The Daily Mail has introduced a corrections column. Hurrah for that. In the febrile post-phone-hacking climate, it’s a welcome small step towards greater accountability in the British media. But what’s happening? Has the famously combative newspaper suddenly gone all cuddly and adopted one of the practices of the woolly liberal press?
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Fourteen years after the Guardian began to run corrections and clarifications (and 10 years since this newspaper did the same), the Mail is telling its readers that, like every other newspaper, it makes mistakes. But who oversees the column? Who will decide what is important to include? Will it be an independent figure given the freedom to run corrections even though they might seriously embarrass the paper?
Publishing corrections displays a willingness to be get the story right, a desire not to mislead and a mature acceptance that journalists are far from infallible. Their regular appearance should, in turn, engender greater trust in the readers, but to achieve that trust complainants ought to be able to go to someone who will listen to them, uninfluenced by the editor.
The Mail encourages contact with its new readers’ editor, but when I called last week I was told that the paper was unwilling to reveal who that person was until he or she had “settled in”. They were not yet in a position to tell me under what terms that person would be employed or whether they would be writing a regular column on the paper’s journalism. It was “early days”.
When I called the Mail on Sunday and asked to speak to its new readers’ editor I was told that “the managing editor is in charge of corrections”. He has not yet returned my call. I’m not point-scoring, but there are important principles at stake here. It’s good that the Mail titles are correcting their errors but it’s not good that they hesitate to tell us how they are going about it. All around the world, from the New York Times to the Hindu, there are readers’ editors who work in a visible, contactable way. Their creed is simple: newspapers hold others to account, so newspapers should be accountable, too. And that requires editors to have broad enough shoulders to allow others to correct their mistakes, not to decide themselves what to publish.
It was never a popular notion in old Fleet Street, where to admit to your errors was seen as a sign of weakness that couldn’t be tolerated in the cut-throat race for circulation, but it’s fast becoming an issue that newspapers have to face as the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press gets underway.
At the same inquiry seminar where the editor of the Mail announced his corrections column, Will Moy, of fullfact.org, an independent fact-checking organisation, spoke of the need for swift action by the media to correct the record, particularly in the age of the internet. He suggested that more readers’ editors should be appointed. “We see potential for indirect regulation via readers’ editors,” he said, describing how the new manifestation of the Press Complaints Commission that will emerge from the inquiry could act as a second tier for complaints. Readers’ editors could provide “a fairly quick, cheap and informal first-tier system, where newspapers bear more of the costs of their own complaints”.
That’s certainly what happens here. Disputes between Observer readers and journalists are largely my domain, clearing the editor’s desk of complaints and reducing the traffic to our legal department. Since I started in 2001 I have dealt with more than 60,000 issues and queries. Each has to be investigated to determine whether a correction is necessary or whether it might be a subject for wider discussion in this column. If we agree to disagree I usually recommend that a complainant go to the next stage and write to the PCC.
I’m not claiming it’s perfect (and no doubt you will write to tell me that it isn’t), but it is an honest attempt to be open with readers and demonstrate that we are serious about setting the record straight. Time – and the Leveson inquiry – will tell if other newspapers will openly join the cause.
This column was originally published in The Observer on Oct. 22, 2011.