The Washington Post has a new readers’ ombudsman, Andrew Alexander. You can read his first column here.
As The Post’s new ombudsman, I am its internal critic. My job is to represent the interests of readers, hold The Post to high standards and explain its inner workings to an often-suspicious public.
If I do my job well, readers will be empowered, and The Post will be more accountable, trusted and essential.
I’ve been guaranteed extraordinary independence for my two-year term. My contract ensures that I’m “not subject to the editorial control” that The Post exerts over its staff. That means I can take some hard shots at the newspaper without fear of being sacked.
The Washington Post was the first newspaper to appoint a readers ombudsman back in the journalist-as-hero days of the early 1970s.
No Australian media organisation has adopted the idea, although The Sydney Morning Herald tried briefly in 1989 by appointing George Masterman QC to deal with readers’ complaints. The idea was that Masterman would investigate complaints and report within the pages of the newspaper. The whole scheme was publicised with a front page article on 6 March 1989, and more than 100 complaints were received in the first few months.
Soon the scheme was in tatters. Masterman wrote two reports critical of editorial staff, and the union (then the Australian Journalists’ Union) intervened and black banned first the reports, then the whole project.
The problem was the scheme had been set up without staff being consulted. Yet when there was trouble, management was not prepared to push the issue by publishing in the face of a union ban.
By 1991 the scheme was dead.
Could things have worked differently, if staff had been consulted and brought on board? After all, the union runs its own judiciary committees on ethical matters, although it must be said that the dual role of industrial advocate and professional association policing standards has never been an easy one.
Alexander makes the point in his inaugural column that many USA newspapers that tried having an ombudsman have dropped the idea as editorial budgets have been slashed. The Washington Post persists, despite the fact that the newspaper is not making money at the moment.
In the present climate, no Australian media organisation is likely to give the Ombudsman model another go.