The case for the not-so-defensive

It’s not just journalists at the BBC who will recognise Michael
Grade’s description of the corporation’s traditional response to
complaints about stories: “We’re the BBC. We don’t get things wrong, so
you must be mistaken.”

You could substitute the name of almost
any national newspaper, many broadcasters and plenty of magazines in
that statement and have a pretty accurate portrayal of their editorial
ethos.

For some, journalism still means never having to say
you’re sorry. The arrogance that is so necessary to survive in the
newsroom is a difficult trait to bury when the anguished phone call
comes in from readers, viewers and listeners who think they have been
wronged. Particularly when you’re already on deadline for the next
story.

The BBC chairman wants this “instinctive response” to
change. He wants the BBC newsroom culture of handling complaints to go
from one of knee-jerk defensiveness to one that is open to external
challenge.

It’s a fine aim.

But it’s also worth reminding ourselves what can happen if the pendulum swings too far the other way.

In
another lecture this week, Stuart Purvis recalled the apology issued by
Lord Ryder on the day, 12 months ago exactly, of the Hutton report.
Ryder said: “On behalf of the BBC I have no hesitation in apologising
unreservedly for our errors and to the individuals whose reputations
were affected by them”.

Not so much an apology, as Purvis points
out, more of an unconditional surrender. Ryder’s abject grovel had lost
sight of the reasonable line of questioning at the heart of the matter.
It was hugely damaging.

The problem is that journalism is rarely a clear cut question of right and wrong.

There
is also the danger of becoming mired in concerted attacks of lobby
groups who will take advantage of any perceived weakness to muddy the
waters of a particular debate.

Yet Grade’s desire to get a culture of openness “into the editorial bloodstream” is one we should all share.

The
regional press, by and large, does it well. It’s harder to be arrogant
and dismissive when the complainant is downstairs at the reception desk.

Likewise The Guardian , with its fully independent readers’ editor, is to be applauded.

Journalism may not mean always having to say you’re sorry. But it should always mean having to be accountable.

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