It’s usually the substance of a complaint we listen to – not the number of people who make it

The Only Way is Ethics
  • @willjgore

It goes without saying that I believe newspapers should make it as easy as possible for readers – and those who are the subject of media coverage – to submit feedback and make complaints.

The Independent has never shied away from engaging with its audience and our letters page is a terrific platform for readers to take issue with our columnists or even with points of fact. However, it is important that a complaints mechanism should exist separately from the readers’ letters arena; and that it should be straightforward to access. That is why we set up an online complaints form last year.

The internet is a wonderful tool for enabling an effective complaints function. The corollary, of course, is that the more effective your complaints process – and as people increasingly live their lives online – the more it gets used. That is not something I would ever grumble about. After all, by chance or perhaps because of some deep psychological scar, I have made a career out of dealing with complaints about the media.

Nonetheless, rather as the internet has changed the nature of petitions, so it has aided the ability of campaigners to organise mass complaints. When Jan Moir wrote her infamous piece about the death of Stephen Gately, the Press Complaints Commission was so overwhelmed with emails (many of them identical), its computer system briefly crashed.

Last week, an item on The Independent’s website elicited an angry response from a large number of people who felt it showed an anti-Israeli bias. Again, many of them were identically worded. Sure enough, it quickly became clear that a campaigning website was providing a helpful link to our online complaints form.

Putting aside the merits of the recent complaints (which were limited), the question arises: should the volume of complaints be an indicator of their validity? In some contexts, yes, if for instance they relate to a subjective matter of taste and if they are from genuine readers and especially if they do not follow a template. In those circumstances, the number may suggest a real disconnect between editorial intent and audience expectation.

But for the most part, a complaint’s multiple nature should not impact on a judgement of its substance.

Press does well to avoid a bum note

It is tempting to imagine that the Duchess of Cambridge is feeling a mite peeved. She spends years building up to her fairy tale royal wedding only to be upstaged by her sister’s arse. Then, having got the baby out of the way, she looks to recapture attention by wearing the kind of underwear that will sooner or later ensure that her own bottom makes its way into a pap snap. Finally, she hits the bullseye...only to discover that the coy British media are having none of it.

It might be hard to argue that – on a public tour of Australia – Kate was in a place where she had a reasonable expectation of privacy. But equally, there can be no doubt that the information in that picture had a quality of privacy about it. Moreover, while anybody who happened to be in attendance at the scene might have spotted what the camera did, they might just as well not have done. For example, they might have blinked, which takes about the same time as the click of a camera.

There can be no genuine justification for publishing pictures of an inadvertently and briefly flashed bit of bum. Kate, one assumes, is glad of the fact that the British media appears to have agreed en masse on this occasion.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and The Evening Standard