge into global recession. But this is what he said:

‘In an industry in which we get used to every trend line pointing to the floor, the growth of newspapers’ digital audiences should be a beacon of hope. ‘During the last three months of 2009 the Guardian was being read by 40 per cent more people than during the same period in 2008. That’s right, a mainstream media company – you know, the ones that should admit the game’s up because they are so irrelevant and don’t know what they are doing in this new media landscape – has grown its audience by 40 per cent in a year.’

And here’s what I find an astonishing point, to quote him again: ‘More Americans are now reading the Guardian than read the Los Angeles Times.’ And perhaps even more astonishingly: ‘This readership has found us, rather than the other way round. Our total marketing spend in America in the past 10 years has been $34,000.’ Beside that he might have added that there was a considerably greater spend – he would probably emphasise its positive nature by using another word – investment, in the Guardian’s journalism in the United States.

I hope I don’t appear to be straying from the point. I simply want to use that quotation to illustrate the way in which the revolution has affected the media organisation I know best, and the positive way in which it is being confronted there.

Now I want to continue to use the Guardian as an illustration and to turn to the way in which in practical terms it has dealt with its commitment to self-regulation in this context – the context, which it shares with all other UK newspapers, and most of those in the western world – the context of declining print circulations accompanied by soaring figures for its online journalism.

To make that even clearer: when I became the paper’s first ombudsman – I believe I invented the specific title readers’ editor for that role at the Guardian – the Guardian’s website did not exist, although various steps towards it were being taken. It was not launched in fact until January 1999.

The circulation of the paper then was hovering around the 400,000 mark. As readers editor I had received in that year complaints and queries from about 7,300 readers – up from 5,300 in my first year. The website at that time was hardly a factor.

By, for instance, the end of October 2006 the circulation had slipped to roughly 380,000 and the website was attracting about 13-million unique users a month. And now, to come up to the present, the paper circulation – although the criteria for measuring have changed slightly – now stands at just over 272,000.

So if we look at the first decade of the Guardian website, the daily circulation of the paper has slipped by over 100,000 – altough it is still the ninth or 10th biggest newspaper in the UK — and the website starting from nothing has risen to the astonishing figure of 37 or 38 million unique users a month. That makes it the second best-read English newspaper globally after the New York Times.

I don’t propose to analyse the way in which these figures are made up or the factors which are affecting the decline of print circulations. I’ll just leave it as – I think — a dramatic illustration of the way in which the media environment is changing. And continuing to change with a rapidity and unpredictability that we may find exhilarating or terrifying or both.

During this period the Guardian’s commitment to its own form of self-regulation, through the readers’ editor, has remained rock solid. One reason for that is a belief that a will to engage with people through a readiness to correct things you get wrong, or to discuss publicly issues raised by readers through the readers’ editor’s weekly column, are important elements in building trust. And that trust is a crucially important element in the contract between the Guardian and its readers.

This is not just a vague feeling or delusion. It is supported by annual surveys which show that the publication of corrections backed by the presence of the readers’ editor, increases rather than decreases trust in Guardian journalism. Indeed it is seen as one more way in which those who value the Guardian feel they can participate in supporting the standard of its journalism. If anything it has a bonding tendency – although as I’ll point out in a minute not everyone agrees about that.

To come to the way in which this is all now working at ground level. The Guardian and its sister Sunday newspaper The Observer, are still the only two newspapers in Britain with ombudsmen whose independence is guaranteed by their employer.

[The ombudsmen movement worldwide, despite the loss of maybe a dozen ombudsmen posts in the United States during the worst months of the recent or present recession, is I would say healthy and growing. I recommend you all to take a look at the Organisation of News Ombudsmen’s – ONO’s — much improved website: Incidentally you will find there an article from last week by the Washington Post ombudsman arguing that a spike in the number of small errors corrected recently appears to be affecting the paper’s credibility – in contrast to my general view]

The options for anyone wanting to complain about something in the Guardian are now these:

1 They can go to the readers’ editor, the resident independent ombudsman. I’ll say more about that in a minute.

2 If they are dissatisfied with the way in which the readers’ editor has handled their complaint they can go to the paper’s external ombudsman. There is no direct access to him — he is there as a kind of appeal court and is involved on only very rare occasions.

