The Only Way is Ethics: Editorial independence cuts both ways

We don’t get a say in which adverts appear

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The Independent Online

There has always been an undercurrent of cynicism in British public discourse. Even 40 years ago just 39 per cent of people trusted the Government to put citizens’ needs above party political interests.

Even so, there does seem currently to be a remarkable level of suspicion about the motives of politicians, celebs, journalists and more or less anyone with any degree of authority. It is therefore ever more incumbent on newspapers like The Independent to do everything possible to prove our trustworthiness.

One key marker of the integrity of our editorial operation is its independence from the commercial side of the business. The two, of course, are inextricably linked. It is quality journalism which motivates a reader to spend their hard-earned money on the paper. And it is the knowledge that The Independent will be read by a significant audience which persuades companies to shell out for advertising space. The revenue generated by those discrete streams enables the paper to employ excellent writers, reporters and production journalists. And thus the circle starts again.

While advertising is crucial to the business model of all newspapers, so readers must trust that, in our editorial output, we are not in hock to the corporations who take out regular ads in our pages. And indeed we are not. If a bank mis-sells a financial product, for instance, we will report properly and fully, whether or not the bank happens to be a regular advertiser.

But the separation has to cut both ways.

A reader last week suggested the sincerity of our reports about the parlous state of the NHS was undermined by the appearance of an advertisement for a private health provider. Ultimately, however, just as we would not refuse to report a legitimate story for fear of upsetting or losing an advertiser, so we would not generally refuse an advert simply because it somehow fails to fit our editorial line.

We might avoid placing an ad next to a particular story if the immediate juxtaposition is likely to cause distress – an airline next to an air crash, for example.

On very rare occasions, an ad may be turned down because it is offensive or tastelessly provocative. For the most part, though, if our editorial operation is truly to retain its independence, it cannot pick and choose when to maintain an appropriate distance.


35 year-old man states an opinion

We should not refer to a person’s ethnicity, sexuality, any disability they may have, or their religion unless genuinely relevant. But what about their age?

The Independent’s convention is not to mention age unless there is justification. Judgements can be subjective, though.

But in any event, I am not at all convinced that information about age falls into the same bracket as those other personal details.

Mention in passing that a criminal happened to be a Muslim/Christian/Jew or that the victim happened to be white/black/gay/straight and readers might draw conclusions based on their assumptions about those characteristics: the “well, that explains it” response. Alternatively, the incident might be used as an example to prove a wider stereotype.

By contrast, while details about a person’s age might draw a “fancy that”, it is unlikely to lead the reader to conclude something more general about the propensity of, say, 57-year-olds to commit or be victims of crime.

Is my age relevant to my analysis? Who knows? But in case you’re wondering, I’m 35 (and yes, the byline picture is fairly recent).