ONO Newsletter October 2019

Let’s start this month with two important questions…

This is a callout for all members. We need your thoughts and ideas.

This month, ONO has had two issues arise.

First of all, there is great interest in knowing if there are particular tools or resources out there that members rely on when dealing with tricky ethical or editorial decisions in their work.

Are there particular books or websites where you turn for advice? Any other methods or resources you rely on?

If so, we would love to hear about them and share them with the rest of the membership.

Secondly, some of our members have reported coming under growing pressure from individuals or organizations who like to peddle conspiracy theories and other fringe ideas, and demand equal time or make regular complaints of not getting a hearing.

Once again, we are interested in examples of this happening, of responses that you may have provided, and of any other thoughts and suggestions you may have about this issue. Obviously, climate change and vaccination are two common areas where this situation arises, but no doubt there are many more.

On both of these topics, please provide any thoughts, suggestions or comments to newsombudsmenorg@gmail.com and we will collate them and pass them on in future newsletters.

Indentity and Impartiality

Many members would be aware of a high profile and controversial matter involving the BBC in recent weeks.

It’s one in which ONO Board Member and BBC Director of Editorial Policy and Standards, David Jordan, has been heavily involved and it raises some complex and challenging issues.

The issue arose when BBC journalist and presenter Naga Munchetty became involved in a conversation with a co-presenter about Donald Trump’s comments that four congresswomen should go back to where they came from.

In reflecting on those comments, Ms Munchetty discussed her own experiences of being on the receiving end of similar comments, and made it clear she considered such comments to be racist.

She then went on to discuss Mr Trump’s own possible motives and reasons for using such language.

The exchange led to a formal complaint accusing Ms Munchetty of breaching the BBC’s impartiality standards, a complaint which was initially partially upheld by the BBC’s internal complaints unit.

However, that ruling was later overturned by the BBC’s Director General after a great deal of public controversy and debate.

You can find some examples of that debate here:



To further add to the debate over the issue, the independent regulator, OfCom, also involved itself with its own investigation into the matter, including an extended debate with the BBC over how and why it was involving itself. You can find that here: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/features-and-news/assessment-bbc-breakfast

 The incident and its aftermath has raised a number of fascinating issues around the intersection between impartiality and diversity/identity in news organisations, around the hot button issue of calling out racism and hate speech, and about the challenges of delivering impartial and opinion-free reporting at a time when politics and society generally has become increasingly polarised.

To some extent, it has echoed and amplified the debate that took place in the US when President Trump first made his comments, and media organizations there faced the challenge of whether or not to label him, or his remarks, as clearly racist.

This is shaping up as an excellent issue for ONO members to explore further, and we would be keen to hear your own reflections or experiences in this area for future newsletters (send them to newsombudsmenorg@gmail.com ).

In the meantime, and regardless of whether the exchange was ultimately found to have breached the BBC’s standards or not, it is interesting to read David Jordan’s teasing out of some of the complexities in the matter.

Ombudsmen decisions and news

Each month, we draw attention to recent decisions, comments and articles by ONO members and other ombudsmen/public editors/complaints handlers that may be of interest.

We are always on the lookout for new material, so if you have recently published something (in any language) you would like to share or if you have seen something of interest, please let us know via email to newsombudsmenorg@gmail.com and we will include it in our next newsletter.

  1. George Claassen has a new column out, looking at the tricky issue of naming public figures in stories that don’t directly relate to them: https://www.news24.com/Columnists/GeorgeClaassen/opinion-whats-nick-mallett-got-to-do-it-with-20191016
  2. Tim Pauwels, who is profiled in our member’s section below, recently conducted a workshop in Macedonia as part of an EU support program for public broadcasters in the Balkans. The hope is that work like this will promote the role of ombudsmen and standards editors in the region. Tim also recently dealt with the tricky issue of including maps of the Middle East in stories. He’s interested to know if others have faced similar challenges:  https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2019/04/12/hoe-kaartenmakers-beslissingen-nemen-in-de-paats-van-journaliste/ (For an English translation, click here.)


Industry News

Member Profile

Each month, ONO will profile one of its members in this newsletter, as part of our plan to increase awareness of colleagues around the world.

This month, we introduce Tim Pauwels, Ombudsman for VRT in Belgium.

Tell us about yourself. What is your current role and how long have you been in the position? What are your chief duties/responsibilities?

I became the news ombudsman for the Belgian-Flemish Public Broadcaster VRT in April 2017. I act as a mediator between the public and the editorial staff and as a guardian of editorial standards. I have about 15 programs and one website which fall under my “jurisdiction”.

Based on the questions and complaints I report to the CEO of the company and to the editors in chief.  I also make recommendations to avoid future complaints. Every year I do a series of workshops for all the journalists of our different programs. I have about 150 participants at these workshops. At the ONO conference in New York I gave a small summary of what I do during these workshops.

What was your career/background prior to taking up your current role? 

For most of my career I have been a journalist, first for VTM and 4, both commercial broadcasters.  In 1997 I started working for VRT, mostly as a political journalist, later on as presenter of news and current affairs programs such as TerZake, de 7de dag. After first being elected as chairman of the deontological advisory board and the editorial board, I accepted the mandate as news ombudsman in 2017.

What are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities faced by your organisation/the media in general in your country?

As everywhere, there is a growing populist critique against journalistic media and against the public broadcaster. It is very difficult to maintain a hygienic debate about media. In my columns I try to contribute to that.

As in many countries VRT is facing cutbacks in government funding.

Partially due to the fast expansion of social media we also need a counteraction against disinformation and polarisation. Belgium has been very slow to awake to that problem. I tried to contribute to small initiatives that try to counteract against online disinformation. I also was a member of the Belgian group of experts who wrote an advisory report to the Belgian government on disinformation.

Feel free to share any of the most significant or challenging issues you have had to deal with recently in your role.

The lack of assistance was a dreadful challenge, especially in the beginning of my tenure. I think all news ombudsman know how easily you can be eaten up by simply answering everyday emails and contacts.

VRT was highly controversial when it reported on a woman who left the country to join Islamic State in Syria and who request to be allowed back into the country. Many people felt that no attention should be given to such “traitors”.

VRT was also heavily criticized for a report on humanitarian visas which were sold by a corrupt backbench politician, rather than being granted on the basis of objective criteria. Since the secretary of state for migration issues is very popular, many perceived the public broadcaster as partial in this issue.

Is there any question or comment you would like to make to the ONO membership generally as part of this profile? Something you would like advice or input on?

It is great to exchange with colleagues. My dream is that ONO would one provide a forum where we could do that without having to meet physically.

Follow us on Twitter

ONO has a Twitter account and we are planning to bring it back to life this year and use it regularly to post items of interest to members.

If you have a presence on Twitter yourself, you can do two things to promote ONO on this platform:

  1. Follow us. The ONO twitter account is @ONOOrgOmbuds
  2. Use the hashtag. Whenever you are sharing something that you think will be of interest to fellow ombudsmen and standards editors, use the hashtag #ONONews That will make it easier for us to find your contributions and share them via our Twitter feed and our website.

Bjarne Schilling                                                                         Alan Sunderland

ONO President                                                                  ONO Executive Director

Bjarne.Schilling@pol.dk                                  newsombudsmenorg@gmail.com

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