3 They can go to the industry regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, the PCC. A complainant to the PCC may have come to the readers’ editor first, but that is not essential, and in fact has become quite unusual. In the past year in all 18 PCC complaints involving the Guardian the complainants went directly to the PCC. One complainant having gone initially to the readers’ editor went on to the PCC when he realised that several other newspapers were involved. He was told that the Guardian readers’ editor had been prepared to deal with his complaint, and so he then agreed to that and withdrew the Guardian from his complaint to the PCC.

There were no PCC adjudications against the Guardian in the past year. Indeed I think there has only been one since the Guardian introduced its readers’ editor in 1997. In most cases the PCC was satisfied with the reparation that the paper offered to the complainant – a correction, or a letter to the editor, for example.

4 And lastly they can go to law and seek redress that way, if necessary through the courts. Almost all those who recently complained to the Guardian’s lawyers, did so directly and not after first going to the readers’ editor. In the past there have been occasional instances of complainants starting with the readers’ editor and going on to the lawyers. And on very rare occasions, perhaps one or two in the past 10 years, there have been cases which have gone through the whole series of available options in sequence. The general view is that the service offered by the readers’ editor substantially reduces the number of people seeking to sue the paper.

There has never been any pretence at correcting every error the paper makes. The paper does though undertake to correct significant errors. The readers’ editor receives a total of around 27,000 emails a year, of which probably around 21,000 are complaints or queries which need attention rather than to be passed on to someone else for whom they were really intended.

It publishes about 1500 corrections a year in the paper – very prominently on its main editorial page — and an uncounted number of noted corrections are made on the website. These are made according to a formula agreed with the readers’ editor. There is no ‘invisible mending’ except for the most trivial literals. All corrections of fact are noted.

You will see from all this that the volume of correspondence is quite a problem. It is necessary to prioritise. The Guardian now has its third readers’ editor since 1997. Serious complaints warranting his attention are now passed on to him by a corrections editor, who works with him. And the readers’ editor also writes the weekly column I referred to, dealing with ethical and other issues raised by readers. And this is generally very well read.

The corrections editor told me, ‘As many as 20%-30% of queries we receive are not complaints but people asking questions (about why we used a particular photo, what usage the Style book allows on a specific point, etc) or making some observations about a subject that the paper has covered — mostly, these should have been sent to the Letters editor.’

She estimates that 60 to 70% of traffic to the readers’ editor’s office is now generated by the website. She points out that the website allows specialist queries from all over the world. ‘The person who writes in about a mistake you have made describing an oil rig, or sheep-shearing in Wales in the 19th century, can be anywhere in the world. And “web people” who raise queries can be every bit as knowledgeable as purely “newspaper” people.

— Readers can raise queries instantly, and if we’ve made a mistake, we can correct the web page very quickly. With rare exceptions, we do not mend invisibly: we add a footnote saying what was wrong with the original copy.

In fact the vast majority of corrections now appear on web pages, not in the newspaper column, where there is room for only about 5 succinct items a day, fewer if one or two items run long.

An important statistical point to bear in mind, she says, is that however many web pages are being corrected each day by the readers’ editor’s desk, an unknowable additional number of corrections or clarifications are being made by individual departments. As long as they footnote their changes transparently, any editor can authorise a correction to web pages under his or her control, without needing ‘permission’ from the readers’ editor’s office.

She believes that the readers’ editor gives those who use the service a strong sense that no matter where they are, they are able to interact with a bit of the Guardian that is dedicated to pursuing their concerns.
Working in parallel with the readers’ editor now – exclusively on the website is a team of monitors who try to see that the Guardian’s rules for civilised debate on the website – in particular on the extensive Comment is Free blog area – are respected. It’s a particularly difficult task, we all know, in areas notoriously contentious involving politics and religion where reasoned argument tries to prevail amid high passions.

The issues raised there are among those which are often dealt with by the readers’ editor, by the ombudsman, in his or her weekly column – encouraging, however difficult a task it often seems to be, a civilised debate that involves journalists, including editors, and readers. Questions from readers are put directly to journalists and their answers with or without a concluding comment or verdict by the ombudsman are printed in the weekly column for everyone to read and consider.
We are all in this revolution, learning as we go. I hope I’ve made the argument that the ombudsman is an essential and positive part of this.

Thank you.

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