Michael Williams: Readers' editor

A profession of lying drunks? How things have changed

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To my mind, the funniest novel ever written about life in the world of newspapers is not Evelyn Waugh's 'Scoop', but 'Towards the End of the Morning' by Michael Frayn, set in the dying days of Fleet Street in an era pre-dating Rupert Murdoch, Wapping, and before the diaspora of newspapers spread to far-flung parts such as Docklands or Kensington. (If you haven't read it, cash in your Christmas book token or Amazon vouchers immediately.) Frayn, now of course an eminent playwright, worked for 'The Observer' at the time, and paints a hilarious picture of life inside the offices of a fictional quality newspaper, where journalists are seen variously to be indolent, mendacious, vain, foul-mouthed, financially dishonest and frequently drunk.

Not much change there, then, you might say. But there's actually been one helluva lot as Frayn's famously foul-mouthed picture editor might have remarked. I was reminded just how much with the publication by the Press Complaints Commission this month of a new edition of the journalists' code of practice known racily as 'The Editors' Codebook'. Unlike the days when Reg Mounce would close his eyes as he signed off fake expenses with the words: "For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful", today's journalists are expected to abide by an infinitely higher set of standards than those that ruled in the heyday of the "street of ink".

You can now judge them for yourselves, since the book all 65 pages of it has been issued online for the first time. It's far more than just, say, 'The Police Driver's Manual' or 'The Rules of Association Football'. The book brings together the ethical standards set by the Journalists' Code of Practice with the case law developed over the years by the PCC. It also helps to demystify many of the issues surrounding press regulation that often perplex readers who write to this column.

The code covers all the key areas of journalistic activity, including accuracy, privacy, the protection of children and vulnerable groups, the need to avoid harassment and limitations on the use of subterfuge. But why, for instance, isn't chequebook journalism banned? There's a simple answer. Payment for stories is legitimate in a free market and it would be impossible, if not actually illegal, to disallow it, unless it involved payment to criminals. But what about the lack of rules covering "taste and decency"? The code reckons that these are highly subjective, and imposing blanket rules would inhibit freedom of expression. In a highly competitive market, it would be suicidal to encourage customers to take their business elsewhere. One of the strengths of the British national press is that it caters for a wide range of tastes all within the law.

Ah I can hear you hammering at your keyboards already isn't the code toothless if it's written and regulated by editors themselves? Not at all. The majority of members of the Press Complaints Commission are lay people and never in the PCC's history has an editor failed to publish an adverse adjudication. Reg Mounce would certainly not have approved.

'The Editors' Codebook' by Ian Beales can be found at editorscode.org.uk

Email readerseditor@independent.co.uk

Our green Christmas: fact or fairy tale?

The story that 75 per cent of us plan to reduce waste over the holiday period convinced only some bloggers, who took on the rest at www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

Clifford

A few surveys, ludicrously described as 'astonishing', show that people will try to be a bit greener. So what? Can't see any evidence of 'demand' for a greener lifestyle here.

pete best

Surely not having turkey at all, not sending cards or consuming so many vegetables is the way to go. No single person actually consumes that much but if we recycle various Christmas things it will ease our conscience.

slowspeed

Would these be the same people who are decking their homes with decorative lights? Or are they the other 25 per cent?

Bob Lane

The primary way to reduce human influence on the planet is to reduce the number of humans. Only those of us who have chosen to have no children can truly claim to be 'green'.

Jane

People may be talking green, but there is little action. In my office of well-educated, considerate people, half can't be bothered to switch off PCs or lights at night or walk 10 feet to the recycling bin with the plastic bag from their lunch.

George Pilkington

Many recycle cards, Christmas trees and packaging, but what about all that food waste? I use a natural wooden wormery called a Waste Buster and the worms eat all my food waste, cardboard, and dead leaves. How green is that?

gingertom

Do all those new bikes (and newly discovered feet at the end of legs) on Boxing Day mean fewer cars on the road in 2008? I do hope so: obesity and global warming tackled in one go.

Jack

For the more equal and democratic society on which long-term sustainability depends we need honest and inspiring political leadership. I didn't find any in my recyclable Christmas stocking.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

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