Nowadays, you couldn’t sell a newspaper on Christmas Day even if you tried, but things were different in the 18th century when the Observer struggled into life. In 1791, then a mere three weeks old, the paper came out on Sunday 25 December, confident in finding readers in an age before mass entertainment and a complete commercial shutdown.
Buried beneath an editorial praising William Wilberforce for his campaign “for the abolition of the odious slave trade” and alongside other smaller items announcing, to pick at random, news that a Shrewsbury bride had given birth an hour after her wedding, was a single sentence quietly announcing the death in Vienna of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “the celebrated German composer”.
History does not record whether readers wrote in droves to point out that Austrian Mozart could not be described as German, but today they certainly would. And they would demand a correction. So, better late than never, in this, my last column as readers’ editor, I formally correct our error of 226 years ago and apologise for our shaky grasp of geography.
Inaccuracy is, of course, as old as journalism itself, but it has taken the trade centuries to recognise that it should correct its errors, not through some kind of misplaced piety but in order to keep trust in its work and to maintain an accurate record of life’s passing show. Yet even today, there are several British newspapers that believe that admitting to their mistakes is somehow shameful.
The idea that we ought to be as transparent as we can about the job we undertake sprang last century from the United States, where, ironically, when we remember the current president’s absurd dismissal of the “fake mainstream media”, they believed that a constitutional guarantee of press freedom carried with it the responsibility to get it right and admit when they erred. That idea crossed the Atlantic first to the Guardian 20 years ago and then to the Observer, where I was installed as readers’ editor nearly 17 years ago.
Correcting errors is a visible expression of a desire to be transparent, but it is only a small factor in maintaining accountability. While I’ve written close to 1,000 corrections since I took on this job (mostly serious, but some, it must be said, included purely for their amusement value), they have only ever represented the least of the work.
More important has been the constant dialogue with those who feel injured by our coverage and seek redress or those who cannot understand why the paper apparently ignores what to them is a burning issue. And there are the loyal readers who look upon their Observer as more than a mere newspaper – it is an integral part of their lives. They seize the telephone or dash to their keyboards when they detect a decline in standards or a drift away from the liberal values they believe the paper is here to espouse.
The Observer’s presence on the web was small when I started out, but it is now read online by millions around the world who never see the printed paper. They may not feel any particular attachment to the title, but their views about a story are every bit as valid. Whether you read in print or online, your wisdom, suggestions and complaints have inspired my columns on our journalism, though, of course, we have not always seen eye to eye. I’ve never been here to agree with everything that complainants say.
While Britain has been slow to adopt this form of media self-regulation, newspapers, TV and radio around the world continue to see its value, attested to by the international membership of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, which it was twice my privilege to chair. In what can sometimes be a lonely job (finding fault with the staff’s work hardly makes you the most popular figure in the newsroom), having contact with colleagues around the world was a welcome source of solace and sagacity.
My last column also marks the end of my 30 years on the staff here; years that have seen six editors come and go and the paper transformed in at least eight redesigns on its journey from broadsheet, through Berliner to tabloid from next week – a full-circle return to a size nearer to that of those first 18th-century issues.
I’ll be here until the end of the month, so let me have your thoughts on the new digital and print formats – and beyond that keep writing to the email address below. The Observer needs to hear from you.