Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Readers' editors oil the hinge of democracy

Saturday 17 September 2011 13:00

Do you digg? Or twitter? Are you busy poking your friends on Facebook? Or feeding your aggregators? Most readers of the 'IoS' are pretty techno-savvy, and I expect you'll know what I'm on about. Even Gordon Brown is twittering these days (and I don't mean just at the dispatch box). But the rise of the digitally literate reader is causing a shudder of anxiety among the ombudsmen of the world's newspapers, who are getting together for their annual conference in Sweden at the end of this month. (What do you call a gathering of readers' editors? A "niggle", perhaps?)

The conference theme is the role of "the news ombudsman today and tomorrow" – and Pam Platt, president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, whose members range from the mighty 'Washington Post' to the humble 'Sacramento Bee', is upbeat. Journalism is the "hinge of democracy" and it is the ombudsmen who "keep that hinge oiled", she says. But an article in the influential paper 'Advertising Age' has caused a storm. Columnist Simon Dumenco pooh-poohs the high-falutin' view of press ombudsmen and says they are now obsolete. In this digital era, readers can effectively do the job themselves, he claims, through blogs and conversing directly with journalists by email. In any case, he says, newspaper ombudsmen are "boring as hell".

Boring? Shomemishtake, surely? And he's definitely wrong about the rest. In an increasingly fragmented media age, there is a greater need than ever to get some help in making sense of the digital circus.

In any case, where would Mr Dumenco's brave new world leave many of my correspondents who have no desire to blog and probably think YouTube is something to do with the local Underground station? Some still take the trouble to put pen to paper, lick an envelope and trek off to one of Britain's vanishing post offices. Such readers should not be written off as old or irrelevant. The 'IoS' has a high number of dedicated fans who have been with us since our launch in 1986. They may no longer be as young as they were, but they are highly valued.

One of the ink and Basildon Bond brigade is reader Ian Murray, who writes in longhand from Upper Clatford in Hampshire enclosing an 'IoS' cutting of a picture of a double-decker bus. "Not for the first time," he fumes, "do I write to point out that the bus shown is not a Routemaster. As a newspaper sometimes accused of London-centricity, you apparently have no one who even knows what a Routemaster looks like."

Clearly not, since according to my Ian Allan 'ABC', our picture was of an "RT" – an older type which the Routemaster replaced. You may not think this matters. Surely a bus is just a bus? But readers such as Mr Murray are a treasure because they remind us, in this blog and Wikipedia age, that standards of accuracy are absolute.

Message Board: Breast vs bottle: whose advice is best for babies?

Efforts to encourage breastfeeding, in the face of a campaign by Nestlé to promote formula milk for babies, caused a stir:

Carmen de Ugarte

The breastfeeding issue has become fundamentalist. Who has the right to tell me whether I breastfeed or not? Surely it is my decision, not the Government's or fanatics of the breast. Back off.

Sarah Hosking

Choice is only really a choice when it is a fully informed one. As adults, given the honest facts on the contents of your own diets, how would you prefer your food, natural or processed?


What is lacking from society as a whole is the support that women need to breastfeed successfully – and the advertising of formula undermines that support even further.

Maria McCarthy

Nestlé is a multimillion, multi-national, money-making business. Babies' stomachs are part of its market and it wants to fill them with its own product not with mothers' milk. That is the unpalatable truth.

Rob A

Preventing formula companies from advertising is not depriving the public of information, but saving it from propaganda. No wonder so many people are proud to boycott Nestlé.


We do not need to be putting any more money into Nestlé's bank accounts. This is definitely a worthy government stand but it needs to be backed up by support for breastfeeding women.


There is a big difference between pushing formula on to mothers in the third world, with poor sanitary conditions, and women living in the UK. So stop making them feel guilty about the choices they make.

Sophie McInnes

Formula has its place, but it will always come fourth in the ranks of what's best for babies. First is breastmilk, then expressed breastmilk, then donated breastmilk.

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