Mostly, complaints to a readers’ editor are limited to their specific circumstances. But sometimes, stepping back, it is possible to discern themes. Scanning complaints from Guardian and Observer readers received before and immediately after the UK election, one theme seems a microcosm of the country: polarisation. One of the more snarly examples: “I feel deeply sickened at this diabolical, wicked, manipulated outcome … I’ve made it a point not to lose friends over politics in the past, even if we have passionately disagreed. That is no longer the case – if you vote Tory, it is personal. You will have voted to f..k up the lives of everyone else, and destroy our future. Do not expect things to ‘return to normal’ after this week’s vote.”
All authentic elections are tough, partisan contests. Decisions are nigh, stakes are high. Division and some rancour are expected. But, even allowing for the fact that complainants to news organisations are a self-selecting sample, I detected more anger than usual. In Labour, there was intra-party exasperation, as there has been for the past several years.
It was not all like that, of course. For any large media organisation, complaints come from all sides of politics at election time. For example, claims of bias, lack of coverage for minor parties, mistakes in constituency names or candidate affiliations, and misinterpreted poll data. To the extent that the reader engagement leads to necessary corrections and clarifications, it makes contributions to improved coverage during a highly pressured period.
Primed perhaps by the expectation that the result would be close, as it was in 2017, there was sensitivity from all sides to digital content perceived to have potential to influence votes. Parties are aware that digital is fluid and can be amended between the time of its publication online and polling day. Tactical voting guides drew particular interest. Such guides rely on expert judgments, with which many activists with local knowledge of particular constituencies are bound to disagree. I took the view that the judgments of the qualified expert, who had been invited by the relevant editors to contribute an assessment, ought to stand. They are opinions that readers can weigh for themselves. Only demonstrable factual inaccuracies were amended.
Soon after the election results were known, campaigners who had not succeeded in making a case for amendment began bitterly to express their disappointment. From a seat in which Labour and the Liberal Democrats had both stood candidates, and the guide had advised a vote for the Lib Dems and the Conservative had won, a Labour supporter wrote: “Thousands of votes wasted … I hope your newspaper is rejoicing for the egregious work it has done.”
In my view misconceiving the role of journalism, but with a partisan’s exasperated sincerity, another wrote: “You should be helping Labour into power, even if the ‘colour’ of the current Labour party’s brand of socialism does not quite fit neatly into the Guardian’s thoroughly Blairite, centrist perspective, not assisting the rest of the MSM (mainstream media) to give us another five years of chaos, division and corruption.”Leavening it all were a couple of notes such as this one: “I just want to offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks to the Guardian and the Observer for the many comprehensive and well-written articles during this frenetic time. What would we do without your guiding light?”