30 November 2006

Newspapers and accountability

Why should a newspaper which regularly calls for others to be held accountable for what they do, not be accountable itself?

That was the question posed by Ian Mayes, The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor, in the latest in a series of guest lectures organised by the Journalism Studies Department at Sheffield University.

Ian Mayes

Mr Mayes told a packed lecture hall that the Guardian corrections and clarifications column, which is featured prominently every publication day in the heart of the paper, had reduced libel actions by about a third, according to the paper’s lawyers.

He said he received about 18,000 complaints and queries a year, the vast majority of them via email, and about 1600 corrections and clarifications are published annually.

About 80% of corrections appear within one week of the offending item, and 99% within one month. The remainder are usually subject to legal action.

Mr Mayes said every Guardian journalist, including editor Alan Rusbridger, had made an appearance in the corrections and clarifications column.

Mr Mayes also spoke about his regular Open Door column, in which he conducts a running debate about the ethics of journalism including such topics as the reporting of mental health issues and suicide and the use of graphic images and photographs of dead people.

The column is also used to explain to readers the workings of the newspaper and the Guardian Unlimited website and also conducts debates about the use and abuse of the English language.

Mr Mayes finally spoke about his work as President of the international Organisation of Newspaper Ombudsmen or ONO (apparently pronounced Oh No!), which promotes accountability by newspapers around the world.

“An ombudsman offers newspapers a service which is quick, impartial and free,” said Mr Mayes.