Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Honesty is the best policy – quote, unquote

Saturday 17 September 2011 12:57

Normally it is the job of a readers' editor to take a tough line on anything that smacks of journalistic malpractice. Breaches of ethics, accuracy, taste, style are outlawed. Full stop. No argument.

But here's a dilemma posed by journalism student Jeffrey Barrow from Salford, who asks if I can confirm that the policy of the 'Independent' titles is the same as that of 'The New York Times', which has a strict rule that every word between quotation marks should be precisely what a writer or a speaker said.

You might expect me to answer with an unqualified "yes", Mr Barrow. But it's not always that simple. Dealing with quotes is a complex issue for many journalists. On the one hand, they help bring to life what otherwise might have been a dull article. But they also provide an essential stamp of veracity.

Altering quotes is sometimes known as "piping" – making up the tune as you go along. Naturally, The Independent and IoS would never condone it, although the practice is widely used in the less ethical parts of Fleet Street – particularly with comments that are unattributed.

But there are all sorts of grey areas. Some journalists believe it is legitimate to change the order of quotes to make them sound more logical. Others reckon it acceptable to pose a question and take the answer "yes" as a reason to use the words as a quote. In some contexts, the precision of the wording is critical – did Cherie really remark, "That's a lie", when she was overheard by a Bloomberg reporter during Gordon Brown's Labour conference speech saying it had been a privilege to work with Tony Blair? What did Felix Dennis really say to 'Times' writer Ginny Dougary when she reported him as saying he had killed a man – which he subsequently disputed?

Some argue that there must be room for interpretation. The Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Washington Post' columnist Gene Weingarten says: "We are supposed to tell the truth as best we can, we are also supposed to be clear and concise and communicate our thoughts efficiently. Our responsibility to write clearly and effectively requires us to be more than just a tape recorder."

The Independent titles have no tablets of stone. Our practice is to place trust in the integrity of our journalists to reproduce accurately what is said – though it's accepted that they will correct faulty grammar, solecisms and other bad English that might embarrass the user – unless it's central to the point of the piece.

Honesty will always be the best policy.

Corrections and clarifications

Last week we quoted from an interview in 'The Guardian' with Trisha Goddard, who referred to Jeremy Kyle. We have been asked to point out that, contrary to the impression given, Jeremy Kyle is fully briefed on all guests who appear on his show, and that they receive appropriate after-appearance support.

Message Board: Is the racing world cavalier about horses?

When Grand National favouriteMcKelvey was put down after last weekend's race, readers leapt to condemn and defend the event:


Horse racing's a cruel sport. If you horse-racing fans are so sporty and all that crap, play a man's sport like rugby, put your own bodies on the line instead of some animal, you wimps.


It's a pity such a noise about animal rights is not made about horses suffering in small stables, riding schools or where they are kept as pets. Some of the cruelty is unbelievable and goes without comment.


If McKelvey did continue to run and jump riderless that is what he's trained to do and what he enjoys, as well as the instinct of keeping up with the herd. Horses that don't like jumping will not jump!

Helena Forsyth

Either you see animals as sentient beings or you see them as things. If you accept the former proposition, it cannot be right to use them for our entertainment, experimentation, food, etc.


The British Horseracing Board MUST become more thorough in its reviewing of horses' form. McKelvey should not have been made to run in the 2008 Grand National.

Rachel Southgate

Keeping any animal involves risk on the animal's part, and is for what the human gets out of it, be it rabbit or racehorse. Is my rabbit happy in its hutch? Probably not. Will I release him into the wild? No.


More horses die going abroad to be slaughtered for meat than die on a racecourse. It's time to do something constructive to stop them being slaughtered for food.

Charles Finch

There are about 6,000 races a year with an average eight runners. That is 48,000 runs: 174 deaths represents 0.4 of these. So racing is 99.6 per cent safe. You make the Grand National sound like Balaclava.

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