Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

11. Memorandum submitted by the Society of Editors

  The Society of Editors has more than 400 members in national, regional and local newspapers, magazines, broadcasting, new media, media law and journalism education. They are all editors or senior editorial executives in their organisations responsible for editorial policies and content. It is the only organisation that represents editors in all sectors of the media. It is independent of publishers and other media organisations.

  The society campaigns to maintain media freedom within the wider public right to free expression and the public's right to know. Members work within the law and accept the constraints explicit and implied by the Newspaper and Magazine Editors' Code of Practice and in broadcasting codes and producers' guidelines.

  Editors recognise the importance of good community relations and their responsibility for reporting accurately and fairly.

  Their responsibility is defined by the ethical arguments that can be used for promoting community cohesion and by the business case for endeavouring to promote safe and harmonious communities.

  Too often the media is dismissed as thoughtlessly pursuing circulation or ratings. It is condemned for chasing headlines without thought for the consequences. Nothing could be further from the truth. Editors clearly have a vested interest in good community relations because people from minority faith or ethnic groups are their potential readers, listeners and viewers. No editor working in the national media can afford to ignore the needs and interests of any minority. The local and regional media is directly concerned with building or rebuilding communities within the geographical areas that they serve.

  As an organisation the society has worked with the Home Office Community Cohesion unit and contributed to reports from Community Cohesion Panel and its Media Practitioner Group. The committee should consider those reports and recommendations.

  In particular the conclusion to those discussions was that it would be inappropriate to prescribe to print and broadcasting media how to address cohesion, particularly because of the general acceptance of the need to maintain a free press. However it was recognised that the press and broadcasting industries need to ensure that the existing regulatory frameworks build confidence in media standards.

  The Media Practitioner Group also recommended that local government and community groups themselves had a part to play in improving their contacts with the media which would be receptive.

  The society has also been active in researching the recruitment and training of journalists from ethnic minority communities. A survey by the SoE Training Committee published in October 2004 (Diversity in the Newsroom) followed up on earlier research by the Journalism Training Forum. The report on the survey shows that the newspaper industry is now taking action similar to that that had been initiated by broadcasters.

  In summary the report said that the issue was now being taken very seriously at the highest level by editors and publishers. Detailed comments from regional newspaper editors particularly underlined the problem of attracting recruits from minority communities. Again, the ethical and commercial cases for making greater effort were emphasised. Some editors in northern towns were adamant however that disturbances had been based on economics rather than race or religion.

  Following from these initiatives the society has also been a driving force in the compilation of a new booklet for journalists to be published under the auspices of the SoE and the Media Trust and financed by the Home Office Community Cohesion unit. Getting it Right—Communities and the Media will be a practical reporter's guide to how to avoid some of the pitfalls of reporting on minority communities and faiths.

  It will draw on work originated by the Media Trust that outlined some of the perceptions that minority groups and academics had of the media. However it will also spotlight good practice with examples from papers including the Sun and the Daily Mail that have frequently gone unnoticed. The Sun, for example, carried a two-page editorial in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in New York. The Daily Mail is noted for its attempts to get behind the headlines of the so-called race riots in northern cities.

  Through the society, editors have also been playing a leading part in the work of the Media Emergencies Forum that brings government, local authorities, the emergency services and emergency planners together. This was originally set up in the 1990s to look at lessons that could be learned about keeping the public informed after major emergencies such as train and aircraft accidents. The US attacks brought new urgency to the task. The forum produced a detailed report on how to improve communications with the public through the media.

  It has also led to the formation of regional MEFs across the country that bring the media and authorities together before major incidents occur to promote greater understanding.

  Part of the work of the MEF nationally included the arrangement of special background briefings from senior government scientists and security officials to editors and senior correspondents about terrorist threats. The work also involved discussions about the use of language in reporting the level of threats to try to promote the idea of keeping the public alert but not alarmed.

  Such briefings were considered valuable by all sides. No confidences were betrayed and they enabled the media to report more effectively and responsibly because it was properly informed.

  The media is used to criticism and there is a frequently expressed perception that politicians and government are in a permanent state of warfare with the media. The MEF initiative has been described as an example of a grown up relationship between a wide range of organisations all of which, including the media, seek to serve the public.

  Discussions of these issues have been long and detailed at national level through media organisations. At a local level they are an everyday occurrence through formal groups and informally between editors and the police and other authorities at police force and more local levels.

5 January 2005

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