Self-control and dialogue in midst of controversy — lessons from Denmark

Good afternoon everyone.  Thank you so much for this opportunity to address the issue of public service broadcasting and ombudsmanship!

As we all know, news ombudsmen and readers editors are used at some of the best newspapers in the world. Washington Post was one of the innovators. Folha de Sao Paolo, Le Monde, The New York Times, The Guardian and many others have followed the example during the last decades.

This kind of ombudsmanship builds on a strong tradition. Every newspaper has its own way of doing it, but the basics are the same. In other words: Here you have a well defined and well tested model that can – and should – be adopted by quality newspapers around the world.

But what about public service broadcasters? Could ombudsmanship be a useful model for them? That’s the question, I will try to answer here.

In the first part I will compare the newspaper-tradition with the issues that are facing us, when it comes to public service stations.

In the second part I will focus on some of the lessons I have learned in practicing ombudsmanship in Denmark during the last five years.

And finally I will try to suggest some ways to go ahead.

I. Newspapers vs broadcasters.

Let me start with newspapers and broadcasters. During the last decades more than 20 public service broadcasters have established a position as news ombudsman. Among them are broadcasters from The United States, from Canada and from around Europe.

But it’s important to emphasize, that the “model” for public service stations is by far as well established as “The Washington Post-model” is for newspapers. There are several special challenges:

First of all: It’s still early days regarding ombudsmanship on public service stations – and many stations work in a special national framework with a history of its own. It’s a highly diversified group.

Secondly: Almost by definition public service stations stands in the center of discussions over political influence and editorial independence. This turmoil is stronger than the one most newspapers face. The license payers often have very strong feelings about the public broadcaster and many politicians and governments are trying hard – in many different ways – to influence the editorial line of the strongest stations. So the environment is often much tougher.

Thirdly: It’s quite another type of media – the task is more complex: The good old printed newspaper is rather easy to overlook every day. A daily newspaper can normally be read in total in an hour or two. A specific place in the newspaper can be used every day for corrections and clarifications and a column once a week or biweekly can underline and explain the role of the ombudsman or the readers editor – or what title the paper have decided to use.

At most broadcasting corporations the output takes many more forms. Take for example my situation at DR – The Danish Broadcasting Corporation. It runs a multimedia operation – including and integrating tv, radio, internet, mobile-services etc. After the digital switch-over last year DR now have 6 tv-channels. The radio-side includes 4 FM-channels and 16 DAB-channels. All together DR employs a staff of more than 3000 – and reaches millions of Danes every day. There are so many channels and so many different news programmes that it’s of course impossible for one person to follow it all. And there are big differences in the audience from channel to channel – and during the day.

In other words: To have an ombudsman is a much more complex operation when you don’t have a well defined product on print every day as the turning point. It’s really a special challenge to develop ways and methods to make the function as listeners and viewers editor visible and effective on a big public service broadcaster.

This takes me to challenge number four:  Most of the public service broadcasters have a bad tradition when it comes to corrections and clarifications. At newspapers – at least the good ones – it’s only natural to try to get things corrected as soon as possible. It’s normally not a big deal to put a few lines of correction in a short one-column-story in next day’s newspaper. And it’s not the end of the world to offer the complainant to give his or her version on the opinion pages.

But on television and radio the attitude is often a very different one. For many tv-editors it is really a big deal to bring a correction in The Nine O’Clock News – or whatever it’s called today.

They come up with all sorts of arguments: It can confuse the viewers. Maybe many of them haven’t even seen the mistake in the first place and it can be difficult to put the correction into the relevant context if it’s a complicated story. And so on and so forth. But all too often these arguments are nothing but a way of avoiding admitting a mistake.

I have argued strongly for a corrections’ and clarifications’ site on the internet – covering all DRs broadcasting and news-sites. It’s now in place – and done in the same tradition as we know from quality newspapers. It does not solve the whole problem – it’s still a big fight to have all important mistakes corrected on the web and to have appropriate corrections published in the relevant tv- and radioprogrammes etc.

But I believe it’s an important battle to fight. And it’s actually getting more and more relevant because of the massive re-use of content across different media-platforms. The same story is often produced in a tv-, a radio- and an internet-version. And the same story is quickly copy-pasted on many other news-sites. And the tv-version is not gone, when it has been broadcasted for the first time. More and more programmes are also available on demand later on: So mistakes and errors can spread extremely fast nowadays – and be repeated again and again. The corrections must be able to compete – and public service broadcasters have a special obligation to take the lead here.

So to sum up from this first part: The ombudsman-model from the quality newspapers should be a great inspiration for public service broadcasters – but it can’t just be copied. The model needs to be developed further to fit the special demands of broadcasting and public service – and the many experiences from different countries have to be discussed and examined.

II. The Danish lessons

This takes me to the Danish part of the story. What have been learned up there?

I am the first news ombudsman at DR – The Danish Broadcasting Corporation – and I have been in office for more than five years. The position was established following a major Danish media-scandal. It started with claims in several newspapers about a documentary produced by DR.  One sequence was heavily manipulated – and only slowly the management realized, that there could be no excuse – whatsoever – for such a manipulation. In the end the director general apologized.

But the case wouldn’t die. It was used heavily by critics of The Danish Broadcasting Corporation – and the board of governors wanted to see some action. They demanded initiatives that could show a firm commitment to high ethical standards. They wanted a more responsive organization.

Part of the outcome of this discussion on confidence-building was a decision to introduce a new position as the listeners and viewers editor. The daily management was against, but the board of governors insisted.

