After 90,000 complaints, 14,000 corrections, countless phone calls from abusive readers and two months in physiotherapy due to work-induced repetitive strain injury, Guardian readers’ editor Ian Mayes is close to answering his last complaint.
Ten years after he was appointed the first readers’ editor of a British newspaper, Mayes will hand over to Siobhain Butterworth, The Guardian’s chief lawyer, in March, allowing him to write the third volume of the paper’s official history.
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‘They’re used to seeing me around here,’Mayes says as he gives Press Gazette a guided tour of The Guardian’s Farringdon Road newsroom on a busy Friday afternoon. ‘Nearly everyone here has been in the corrections column, from the editor down. But there are no hard feelings.’After 20 years at The Guardian, he is a well-known face. Mayes, with current editor Alan Rusbridger, launched The Guardian’s Weekend magazine and daily G2 section, spending time as deputy features editor, arts editor and obituaries editor before taking up the role of readers’ editor in 1997.
Mayes invented the job title himself – and eyebrows were raised in Fleet Street when he was appointed. Many editors could not see why a newspaper should highlight its own mistakes, especially when not forced to by a lawyer’s letter or a particularly angry complainant.
Since 1997, only The Observer, the Daily Mirror and The Independent on Sunday have followed The Guardian’s lead by appointing their own readers’ editors.
‘When I started, the whole of the British media was gripped in a culture of denial – a resistance to correcting,’Mayes says from his office in a corner of The Guardian newsroom.
‘Denying that mistakes occurred was really the name of the game. We set out to change that. It was not a tenable situation and the advent of digital media has made it less tenable. People expect to get answers from us now.
‘Why should news and media organisations constantly call on others to be accountable and not be accountable for what they do themselves?’But it is not just about accountability – many of The Guardian’s corrections stem from misspellings, incorrect place names and plain factual errors.
‘People like to point things out, but I almost cease to recognise it as pedantry,’says Mayes. ‘I’ve always worked with a horizontal line. Above it are the really important things, like possible libels, misquoting people, attributing quotes to the wrong people. With spelling errors, we just try to correct as many as possible.
‘When I started the job people warned me about the so-called ‘green ink’ brigade. There may be a few who write obsessively, typically on green ink on scraps of paper, and might be mentally disturbed in some way, but I don’t see a problem with that group.
‘If you remove from the readership of any national newspaper people who are suffering from some kind of emotional or mental stress, circulation would go down faster than it [already] is. Everybody needs to be reminded that there are very vulnerable people in society.’When Mayes leaves the job in March, he will say goodbye to the task of dealing with at least 60 complaints per day – sometimes well over 100 – concerning everything from spelling errors to robust denouncements of that day’s leader column.
He reads almost every complaint personally, keeping an eye on a constantly updating inbox. Though he admits he cannot answer every one, it is policy to correct every ‘significant’error. In very rare cases, Mayes even goes to visit complainants personally.
In one week during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2002, Mayes’ office received more than 800 complaints. He was determined to read as many of them as he could – an activity which led to him developing repetitive strain injury, requiring two months of physiotherapy.
Some of the comments were scathing of the paper’s support of Israel, but Mayes still sees that week as ‘very, very useful”, although it is hard to switch off from the abuse.
‘There is no immunity to being wound up,’he says. ‘You have to try to tune in to what they are trying to say, no matter in what atrocious terms they are saying it. I try, but it’s very difficult.’One of the biggest parts of Mayes’ job is to involve Guardian journalists in the complaint procedure. If a complaint comes in about someone – however small – it gets sent straight to them. But in his corrections column, Mayes never names offenders.
He often sends ‘polls’around the office to canvass opinion on contentious issues – often the subject of his weekly Guardian column, which amounts to a debate on journalistic ethics.
When Press Gazette visited, the current hot topic was whether the paper should use the word ‘prostitute’to describe the five women murdered in Ipswich. One correspondent, a senior news journalist, was adamant that ‘prostitute’was a judgemental term and ‘sex worker’was not.
After 10 years of answering complaints, Mayes feels that other papers should follow his lead and become more accountable to their readers.
‘It’s good for journalists to say ‘who are we doing this for?’ In the end we’re doing it for the people who buy the newspaper,’he says.
‘You’re involving them in a relationship.Why shouldn’t our relationship with our readers be any different to me sitting here talking to you?”