Today I can expose the much-trumpeted editorial complaints system at The Guardian as a farce and a sham.
After three months of delay and obfuscation, the newspaper has finally reached a conclusion on my complaint about two blog articles written by its media commentator, Roy Greenslade, attacking my exposure of “NUJ Left”, the far-left faction attempting to hijack the national union of journalists.
No one at The Guardian seemed to want to handle this complaint, with executives passing this particular hot potato to and fro, with an entirely pointless detour around the office of the “readers’ editor”.
In summary, the handling of my complaint makes the newspaper industry regulator, the press complaints commission (PCC) – which The Guard-ian often likes to criticize – appear thorough, considered and credible.
When I ran as a candidate in last November’s election for the editor of the NUJ’s magazine, the Journalist, I discovered how a political faction inspired by the socialist workers party (SWP) – and including the socialist party, and workers power, which describes itself as a “revolutionary communist organisation” – was close to taking over the NUJ.
As part of its plan, the faction wanted to usher its candidate, Richard Simcox, into becoming Journalist editor. Simcox failed to declare that he was the “NUJ Left” candidate in the election material sent with ballot papers, the e-mail circular sent to NUJ members, or even on his campaign website.
However, the faction’s plan failed after my ex-posure, with its candidate coming seventh in a field of eight. The NUJ’s campaigns officer was forced to resign after I revealed that he had been campaigning for Simcox.
During the election, Greenslade condemned my investigation, and followed with an extraordinarily abusive piece that called into question my “mental health” .
I complained to the editor of The Guardian about, first, Greenslade’s utterly inappropriate personal abuse and, second, his failure to declare relevant interests.
initial response of The Guardian was swift and resolved the first
part of my complaint: Greenslade amended the article and published an apology.
The second part proved trickier. Greenslade claimed in his first article that he had “no axe to grind.” But it transpired that he was listed as a supporter on Simcox’s Facebook campaign page.
Greenslade initially responded by saying that he was “baffled” by the inclusion of his name on the Facebook campaign.
He was outed, and then pressed on the point by comments posted by one or two anonymous “NUJ Left” supporters apparently in the name of two characters in Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby.
The key question for The Guardian was: why ex-actly might “NUJ Left” supporters be upset that Greenslade had denied supporting Simcox?
In addition, I pointed out, Greenslade failed initially to declare the nature of his working relationship with me, and only did so belatedly and disingenuously in the comment thread. And he failed to declare his own past membership of a far-left political group, which he avoided even after being challenged by one commenter.
Following my complaint, Greenslade also said in his apology: “It has been suggested that I failed to declare that I was a supporter of Rich Simcox on Facebook. I reiterate what I have said before: I was totally unaware of that fact. It appears that I may have inadvertently responded to a Facebook friend request. What I can say, unequivocally, is that I am not a Simcox supporter nor am I an ‘NUJ Left’ supporter.”
Lis Ribbans, one of the newspaper’s managing editors, contacted me to say: “As I'm sure you're aware, an amendment and apology were made on the [second] blog on Friday afternoon. I believe this was the correct thing to do, and am sorry for any upset caused to you by the original posting. I hope we have resolved the matter satisfactorily but, if you still have concerns, please let me know and I'll pass the matter to our readers' editor (internal ombudswoman) for her consideration.”
I replied that this only resolved part of my complaint; the issue of Greenslade’s failure to declare interests remained outstanding.
Ribbans referred it to the readers’ editor, but not before reaching her own immediate view, saying: “Roy Greenslade has stated that if he joined Rich Simcox's group on Facebook, it was by accident. I can't see what would be gained by exploring further this aspect of your complaint, as we cannot know for certain how he came to be on the supporter list.”
“In my opinion, it is not necessary for a comment-ator always to declare his/her distant political affiliations whenever they address a subject that has a political aspect; it's a case-by-case judgment based on how relevant the association, and how well the writer's leanings are likely to be known to the audience. I would not consider it necessary in this case. Likewise, I would not expect a media commentator to regard their ad hoc media appear-ances as required [sic] declarations of interest. Roy Greenslade consistently says that he supports no one in the Journalist election, and we believe that to be true.”
Without a hint of irony, she added: “The readers' editor, however, works from a position of independ-ence in the newsroom, and may take a different view.”
Failure to address issues
in response that the readers’ editor, then Siobhain Butterworth, should
consider my whole complaint in the round. However, even the final response
to my complaint fails to show that this was done.
