Headmaster’s report card for the Sunday Times: Must do better.

Anyone – I mean anyone – who cares even one single iota about the ideals of journalism and where those ideals are headed in the internet age, has to to make time to read these words by Bill Keller of the New York Times.

As befits one of the most influential newspapermen in the western world he beautifully sums up where newspapers are now, how they got there and what the future may hold. His prose is both polemic and paean: it doesn’t shy away from the ugly arguments about journalistic failings, but ultimately it is redemptive; a clarion call for nurturing the best in newspaper ideals.

Simply put his case is this: newspapers have to be better at everything – sourcing, checking, clarifying and interpreting news and events – and they have to do that with more honesty and transparency than ever before, even though that is at odds with an industry stripping investement back to the bone.

Read the article for yourself. It’s a painful irony that the very qualities that might actually ensure the survival of newspapers are the same ones being gleefully abandoned in the headlong rush for web friendly (for which you can read: ill-researched, lowest common denominator scare/gossip-mongering) coverage.

It’s against this backdrop that all of us with a stake in the future of journalism look to the Big Boys to lead the way. In this country, they don’t come much bigger or better-respected than The Sunday Times.

So it was with a heavy heart I received a letter this week from Alistair Hector, Headmaster of George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, taking serious umbrage at an article in The Sunday Times . As you’d expect he’s not given to knee-jerk comment, hot-headed outbursts, ill-advised statements or any other type of quick-fix reaction. So, his response was duly considered.

The article was about a video made by some senior pupils, which saw them parodying the action movie genre. The main bone of contention reported by The Sunday Times was that those senior pupils were filmed with toy/replica handguns in the school yard – and the video, inevitably, found its way onto YouTube.

Mr Hector’s subsequent letter to parents was a clinical dismantling of The Sunday Times’ article. It was reasoned and packed with relevant facual information. He started out by announcing: “I wish to correct siginificant distortions and omissions in the two newspapers’ reports, in particular that of The Sunday Tiimes, which is very selective” – then he went on to do just that. In summing up he added: “People have been intruded up in the search for comment for the purposes of an unnecessary and exaggerated story; I am sure I am not alone in considering this highly manipulative and reprehensible.”

So let me recap:

Headteacher – Conisdered, measured, clinical, reasoned and fact-packed (or all the things Bill Keller tells the media it has to be to thrive and flourish in the internet age).

Sunday Times – Sensational, knee-jerk, ill-researched, one-sided and manipulative (or all the things Bill Keller warns us are a short-sighted embracing of the worst the web has to offer and a surefire route to the sh*can).

I’m afraid there is probably worse to come – since the Bill Keller model of journalistic success also requires newspaper honesty and transparency, including a willingness to come clean when mistakes have been made. However, if my own recent experiences are anything to go by, Mr Hector and Heriots school will be lucky to get a response from The Sunday Times that isn’t hissingly bilious.

Recently The Sunday Times carried an article about nurseries failing to carry out proper “disclosure checks” on staff to ensure they are suitable to work with very young children. The article – which started on the front page – claimed more than 1000 nurseries (a quarter of the Scottish total) had failed to carry out proper checks. It also claimed that its own findings had resulted in both watchdog body the and the Scottish Government to launch a major investigation.

I don’t know where to start with the wrongness of this story. Not only was it inaccurate, but  it quoted figures as fact with nothing to back them up. Since my company provides PR support to the Care Commission I also know exactly what help, information and advice was offered to the paper – and therefore I know exactly how it was wilfully misrepresented.

From the seed of a valid and responsible story The Sunday Times ended up with a wilfully sensational, misleading, misrepresenetative – and ultimately inaccurate – article aimed squarely to play on the worst fears of parents. Starting to sound familiar?

When the Care Commission wrote to the editor of The Sunday Times Scotland about this the response was a curt, two line dismissal. He insisted two staff had spent a full two days reading around 1000 Inspection Reports downloaded from the Care Commission’s own website. A nice claim – especially since it would have involved both of those reporters finding, downloading, reading and analysing a report every two minutes for a solid eight hours per day. Just like the original article, the response simply does not hold water, yet The Sunday Times felt was sufficient to dismiss the concerns of Scotland’s care watchdog and its 500 staff.

I don’t want to have a go at The Sunday Times, nor its editor in Scotland, Carlos Alba, who was an excellent, thorough and fair-minded reporter before moving into management.  However, a heavyweight paper like The Sunday Times carry more than just a  responsbility to its readers (and its lost a few at both Heriots and the Care Commission) – it is also a flagbearer for ensuring journalism survives well into the 21st century.

And whether you take the report card from the Heriots headmaster, from the Executive Editor of the New York Times, the chief executive of the Care Commission or from this humbe PR guy the findings are the same: Must Do Better.

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