The Media Column: 'The illustrious but not very long list of editors who have resigned'

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The Independent Online

Punch into a search engine the words "newspaper editor resigns" and the internet will produce 27,300 results, not all of which deal with Piers Morgan's departure from the Daily Mirror. From the still-sizeable number that remain, at first sight it seems as though editors falling on their swords - presumably having discovered that the pen isn't necessarily mightier after all - is as rare as cynics might think.

But there are, of course, resignations and resignations. If, following the faked-pictures debacle, Piers quit his job without the active assistance of Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey (pictured), then it could be argued that the Duke of Clarence's death upside-down in a barrel of wine in Richard III was probably suicide by drowning.

As for New York Times executive editor Howell Raines, who along with managing editor Gerald Boyd supposedly resigned over the Jayson Blair affair, Raines later wrote that he had been dismissed. The company didn't leap to contradict him.

There was what appeared to be a genuine resignation of a Mirror Group national newspaper editor after a spectacular balls-up in April 2001, when the Sunday Mirror compromised and caused the abandonment of the £8m trial of three Leeds footballers. No contempt charges were brought, but the editor Colin Myler voluntarily wandered off into what would have been the sunset had Rupert Murdoch not soon installed him as managing editor of the New York Post. The Sunday Mirror story was, as Trinity Mirror admitted at the time, a serious error of judgement.

The mistake that led to the resignation of a weekly newspaper editor in Scotland last week seems trivial by comparison, although perhaps not so to the good people of the Borders area where the Selkirk-based Southern Reporter circulates. The editor, Willie Mack, leapt on to his bicycle, unaided, after one of those "watch this space" dummy captions found its way into print. Trouble was, nobody at the Southern Reporter watched the space.

I will not reprint the offending piece of work in full here, as obviously it offended the local populace and caused Mr Mack to walk away after three years in the job - in two of which his paper won the Newspaper Society award as the best weekly in Scotland. Suffice to record that participants celebrating the St Ronan's Games and Cleikum Ceremonies festival - it dates back 175 years and apparently includes events involving pretend monks and wooden staves - at Innerleithen, near Peebles, were described as "pious little bleeders". "These people have got to get out more often for their peace of mind and sanity," it continued. Oops!

Despite an apology by the editor, one of the games organisers accused the Reporter of "destroying everything" and, according to one website, suggested that whoever wrote the caption "must be in league with the devil". The words "err", "human", "forgive" and "divine" were noticeably absent.

I tried to reach Willie Mack to discuss the incident and his decision to do the right thing but, having cleared his desk and departed, it seems he has no wish to be further reminded of the reasons he is now tending his roses rather than limbering up for a possible awards hat-trick. So I spoke instead to the owners of the Reporter, Johnston Press, whose only comment when their prizewinning employee departed was: "The company can confirm that the editor, Willie Mack, has resigned his position."

Yes, Mr Mack had left of his own volition, said a spokesman guardedly, and, yes, the company very much regretted losing an editor of his calibre. But, I quickly realised, the company doubtless considered what would have happened had he not resigned. Local newspapers in such tight-knit communities are at the mercy of their readership. Had the Borders folk decided that at next year's St Ronan's festivities an effigy of the devil bearing a distinct likeness to Mr Mack would be burnt at the stake, the skids would have been under the Reporter.

So Willie Mack joins a fairly illustrious, but not especially long list of ethical editors who I have gleaned from the internet: people such as Karen Jurgensen, who left USA Today within weeks of the discovery that reporter Jack Kelley was guilty of serial fabrication and plagiarism, and James E Shelledy, who similarly bailed out, from The Salt Lake City Tribune, after firing two of his reporters for selling information to the scandal sheet The National Enquirer.

The reason why Jan Leach vacated her chair at the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio, after five years in the job, was simpler. She was, she confessed, struggling to "juggle demands for editor, mother, wife, community involvement and more", while closer to home David Mahon, editor of the Liverpool-based Catholic Pictorial - a paid-for weekly turned into a free monthly by the Liverpool Archdiocese - walked after claiming the column he wrote was being censored. Honourable men and women all. Duckers and weavers, faint-hearts and frauds, please note.