Monday, May 03, 2010

Accusation of bias is an insult to our integrity

As the dust finally settles on the General Election, there's something I'd really like to get off my chest.

This was the eighth General Election since I first became a journalist in 1978. The Conservatives won the first four, Labour the next three - I'll leave you to decide who's won this one. I've seen the majorities swing violently from the Thatcher years when the Tories had a majority of 144 to the emergence of New Labour and the 179 majority of the first Blair government in 1997.

However, the one thing that hasn't changed during all that time is the complaints by the activists of the major parties that we are biased against them and in favour of their opponents. Some journalists will say that the only way that they know they are doing a fair job is that they receive complaints from all parties that they are biased against them. I'm not sure that I buy that, but I can see where they are coming from.

We've said more than once in the Mercury that we do not support any particular party and seek to be impartial in our coverage, but there are clearly those who don't believe us. One particular Conservative constituency party accuses us of bias, suggesting it might be because their opponent apparently once bought some print off us. Give me strength! I have no idea whatsoever whether or not the opponent ever bought print off us, but I do know that it is totally irrelevant to our coverage.

Oddly, at the same time as our bias against the Tory party, some thought we were equally unfair towards Labour. Take this comment left for me online by Labour Councillor Colin Hall, the man who is about to be made Lord Mayor of Leicester:
"In Leicester, as in Nuremberg, obeying orders is no excuse. You've had a shocker this week, as election results will show."
He doesn't elaborate, but I assume he believes that I take my political orders from the Daily Mail, the national newspaper of our parent company.

He's wrong. In fact, we're fiercely proud of our editorial independence at the Leicester Mercury and only one person sets our editorial policies and that's me. Of course, I have a boss. In fact, I have two.

The first is Lord Rothermere, chairman of our ultimate holding company, DMGT, the other is Michael Pelosi, managing director of Northcliffe, the company which runs the Mercury, and the man who appointed me and who has the power to fire me. However, in the 32 years since I first joined Northcliffe, I have never heard of any occasion on which either of them has in any way tried to influence the editorial policy of any of our regional papers. I can state categorically that neither of them has even so much as mentioned editorial policy to me.

You might be surprised to hear that my contract says nothing at all about how I should edit the paper, it simply says that I am the editor. I also don't have a job description.

I haved searched around looking for some written basis for my belief that I alone have the authority - and responsibility - to set the editorial policies of the paper. There's not much, but every now and then our company gives evidence to parliamentary committees and that makes interesting reading.

Here, for example, is what the Monopolies and Mergers Commission reported that Northcliffe said in 1994 when it was seeking to buy the Nottingham Post:
Northcliffe said that for all of its titles the respective editor determined editorial policy

Northcliffe expected the following of its editors:

to report local events in the principal town and the surrounding area as comprehensively and impartially as possible, trying always to be fair to different points of view;

to cover differing political points of view as impartially as possible and certainly without commitment to any political party;

to adhere to the code of conduct of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), to publicise the newspaper's support for this body regularly and always to report any adverse findings against the title by the PCC;

to be ready to publish, where necessary, corrections and apologies without reluctance if such publication is appropriate;

to make the letter columns accessible to those who disagree with editorial comment which the newspaper may have published, again recognizing its importance in the life of a local community;

to produce a newspaper which, while meeting the requirements above, is stimulating and entertaining, avoids being merely bland and appeals to the majority of the local people, not just leaders within the community;

and to be prepared to campaign vigorously for what he or she identifies as the interest of the principal town and county which the title serves.
Although there is little written about the authority of the editor, in practice, the editor does make the decisions to such an extent that other parts of the company often think that we are a pain in the backside.

I guess that's just a very long winded way of saying that if you don't like what you see in the Mercury, don't bother looking for a conspiracy theory, just pick up the phone and tell me that I got it wrong!