“Facts are tricky things too”: Humpty Dumpty-speak from the Guardian Readers’ Editor

Chris Elliott has drawn the short straw and is consequently the Guardian’s latest readers’ editor.   Suffice it to say that if his conduct in this office is as confused and confusing as the article he wrote upon taking his new post then the Guardian and its readers are in real trouble. Anyone making a complaint to the reader’s editor should not hold his or her breath for a prompt and thorough response, or indeed a response at all.  (This, of course, is nothing new.  Dr Denis MacEoin wrote an excellent, erudite and reasoned letter to Elisabeth Ribbans, the former Managing Editor of the Guardian, about its unconscionable misrepresentation of facts in respect of Israel.  She did not deign to reply).

I said “confused and confusing” and I meant every word, because Chris Elliott’s perception of what his new position at the Guardian should properly entail is light years away from the facts on the ground.

I said “facts” deliberately too, and before I return to the content of this bizarre article, it may be useful to offer agreed and objective definitions of (rather than the Guardianspeak for) some of the terms Elliott uses:

Fact“something known to be true;  truth or reality of something; actual course of events” (source:  Microsoft Word online dictionary);

Principles“Principle – a standard of moral or ethical decision-making”  (Source: Microsoft Word online dictionary)

I had difficulty enough in reconciling either of these with how the Guardian actually operates in respect of its approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict, but then also came:

MutualisationElliott tells us that this is a neologism, defined by the Editor, which may account for it not being listed in Microsoft Word online dictionary, or in the Oxford English Dictionary.  The nearest word to it in the OED is “mutualism” which is defined there as “mutually beneficial symbiosis.”

My immediate reaction to the introduction into Guardianspeak of this new word was that Chris Elliott, as a good Guardian employee and a blind adherent to the Guardian World view, follows it so utterly and completely that he is a purveyor of its “Humpty Dumpty” approach to language – as per Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,” said Humpty Dumpty, “it means just what I choose it to mean….”

We learn then that the role of reader’s editor has remained fundamentally unchanged for thirteen years, and after that comes a remarkably high-flown definition of what the reader’s editor actually does:

“To collect, consider, investigate, respond to and where appropriate come to a conclusion about readers’ comments, concerns and complaints in a prompt and timely manner, from a position of independence within the paper.”

Readers should note the last three words above – which refer to independence “within the paper.” In other words, our Chris Elliott can choose any sort of independence he likes provided that it chimes with the Guardian World View.   How “Humpty Dumpty-speak” and how very typical of the Guardian!

However, Elliott tells us that changes are afoot.  Although the Guardian is embarking on the “mutualisation” I mentioned above (which of course, in Guardianspeak, means that much will seem to be offered, but little or nothing actually delivered, if past experience is anything to draw on).   We also learn that it has adopted a set of guidelines based on ten principles which are still under development.  We are also told that the tenth of these – that the Guardian journalism “is transparent and open to challenge – including correction, clarification and addition” applies to Elliott’s role in particular.

Call me a cynic, but all this is chock full of the Guardian’s usual divorced-from-reality, nauseatingly insincere Pollyanna-type tropes about “peace, love and light.”   Moreover, and much more importantly, its rosy message is fatally undermined by one point Elliott makes, which in turn shows his attitude to ethical and principled reporting:

For this is what the readers’ editor has to say about facts.  Note how, in true Guardianspeak fashion, he tries to wriggle off the hook of the Guardian’s responsibility to provide us with honest reportage based on proper context, empirically-based evidence, and facts.  Remind yourself that a fact is either objectively and provably true or, if it cannot be proven, then its status as a fact is questionable and it becomes supposition or opinion and should not be purveyed as a fact. Finally, ask yourself whether Chris Elliott would know a fact if he met one:

“.. The work of the readers’ editor is often less about establishing whether a particular fact is wrong than trying to be fair and transparent about how the Guardian has come to a decision, for instance, to identify an individual, use a particular photograph or quote someone making an offensive remark. Facts are tricky things too.  One person’s fact is another person’s opinion and a third person’s grossly biased and unconscionable world view… Where we can agree that something is a matter of fact and that it is wrong we should not repeat it.  Too often we do.(Emphasis mine)

This last sentence above is very poorly worded.  I hope that Elliott means “Where we can agree that something is a questionable matter of fact….” but given that he seems not to have a good grasp of what a fact is, I cannot be sure.

When the notion of what is a fact is reduced to mere “perspective”, we should be very worried indeed about the arbiter’s judgement.

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