Fri, 17 Mar 2000

Understanding the readers: 'Guardian' case

The following is a report from Sirikit Syah, director of media watchdog the Consumers Press Institute and The Jakarta Post contributor in Surabaya, who recently visited Britain to attend a media seminar. She talked with the man in charge of readers' complaints at The Guardian newspaper.

LONDON (JP): A likely surprise for an Indonesian visitor to the United Kingdom is the country's lack of a press law. Parliament is still struggling in intensive debates to pass the freedom of information bill.

"Because we don't have the law, newspapers are frequently faced with libel cases. The damage is usually huge," said Brian Whittaker, the administrative manager of the The Guardian.

It is not that The Guardian -- with a current daily circulation of 400,000 -- is involved in a lot of libel cases, but the absence of such a law leaves the press feeling uncertain.

There is the Press Complaint Commission, which is supposed to be a press council. However, Labor Party MP Mark Fisher acknowledged that it does not function. Many violations by the press are not taken into consideration by the commission, which has led to lawsuits.

"It has no power over press organizations or journalists," said Fisher, addressing the seminar "Freedom of the Press, Censorship and Human Rights", held in Oxford in February.

He also mentioned the lack of the right to reply. In Indonesia, the new press law has already accommodated the public's need to the right to reply and the right to make corrections. Under the new law, a member of the press which does not publish a correction or response to an article could be subject to prosecution

In the absence of clear laws, The Guardian decided to install its own Readers' Editor two years ago.

This is a department dealing with readers' complaints which also functions as a media watch, or ombudsman, for the paper. There are two people in charge, both appointed by The Guardian editors -- Ian Mayes from inside the newspaper and John Willis, the external ombudsman.

Mayes is a veteran journalist, having worked with The Guardian for the last 11 years. He has been in the media for 43 years, including seven years at the BBC. Willis is a TV director.

Mayes said many mass media companies claimed to have ombudsmen. "Even The Sun says it has an ombudsman. Do they really function? I can't comment on that."

Mayes takes care of daily complaint letters and calls. He monitors the newspaper, and writes a weekly column. His column appears every Saturday, under the rubric Saturday Review -- The Readers' Editor. The topics vary, such as "balancing the opposing views on Yugoslavia", "our (The Guardian) relationship with the government", "how a photograph can tell the wrong story", "multicultural newspapers" and "misuse of mental health terms".

Mayes said there were 12,000 complaints in two years, with most sent by e-mail.

In the last two years, he said there were five or six serious cases related to journalists' integrity. The cases proceeded to PCC and to the courts. Even though most of the complaints were related to editorial content, they also included advertisements, missing sections, missed delivery and other technical matters.

He received more than 300 complaints when the paper moved the crosswords section to another page.

"That was an editorial decision. I talked to them (editors), and finally they moved it back," Mayes said.

The Guardian is also planning to set up a consumers' department dealing with noneditorial matters.

Rather surprisingly, Mayes said, many complaints concerned the newspaper's use of language.

"And this is The Guardian," Mayes said of the respected publication. "More people are concerned with our grammar, structures, choice of words." There are also complaints on political coverage, too, especially from correspondents in foreign countries.

Mayes admitted that at first he faced skepticism among journalists about what he was doing. He talked to them and showed them that his reports gave a picture of how their readers reacted to their work.

"Now they (the journalists) have are used to the idea of moral and ethical values of journalistic works. With the feedback, we have a chance to correct (our reporting), which we always do."

Asked about the most common mistakes of journalists, he said: "The highest percentage is that the reporters do not check and recheck. Number two, production or editors' errors."

One big mistake, he said, was a case of perceived political bias. A young reporter, who happened to be of Asian origin, interviewed a woman entertainer, who was black. The woman said "to support party", but the reporter mistakenly reported she said "to support apartheid".

An apology was not enough. The woman sued and the paper had to pay a large sum for the damage, which Mayes declined to disclose.

Mayes said the best strategy to deal with complaints was honesty.

"You should admit your mistake, then apologize. Mostly, it ends there. Just be honest as possible, and put together quickly. We try to understand why and how people get hurt by the press. By understanding them, hopefully we do better."