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Thinking people want accountable news organisations: Ian Mayes



Special Correspondent

CHENNAI:"The greater the real and perceived independence of the ombudsman [in a newspaper], the greater the benefits are likely to be. Thinking people want responsive, responsible and accountable news organisations. I believe ombudsmen are one way to achieve that," Readers' Editor of The Guardian, Ian Mayes said here on Friday.

Delivering a lecture on the theme of "The news ombudsman - a visible presence, an independent voice," organised by The Hindu , he said the ombudsman "is the only kind of self-regulation that has the effect of building trust between a specific news organisation and its readership or audience, through the systematic, impartial and public handling of complaints, and through the open discussion of issues raised by readers concerning its journalism."

"It is also incidentally, something which readers are increasingly demanding in the new electronic environment in which e-mail and quick and easy access and response are expected."

Describing the appointment of an ombudsman as a "unilateral act" by the newspaper or broadcast outlet that sends a strong signal to readers, listeners and viewers, Mr. Mayes said, "it represents a positive answer to this question: Why should a newspaper or news programme that by its nature is constantly calling on others to be accountable for their actions not be accountable for its own actions?"

An ombudsman helped a news organisation to be "an honest self-correcting institution", besides enabling newspapers to feed into the arena of public debate, accurate information upon which the citizen could rely when he or she was forming an opinion on the affairs of the day, he said.

He stressed the need for voluntary, regular and systematic publication of corrections: "an easy matter for newspapers and now made much easier for broadcasters of news through the happy advent of related websites."

Mr. Mayes, the first ombudsman of this kind in the history of journalism in Britain, said what had undermined trust among readers, listeners or viewers was not the admission of error - even when the error was of an extremely serious nature - but the discovery or revelation or forced admission of a significant error that had gone uncorrected. Referring to the rules evolved by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in this regard, he said, The Guardian had its own editorial code, which incorporated the PCC code and extended it.

Most newspaper ombudsmen and most of those working in the broadcast media now combined a responsibility for corrections with a regular column or programme in which it was possible to discuss issues raised by readers, particularly ethical issues, at greater length, he said, making particular reference to "reporting of suicide and manipulation of pictures."

Mr. Mayes, currently heading the Organisation of News Ombudsmen (ONO), said the idea of having resident ombudsmen in news organisations, although still taken up by only a tiny minority of publications and broadcasting channels, had been around for a little over 50 years. "The desire to enhance trust through self-regulation is often very strong in countries with a difficult or complex political situation or inheritance." He also underscored the need for visibility and independence of the news ombudsman.

During the interaction with the audience, he said the role of the Readers' Editor was not to penalise anybody but to persuade the journalists to adopt accuracy.

N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu , expressed the hope that K. Narayanan, who had been nominated as the newspaper's internal ombudsman, would be admitted as a member of the ONO.

Nirupama Subramanian, Senior Assistant Editor, The Hindu , welcomed the gathering.

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