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Misplaced allegiance: a matter of principle

News that Thomson Reuters has pledged to support members of the British Armed forces has brought howls of outrage from Reuters journalists past and present.


Indignation was predictable, although those who announced the move appear to have been so ignorant of the Reuters ethos of independence that they did not realise what a hornets’ nest they would stir.


In a message to staff on 18 October, HR chief Mark Sandham and senior legal officer Lucinda Case said: "We are proud of the UK’s rich military heritage and those who have bravely continued to serve and defend our country.”


The pledge was so contrary to Reuters culture and its Trust Principles that senior executives now retired suggested it must be a hoax.


On Tuesday, more than two months after the pledge was signed and three weeks after it was promoted internally, Sandham and Case responded to a storm of protest and announced that there would be a review by a group including editor-in-chief Alessandra Galloni and two other news executives.


The review could be the start of a retreat, though cynics said the announcement gave a distinct impression that Thomson Reuters was kicking the can further down the road rather than swiftly rescinding an ill-advised and dangerous initiative.


Previously Sandham had responded to concerns raised by Reuters journalists with apparent incomprehension. A week ago, Simon Robinson, global managing editor, news publishing, held a conference call with worried journalists. It resulted in no immediate action.


The only thing that seems to have got traction was a wave of protests from distinguished former Reuters journalists and business executives on The Baron and in social media.


Some called for the resignation not just of the two executives at the eye of the storm but of the Thomson Reuters Trustees - directors of the Thomson Reuters Founders Share Company and guardians of the Trust Principles - for failing to block the covenant.


In their latest announcement, the authors of the controversy said they had not intended the initiative to be seen as a corporate endorsement of the UK armed forces, even though their original message to staff gave exactly that impression.


The review has its own dangers for the editorial leadership. If it results in any compromise that leaves the pledge intact, credibility with rank and file journalists will be lost and the waning power of editorial against other corporate interests will be confirmed.


The damage may already be done. Some hostile governments are only too eager to label Reuters an arm of British foreign policy. Belatedly rescinding the covenant may not be enough to sway them from that view.


Signing the covenant makes a mockery of the second Trust Principle, which states: “The integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Thomson Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved”.


Distinguished former correspondents venting rage on The Baron and in social media and serving journalists made the same points: Reuters has spent decades underlining its independence from the UK government, let alone its army, to authoritarian governments from Russia to Syria and Iran. This independence is essential to the Reuters mission to report accurately, swiftly and above all impartially on world events. Prejudicing it removes the central appeal of Reuters to financial clients, the public and international media.


It also puts Reuters correspondents in real jeopardy in countries where they are liable to be accused of spying for the British government or working as some kind of official news agency.


What of correspondents, most of them not British, trying to report from countries where the British army is seen with hostility or even hatred?


So far Reuters top editorial leadership has seemed silent and impotent, perhaps reflecting the diminished role the news division now holds in the Thomson Reuters organisation after 170 years of storied history.


Since the 2008 Thomson takeover cost-cutting, waves of redundancies, a focus on long-form journalism and a quest for Pulitzer Prizes have left Reuters trailing its main rival Bloomberg and greatly diminished its ability to cover areas of previous pre-eminence, especially in emerging markets. The change of emphasis did not match what customers wanted and impacted competitive ability on breaking news.


All of these problems once again concentrate attention on the Trustees, who waved through the Thomson takeover despite the Canadian corporation’s reputation for relentlessly tightening budgets by reducing headcount. The Trustees have remained practically invisible since, in the face of the evident decline of Reuters over the past 13 years.


Have they forgotten that the Trust Principles were established 80 years ago during World War Two to prevent censorship of Reuters and the dissemination of propaganda on its news wires by a government - the British government - among others?


It's time they spoke out about this matter of principle. ■