Letter from the editor

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The Independent Online
Letters I need to answer individually are treated as follows: stuffed in a plastic file, which is stuffed into my briefcase, and then dealt with via tape recorder as I go home at night. This is normally effective - the system, of course, not the answers - but it does mean a few get lost. Many essential things seem to slide into the all-purpose mulch of forgotten bills, sweet-wrappings, corporate memoranda and similar scrumpled detritus in life's trouser turn-ups.

One missive I read but have lost was a complaint about Paul McCann's description of the artist Tracey Emin a week ago. McCann said that she was on television "as drunk as a Clyde welder with the language to match". The reader said he was a welder and had worked on the Clyde and found the comparison deeply offensive to Clyde welders. Well, I see the point. A lot of welders would object to being compared to salt-tongued conceptual artists. Soon we will be saying, "as drunk as a neo-minimalist, with the language to match". Mr McCann points out, however, that his granddad was a Clyde welder and he knows a thing or two about the subject.

This, however, touches again on the whole question of readers' complaints and how newspapers deal with them. This week The Guardian sent us the conclusion of a lengthy report by its new ombudsman into the behaviour of its deputy foreign editor Victoria Brittain. Her bank account has been used to ferry money from the Libyans to fund a libel action against this paper by the former head of the Ghanaian security service, a chum of hers called Kojo Tsikata. Rum stuff, you will agree. The libel action against us continues.

The ombudsman accepted her assurances that she had no idea of where the chunky sums of money came from and hadn't asked her friend Tsikata - though he says this last "appears curious". He has established that Brittain actively managed the money and talked "in the most general terms" about the libel case with the lawyer concerned but concludes that she was "some way from being a significant player" in the action against The Independent. She was silly, naive and behaved "inappropriately as a senior journalist". But not a bad woman.

Putting to one side my own feelings on the matter - I think Brittain behaved rather worse than "inappropriately" - does this first major report vindicate the use of an ombudsman? Alan Rusbridger appointed The Guardian's one for good and honourable reasons and allowed a highly critical report about one of his journalists to be published in other papers - and all credit to him for that.

So, should The Independent appoint an ombudsman too? Well, as it happens, we used to: Sir Gordon Downey, who ombuds'd MPs, cut his teeth in this respect on Indy hacks. But in the end, during Andreas Whittam Smith's time as editor, we decided to end the practice. Why? Simply because we felt that it was the editor's job to investigate, discipline and respond directly. Newspapers are dictatorships, benign or otherwise, and the ombudsman couldn't take the editor's decisions for him. If the editor was wrong, or dilatory, or simply tried to hide the newspaper's failings, then he in turn would be dealt with either by the Press Complaints Commission or the board of the company.

This rule adds an hour or two to a conscientious editor's day but still seems to me to be broadly right. I have no one else to pass complaints to for investigation or conclusion. On the other hand, of course, I can always lose them among the sweetie-wrappings.

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