The only way is ethics: Proper journalism does not set out to upset religious readers but it may be unavoidable

Would we show an image again if we felt it was journalistically justified?

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You know something’s up when you turn on your Blackberry at 6am and there are a 120 unread emails on it. Good morning!

The Independent’s lead article last Tuesday was about proposals by a Saudi academic for the relocation of the tomb of the Prophet Mohamed; the report was accompanied on the front page, perhaps unsurprisingly, by a photograph of Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, the mosque in Medina that incorporates the Prophet’s final resting place.

It was the use of this image that had caused the kerfuffle in my inbox: not because the picture was itself offensive but because of what would happen to copies of the paper once readers had finished with them. In essence, their inevitable binning would amount to disrespect being shown to the Prophet, albeit inadvertently in so far as most readers would be concerned.

The editorial staff involved had no inkling that the use of the photograph – and its subsequent disposal by readers – was liable to generate unease. Perhaps we should have had, although it remains unclear to me how widely among Muslims the concern extends.

In any event, we now know that pictures of the Prophet’s Mosque can cause a degree of disquiet when they appear in print. So the obvious question that follows is this: would we nonetheless show such an image again if we felt it was journalistically justified? It is possible to publish any story without an accompanying image, though it would be unusual for lead items. No mainstream British newspaper published the Mohamed cartoons that caused such outrage in 2006, for example, even if for some that was fundamentally a pragmatic choice to avoid the possibility of protests outside their offices.

A free press ought not to feel intrinsically inhibited by the possibility of offending religious sentiment or, frankly, any cultural values – be they normative or not. But nor should we set out gratuitously to upset readers (or even, as in last week’s case, non-readers who had heard about our front page). The difficulty arises when offence is taken as the result of legitimate and proper journalism. In the end, that is sometimes unavoidable.

We care about your complaints

And so the Press Complaints Commission is finally no more. Its regulatory (or, depending on your point of view, non-regulatory) functions ceased on Friday and today its successor, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, opens its doors to the complaining public.

The Independent, along with its sister titles, has not signed up to Ipso, at least for now. In common with others, including The Guardian and the Financial Times, we have concerns about the independence of some parts of the system. We are hopeful that the issues can be resolved in the coming months.

In practical terms, the closure of the PCC will have no impact on our editorial standards. Our own Code of Conduct (which you can see on our website) sets out our journalistic rules of engagement and we will, as we have always done, take account of external best practice guidelines. The evolution of our own code will continue to be informed by developing case law in the courts and also by the judgements of Ipso, just as it was by adjudications of the PCC.

Our internal complaints-handling system is robust and we have taken steps to increase resources for managing it. Fingers crossed, you love everything about the paper. But should you have a concern, we will be glad to know about it, ideally via our online complaints form at independent.co.uk.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard
Twitter: @willjgore

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