I said that Greenslade’s extraordinary personal abuse was indicative of his state of mind as he approached the subject. This also remains unaddressed in the final response.
I questioned whether Greenslade’s defence that he joined Simcox’s campaign Facebook page “by accident” was credible: this remains unaddressed.
Greenslade had previously said that he may have signed up “inadvertently”, which suggests that he knew Simcox so well that he did not have to think carefully about what Simcox was asking him to join. This underlined the need for the readers’ editor to make further enquiries about the evident failure to declare an interest relating to Simcox. The discrepancy remains unaddressed, and the final response fails to show that such further enquiries were conducted.
I said that whether to declare political affiliations in particular circumstances was a matter of judgement. Greenslade’s past political affiliation with a far-left group was hugely relevant to the subject in hand: a controversy about a far-left political group. Greenslade had shown poor judgement in his articles on the subject, at the minimum, so far as the “mental health” comment was concerned. The issue of Greenslade’s judge-ment and state of mind remains unaddressed.
Greenslade put himself forward as an independent commentator on the subject: it is plain that he was not, I wrote. A failure by The Guardian to deal with this properly would, I said, undermine the newspaper’s claim to be providing credible coverage of media issues.
The blog sought to influence the outcome of an NUJ election, the deadline for which was fast approaching, I wrote, and MediaGuardian had even failed to report my reply or link to it so that “at least some semblance of balance can be offered.” This remains unaddressed.
In my initial complaint, I raised another issue about Greenslade’s abusive comments, particularly on my “mental health”, saying: “I want to know what disciplinary measures you propose to take with respect to Greenslade.” This also remains unanswered.
Failure to act promptly
the readers’ editor to deal with the case as a matter of urgency because
of the imminent voting deadline. I heard nothing from the readers’ editor
by the time the election ended. I e-mailed her in early December, checking
There was still no response by mid-January, so I e-mailed again.
There was still no response, and next a friend on the paper told me that Butterworth would soon be leaving her post, so I telephoned her office in late January. Helen Hodgson, the assistant readers' editor, assured me that Butterworth would complete all outstanding complaints by the end of that week, before her departure.
Still no response. I telephoned again in early February. Hodgson confirmed that Butterworth had left, and said that the complaint had been passed back to Ribbans, who had already pre-judged the issue before a proper examination of my complaint was conducted. Hodgson said: “Lis assures me that she will contact you shortly.”
There was still no response, so I e-mailed, then left a voicemail, twice.
No response. Until, finally, another managing ed-itor, Chris Elliott, e-mailed me to say that Ribbans had “passed your complaint and her response to me to review.”
He referred to no further enquiries having been made, and concluded that her view was right. He wrote: “Lis accepts – and I have seen no reason to disagree with her – Roy Greenslade's assertion that he clicked on Simcox's Facebook request by accident. He also disavows him unreservedly. That disavowal came before the election, which would further reduce any impact his appearance on the list of supporters might have had.”
Of course, my complaint was not that Greenslade was on a list of supporters, but that he failed to declare his support. And, of course, no one can see a reason if no one is looking. The Guardian, like the PCC, seems unwilling or unable actually to investigate a complaint.
Elliott said: “Roy Greenslade has repeatedly outed himself over the years as a former member of the communist party 20 years ago.” Greenslade’s involvement with the far left is neither active nor significant, “and therefore does not fall within the remit of the Guardian code.”
I did indeed dig up an obscure reference from a 1997 edition of the New Statesman showing that Greenslade identified himself as a past member of the communist party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). However, Greenslade failed to make that declaration with his articles attacking my exposure of “NUJ Left”. He was even coy about making that declaration when challenged in the comment thread.
The fact that Greenslade had previously outed himself is, however, irrelevant. Under parliamentary rules, an MP cannot justify a failure to declare an interest in a debate in the house of commons by saying that the interest was declared in the register of members’ interests.
Such a defence would simply fail to meet the notoriously low standards of integrity required of MPs. The Guardian, however, evidently requires of its journalists standards of integrity that fall far short of those demanded by parliament from MPs.
Mark Watts is author of The Fleet Street Sewer Rat that revealed how standards of integrity at The Guardian – which often reports sancti-moniously on the misconduct of rivals – are sometimes lower than at other national newspapers, including “red-top” tabloids. The book is available in hardback for £10.00 from www.fleet-street-sewer-rat.com.
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