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Editorial standards

On the principle that less is more, The Baron does not often editorialise in this space and certainly not with haste. A pause for reflection usually helps to clarify a situation. Sometimes, however, an event occurs which demands immediate attention and cannot go unremarked. In this instance it is egregious.

A news report that broke Reuters’ golden rule of impartiality, cornerstone of its reputation for editorial integrity, has attracted unwelcome notice and seemingly set one side of the editorial department, commentary, against the other, news. Curiously, it is from the opinion side that Reuters’ standards are being defended most vociferously, at least in public.

The report in question linked George Soros, the billionaire financier, with Occupy Wall Street, the protest movement that began in the heart of New York’s financial district last month and has now spread across the United States. The premise of the story was tenuous, at best; at worst, prejudiced.

After many hours Reuters issued a revised version to which a senior editorial executive drew attention on Twitter as “an update cum clarification”. More experienced hands might have acted more swiftly and more resolutely. The erroneous story was not withdrawn, not “killed”. It was allowed to remain on the file, adding to the confusion.

We have to report the news as impartially as we can. In this case, there was no story, and nothing to report.

It was left to one of the most prominent of Reuters’ new breed of commentators, Felix Salmon, to write on his blog that the article tilted hard to the right. He added: “Reuters cannot - must not - get a reputation as a right-wing media outlet. We have to report the news as impartially as we can. In this case, there was no story, and nothing to report. Inventing a tenuous and intellectually-dishonest link between Soros and OWS might get us traffic from Matt Drudge - but that’s traffic which, frankly, we don’t particularly value or care for. Much more importantly, it serves to undermine the heart of what Reuters stands for. And we can never afford to do that.”

In spite of the “update cum clarification”, the damage had been done. Media commentators picked the story apart, examined both versions forensically and concluded that Reuters had made an ass of itself. Among many comments were “Yellow journalism at its finest. Shame on Reuters” and “Yet more evidence that editorial standards at Reuters continue to hit new lows.”

Last month the new editor-in-chief, Stephen Adler, addressed The Reuter Society in London. Among other things, he said: “What I really don’t like is the merging of opinion and news in a news story and we do watch out for that.” Adler spoke about training and the Trust Principles but said nothing about sanctions against those responsible for failing to meet Reuters standards and damaging its reputation for being what he called “fast, accurate and fair”.

Before further harm is done, perhaps it is now time for more rigorous enforcement of the editorial standards developed and protected by generations of journalists. At the same time, those who transgress should be called to account.

More in sorrow than in anger, this leading article was written on the 160th anniversary of the founding of Reuters by Paul Julius Reuter. As Nelson Graves has commented, the Baron must be revolving in his grave at a rapid rate of knots. ■