Belfast Telegraph

Readers have final say in a truly independent media

By Paul Connolly

Although the Belfast Telegraph is, as far as I can ascertain, the only news outlet in Ireland (and one of the very few in the UK) to have a readers' editor, there are newspapers and TV/radio stations across the world which do.

An excellent body called the Organisation of News Ombudsmen acts as an umbrella group for assorted readers' editors, Ombudsmen and Public Editors (as they're often known in the United States).

The ONO is a not-for-profit organisation, formed in 1980 and headquartered in the US.

It provides advice, inspiration and support for readers' editors and ombudsmen the world over and is an invaluable resource on best practice (see www. newsombudsmen.org).

The ONO acknowledges that readers' representatives come in many guises. Major outlets often have full-time positions, staffed by a veteran journalist, who is independent of the organisation's news-gathering framework.

Others hand the job of representing readers' interests to a senior staff member – effective, but often not perceived as fully independent.

As I am also Managing Editor and Readers' Editor, the Belfast Telegraph's model leans towards the latter.

Because of this, I am an associate member of the ONO, rather than a full member.

Nevertheless, I am free to participate almost as if I was a full member.

The reason I raise this is because an ONO member landed himself in very hot water recently... for doing his job.

A readers' representative doesn't just hold the newspaper to account – at times upholding the interest of readers means standing up against external pressures being brought to bear on the newspaper.

But sometimes it is the internal pressures which are fiercest.

This month, my ONO colleague Yavuz Baydar, a widely respected journalist and ombudsman for Turkey's Sabah newspaper, was fired. The catalyst was the coverage of the huge protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park.

Sabah had been a leading liberal, pro-reform newspaper, but had been bought over by a company with an allegedly close relationship to prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Readers had complained that the once-fiercely independent paper had become too pro-government, without being fully transparent about its agenda.

After a series of spats with the editor – some played out in public – the paper refused to publish some of Baydar's thorn-in-the-flesh columns questioning the integrity of its reporting of Gezi Park. Instead, he was fired.

Every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose. A global spotlight now shines on the state of Turkey's media, with accusations that a toxic mix of publishers too cosy with the government and the increasingly autocratic behaviour of the prime minister are stifling dissent and undermining media freedom.

 

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