A columnist’s postbag is a wonderful thing. Readers have an uncanny knack of getting right to the heart of a newspaper and the issues it reports on.
Which shows they care about their paper. And they care about democracy, although perhaps they’re not always aware of its imperfections and restrictions.
It’s early days yet in the life of this service, but so far the comments have been rolling in.
They range from small queries about perceived errors to weighty issues of balance and policy and the space this paper occupies in Northern Ireland’s divided community. Unsurprisingly in this digital world, readers are as engaged in our online material as in our printed editions. And they care passionately what other readers think.
That, presumably, is one reason why a common theme in correspondence to the Readers’ Editor is the Comment service on our online edition. For the uninitiated, this is a function which allows readers to comment instantly on stories and engage in the great debates of the day.
Everyone with an internet connection can contribute. Most contributions are fair and the law recognises not everyone has to be an expert to hold a valid opinion. Inevitably, however, a small number of commentators play fast and loose with expletives, character slurs and insults.
That is why we require commentators on our Intense Debate service to undertake to refrain from defamation, profanities, prejudice and so on. And we undertake, in turn, to remove postings that violate our terms as soon as we are aware that a notification has been made via the ‘Report this posting’ service. The house rules are on the website , but readers have been asking for further information on why the Comment function is switched off on some stories.
By far the most common reason is where comment is likely to be perceived by the authorities — not necessarily by the Belfast Telegraph — as contaminating legal proceedings. This would include the criminal courts, proceedings in civil courts — particularly where a jury is involved — and some kinds of tribunals. There are technical reasons, too: Comment is, by default, switched off on the breaking news service due to the high number of court cases that run there.
We do, on rare occasions, switch off Comment for reasons of taste and decency, or intrusion on private grief — although, by their nature, these are subjective decisions. Incidentally, the above are all guiding principles on our Letters pages, too, so the principles of journalism remain the same in both print and digital forums.
There has been no dissent to the Terms of Reference for the Readers’ Editor service as published here last week. Hard copies are available from Readers’ Editor, Belfast Telegraph, 124-144 Royal Avenue, Belfast, BT1 1EB.
Apologies to Mel Boyle, whose name should have been on a photo of a Donegal surfer in last Friday’s paper. Mel’s stunning image was runner-up in an online photography competition by Mastersdirect.com and Practical Photography magazine. The byline was omitted during the production process. It shouldn’t have been left out and the fault was ours. Sorry, Mel.