The new editor was given several tasks:

One of many was to head a new appeal system – all complaints should in the first place be answered by the relevant editor and departments around the organization – but as a new initiative complainants should be advised about their possibility of appealing a negative response to the listeners and viewers editor. After investigating the case the listeners and viewers editor should present his or her findings to the director general – who has the final say.

The first couple of years proved to be an uphill battle. There were lots of scepticism among journalist and the majority of the daily management was opposed to having an independent listeners and viewers editor.

The fighting about the construction went on in many different disguises, but we did found some common ground because no one wanted a confrontation with the board of governors. When I first engaged in public debates it became a matter of controversy among senior managers. One of them even tried to stop me from publishing one of my columns – but in the end I got it my way.

I have now been in office for five years and many things have changed fundamentally since the reluctant reception I got in the beginning.

The appeal system is up and running – and so far the DG has agreed in almost all my findings.
A new set of ethical guidelines have been developed in close cooperation with key people from all over the organization. I have detected a number of serious faults in the handling of complaints from listeners and viewers – and consequently tried to improve the system.

Three years ago the Danish radio- and tv-legislation was up for renewal. Among other changes Parliament decided to mention the position as listeners and viewers editor in the law. With a big majority it was made mandatory for DR to have such an editor because it had proved to be a good method of self-control. Furthermore the board of directors was instructed that they should hire the editor – in order to ensure his or her independence. Now I am hired by the board of governors – which gives me a stronger and more independent position.

In my daily work I concentrate on the critical voices and the complaints. I am monitoring the development in the critique – and discuss the problems with the director general and top-editors.
When I join the heated public debates on DR’s programming my focus is whether DR follows its own code of ethics – which also includes a strong obligation to be a critical and independent media.
There is a great paradox here:  My best channel for telling listeners and viewers about my critique is in fact the newspapers and their websites. During the last year I have been quoted in approx. 400 articles. I have only been on air at approx. 15 occasions.

When a case attracts great public attention it also gives me a window of opportunity to raise my voice. But often I refrain from commenting – I have to try hard to concentrate on the most important cases. It’s also essential that every comment in itself demonstrates the independence and the principles you follow. 

It’s much easier when it comes to the web-users. I have a reasonably well-functioning website with lots of information – all my columns and press-releases are to be found there – as well as my findings in the appeal-cases and an assessment of each of the topics, that have attracted the highest numbers of complaints recently. I usually publish approx. 40 of these every year – I call it the complainant’s hit-list – and it often gets media-attention. Some of the issues have to do with technical problems – many regarding the web-services – and complaints about problems with hearing the spoken word. When it comes to the content, the biggest group of complaints is about bias in the news coverage.

I also publish biannual reports – they describe my work rather comprehensively. I find that useful. I am supposed to control others – but no one controls me directly. Consequently I have to show transparency when it comes to my own work.

In my reports I also include concrete proposals for greater openness, stronger ethical guidelines, better ways of dialogue and so on.

Am I busy? Yes indeed! I only have a halftime assistant and I could easily use much more help. But its part of the story, that DR has a special division for customer information. I have a good working relation with them. They handle around 80.000 questions and comments a year – and every day I forward the more banal stuff to them.

The job is interesting and demanding. Sometimes my mailbox overnight gets filled with hundreds of mails. On such an occasion I sometimes long after the old days when the broadcaster was sitting in a fortress when deciding what to air.

But that’s not an option nowadays. We have entered a period with a very intense dialogue on many new platforms. As a public broadcaster DR-programmes are intensely debated around the clock at hundreds of debate-sites and thousand of blogs.

It can sometimes seem overwhelming and difficult to cope with. It is. But there is no place to hide – and no way to avoid a frank and open discussion about all issues of real concern to the public.
I can’t of course be the point of contact for several million listeners and viewers and web-users. But I am their active and visible ambassador – and I am the one they can appeal to, if they believe the editors and the managers have got it wrong in a very important case.

I believe it matters. And that it makes a difference. Of course a system like this will always be up for debate. That part of it. But it has been broadly recognized as a part of making DR a more accountable and a more responsive broadcaster.

It’s also a risky position. You are never better than the quality and relevance of your last comment or your last finding.

III. What’s next – a way ahead?

Now – finally: A few remarks on how to proceed? What can be done to spread this useful model?
One important part of this is ONO – The Organization of News Ombudsmen. ONO is an international network of professionals working for transparency and accountability.

This organization brings together news ombudsmen from around the world. Here we share lessons learned. Here we discuss the fundamental changes in the media-landscape. And here we make plans for promoting the ideas and principles of ombudsmanship.

I guess this is extremely important when it comes to ombudsmen on public service stations. We still need to describe the different model with more clarity. We still need a better overview of how things are being handled around the world. And we need to help and give advice and have an open dialogue with people that are trying to follow our example.

I am in the process of setting up at group of all the news ombudsmen and viewers and listeners editors from public service stations around the world. When ONO meets for its annual meeting in Oxford, England in May this year we will have a special meeting for the public service stations. My hope is that in a year ore two we will be able to promote ombudsmodels for public service stations with the same clarity as we promote the Washington Post-model for newspapers and with a strong record of good examples to learn from.

Public service broadcasters should be transparent and should be held accountable. But how can it be done without loss of editorial independence and integrity? Part of the answer is – in my opinion – the kind of self-control that is the core of ombudsmanship.

I hope all this could prove to be at useful input for you. Whenever you are involved in discussions on promoting ombudsmanship, please feel free to mail me or ONO and inform us on results and problems – and ask for ideas and support from the international network.

Good luck.

This speech was delivered at the Conference on Professional Standards and Self-regulation in Media in Istanbul on Feb. 23, 2010.

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