Accountability. It’s what newspapers demand from politicians and public servants. Generally speaking, we give ’em both barrels when failings are detected.
Quite right, too.
It’s not just newspapers, however, that hold politicians, civil servants and others to account. A panoply of accountability mechanisms exist: from the audit office, to scrutiny committees, and the various ombudsmen. And there’s always the ultimate sanction: the electorate.
The system, in other words, has its checks and balances. But who holds newspapers to account? Who polices the Fourth Estate; who watches the watchdog?
There are a range of existing measures. The ultimate sanction is you, the reader.
If a newspaper doesn’t have a readership, then it doesn’t have an imperative — moral or commercial — to exist.
Then there’s the Press Complaints Commission. It has become more assertive in responding to complaints about the industry. Lawyers love nothing better than taking journalists to task. Especially troublesome ones who ask hard questions. But also the gullible, careless, and sloppy.
Defamation, privacy, injunction, and more make up the solicitor’s armoury. Regularly and expensively deployed, particularly in Northern Ireland.
Mechanisms of journalistic accountability already exist but from today, the Belfast Telegraph is adding a new layer in the form of a Readers’ Editor.
I will take on the role alongside my day job as Managing Editor. But why a Readers’ Editor?
We believe modern newspapers need to be accountable, honest and transparent, all within necessary commercial, ethical and legal parameters. We wish to be more open about our ethics and our decision-making — to give readers an insight into why we do certain things. And to hold our hands up if we get things wrong.
What should a Readers’ Editor do? We’ll learn this as our conversation develops, but first and foremost, the post should explain why we do things.
It should also be an echo chamber beyond the Letters Page for our readers: to chew over policy, to challenge errors and faulty decision-making, and to debate what sort of Belfast Telegraph you want.
When errors are challenged, this will not happen in a brutal, inquisitorial fashion, but calmly and reasonably — journalism is done at breakneck speed, and mistakes will always happen. Doubtless there will be some ‘creative tension’ between the Readers’ Editor and the Editor and staff, but that goes with the territory.
What will I not do? The Readers’ Editor will not take up complaints or issues already referred, or being referred, to law, or to the PCC. Nor will it champion frivolous, vexatious or previously explored complaints. Anonymous complaints will be treated with scepticism, although names and addresses of correspondents need not appear in print.
The terms of reference will develop with the post, which we believe to be unique in Ireland.
The Readers’ Editor will explain the paper’s ethics and actions and also collate, ponder and, if necessary, investigate concerns and complaints. A weekly column is also part of the remit. In the meantime, send your praise, suggestions, complaints or queries to the e-mail address below, or to Readers’ Editor, Belfast Telegraph, 124-144 Royal Avenue, Belfast BT1 1EB.
Let the conversation begin.