Stephen Glover on The Press
The Guardian's guardian, a famous complainant, and a flawed inquiry
Monday 29 May 2006
Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a column about The Guardian's ombudsman, Ian Mayes, suggesting that he had been slow to publish a correction. The newspaper is incredibly proud of having an ombudsman, or readers' editor, and my piece did not go down very well. I even imagined I might feature in Mr Mayes's weekly column in which he passes Solomonic judgement. In fact, now I think about it, I believe I did.
So you can imagine my trepidation as I once again turn my attention to Mr Mayes and the great office he occupies. It is a tangled tale, but I believe that I can reduce it to its essential elements. The moral of the story will be familiar to close students of The Guardian.
On 31 October last year it carried an interview with Noam Chomsky, who had just been voted the "world's top public intellectual" by Prospect magazine. The interview, which was by Emma Brockes, was not the encomium one might have expected. It suggested that Professor Chomsky, a persistent and bitter critic of American foreign policy, has lent support to the theory that the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Sbrebenica has been exaggerated. Chomsky approvingly mentioned the author Diana Johnstone, whose book alleging that the massacre has been overhyped had been withdrawn by her publisher.
Mr Chomsky sent an outraged e-mail to Ian Mayes. Dozens of other e-mails rained down on the poor ombudsman from angry supporters in what looked like a campaign. Mr Mayes devoted two solid weeks to investigating Mr Chomsky's complaint, and on 17 November published his adjudication. He found in Professor Chomsky's favour - and against The Guardian's own writer, Emma Brockes - on three counts. The headline had been contentious, suggesting Mr Chomsky had said something he had not; it had been wrong of Ms Brockes to place the word "massacre" in quotation marks, implying that Professor Chomsky did not believe that such an event had taken place at Srebenica; and, contrary to what Ms Brockes had written, Mr Chomsky's support of Diana Johnstone was purely on the grounds of her right to free speech.
Ms Brockes was understandably upset, not least because Mr Mayes deleted her interview from The Guardian's website and electronic library. (It can still be read, ironically enough, on Chomsky's own website.) After his long labours, the ombudsman must have hoped the matter was closed. But a couple of weeks later our hero received a 4,500-word letter from three journalists - David Aaronovitch, Oliver Kamm and Francis Wheen - arguing that his judgment had been wrong, and Ms Brockes had been hard done by.
She was not, they pointed out, responsible for the headline; and they unearthed a newspaper article which strongly suggested that Professor Chomsky's defence of Diana Johnston went beyond any belief he might have in her right to free speech.
Ian Mayes was in a pickle. What was he to do? He could hardly investigate himself. Then someone remembered that The Guardian used to have an external ombudsman called John Willis (who, as it happens, once adjudicated on a matter in which I had played a part) and he was dusted off, and pressed into action to write his own report. The only snag - and this is the rub - was that he was asked only to assess whether Mr Mayes had done his job properly, not whether his adjudication of 17 November 2005 had been correct.
Last Thursday Mr Willis produced his report. Unsurprisingly, Mr Mayes was judged to have fulfilled his duties, though Mr Willis suggested that there had been no need to delete Ms Brockes's interview from the record. The original adjudication by the ombudsman in favour of Professor Chomsky, and against its own journalist, was upheld.
Some people may be impressed that a newspaper should be able to concede in public that one of its own writers had got something wrong. The trouble is that it is by no means clear that she did. Diana Johnstone's views about Srebenica are controversial, and Professor Chomsky appears to have given them a measure of endorsement. It seems unfair that Emma Brockes (whom I have never met nor spoken to) should be hung out to dry.
My suspicion is that Solomon Mayes was slightly in awe of "the world's leading public intellectual" (what vulgar conception that is!) and possibly unnerved by the torrent of angry e-mails that descended on him. His great office can, however, never be called into question.
The newspaper may make mistakes, but the ombudsman is not allowed to. If The Guardian really had been interested in establishing the truth, it would have encouraged Mr Willis to reconsider Professor Chomsky's original complaint in the light of the evidence adduced by Messrs Aaronovitch, Kamm and Wheen in their letter. Not for the first time, the paper is not as high-minded as it may seem.
A broadsheet winner inspired by tabloid tastes
The Daily Telegraph has won BBC2 Newsnight's competition for the most memorable front page of the past 100 years. Its front page of 12 September, 2001 - a photograph of the World Trade Center ablaze, beneath the headline "War on America" - won 22.9 per cent of viewers' votes. It is certainly very striking.
But although the British Library is to be congratulated for holding an exhibition of front pages, and Newsnight for taking an interest, I wonder how worthwhile this competition was. The front page that makes a single impact is a modern, and largely tabloid, concept. Of the 11 shortlisted front pages, only two were broadsheet. All but two were post-war, though the exhibition covers the past 100 years.
The once powerful Times, after all, carried advertisements on its front page until 1967. Even at the most critical moments of the war, the broadsheet Daily Telegraph carried many stories on its front page, and headlines that in size seem restrained by modern standards. Words mattered more than images, most obviously on the posher papers, but also for a long time on the tabloids.
We live in a much more visual age. What interests me about the winning Daily Telegraph page is that it is really tabloid in concept - and perhaps more striking because reproduced in broadsheet form. The Telegraph of 30 or 40 years ago would not have dreamt of covering most of a page with a photograph - even if it had one of the Moon breaking in two.
The Daily Mail has taken a strong dislike to Nancy Dell'Olio, the partner of Sven-Goran Eriksson, who has intermittently dropped her from his line-up. The paper recently reminded us that her age is "a closely guarded secret" and described her as a "mother hen".
One can see that not every parent might jump for joy if a cherished elder son brought Nancy home. She does look a bit scary, and she may have seen 40 winters, and one or two more. So what?
Nancy might more charitably be regarded as a feisty trouper who has kept the years at bay with remarkable skill. I have this fantasy - I suppose no more likely to be fulfilled than England winning the Word Cup - that before she and Sven finally leave our shores the Mail will bring itself to say something nice about her. And I don't mean "Goodbye".
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