Code of Practice is 'yardstick' for arbiter: Quarterly report of Sir Gordon Downey, the Readers' Representative of the 'Independent'

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The Independent Online
I HAVE received a number of complaints recently that letters intended for publication have been neither published nor acknowledged. It may be useful, therefore, if I remind readers of our arrangements for handling letters and complaints so that there should be less chance of misunderstanding in future.

The Independent does, in fact, receive many more letters for publication than it can possibly publish. The selection of letters is, therefore, necessarily a matter for editorial judgement. In many cases, the decision will have to be that a letter does not justify publication ahead of other competing claims.

Notices are regularly printed on the Letters page indicating that this is the position and that, regrettably, because of the volume of correspondence involved, replies will not be sent to letters not selected for publication. We hope that readers will accept that as reasonable.

On complaints generally, a notice is published each week inviting readers to send complaints to the Editor in the first instance. This enables us to ensure that they are brought to the attention of those most concerned. Where appropriate, the Editor will refer them to me for an independent view. Readers may also wish to write to me directly, particularly if they are dissatisfied with the initial handling of a complaint.

Most complaints are dealt with either by the Editor, or by the department on whose pages the complaint has arisen. Many are concerned with coverage, style or taste and these have to be matters for editorial judgement.

Readers' comments do, however, help to inform those judgements. For example, some of the largest postbags in recent times have been generated by tasteless advertising and, in several cases, the advertisements have been withdrawn specifically in response to readers' complaints.

Other issues are capable of more precise definition and these have been encapsulated in a Code of Practice to which nearly all newspapers and periodicals subscribe. The Code imposes a general requirement not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material and seeks to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable journalistic practices. It also makes provision for redress by means of corrections, apologies and opportunities to reply.

The Independent is fully committed to the Code of Practice and many complaints will fall to be considered against that yardstick. Certainly, where I am involved, my view is based on a lay interpretation of the Code. This is also the approach of the Press Complaints Commission, to whom a reader can appeal if he or she is not satisfied with the response of a newspaper.

Besides providing an independent view on individual cases, I monitor, on a sample basis, the way in which complaints are being handled by departments. This sometimes throws up possibilities for improvement and departments have been very ready to adopt remedies, where appropriate.

As a general rule, I feel that readers should be able to expect a reply to any complaint within two weeks of its receipt. But this may not always be possible if, for example, the people concerned are away, or if it is necessary to check material with outside contributors.

On those issues covered by the Code, the most common cause for complaint, by far, is inaccurate reporting. Fortunately this is also, in many cases, the type most easily rectified. If there are material errors of fact, for example, these can often be identified beyond doubt and corrections made accordingly.

More difficult areas include the invasion of privacy and intrusion into grief. Privacy, in particular, commands great public attention but represents a very small proportion of complaints received. Indeed, there have been no more than a handful of cases in the past couple of years - all of which have been resolved without the need for formal adjudication.

The volume of complaints received can vary markedly. During much of 1993, I would say that complaints covered by the Code were running about 4 or 5 a week. One photograph then generated about 150 letters from readers who felt that it was an intrusion into grief, lacking sensitivity and discretion. In this case, the Editor felt that publication was justified because it conveyed the tragedy of an accident in a way which would not have been possible with words; and because the picture, although distressing, was dignified. But he assured complainants that he would take into account their comments when next he had to make a decision in such circumstances.

No system of complaints handling is perfect. But I do assure readers that their views are taken seriously. If anyone feels there are ways of improving present practice, I do hope they will let me know.