The readers’ editor on… unfinished business

Aaron Cantu December 27, 2014 0
Jim Murphy Scottish Labour Party leader
Jim Murphy, the new leader of the Scottish Labour party, didn’t make the front page of the Scottish edition. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Observer

In keeping with the family-gathering nature of Christmas it seems appropriate first to thank our readers for your support of the Observer over the past year and to give you an end-of-year update on some of the issues you have raised with us during the past 12 months. After all, like most families, we have our disagreements…

General disquiet at the dearth of coverage from parts of the UK other than England were voiced in this space in October. Readers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland complained that beyond the obvious absence of local news, national stories often overlooked major regional differences (such as education and health policy) as though devolution never happened. It seems that message has got through because complaints on that score have ceased… but that doesn’t stop the feeling of being snubbed for some readers.

Earlier this month, a Scottish reader wrote: “Given the timing, I expected to find front page reporting and analysis on the previous day’s announcement of the election of Jim Murphy as the new leader of the Scottish Labour party. Oh no. Lindsay Lohan relocates to London was what was on the front page of your Scottish edition (along with a couple of other stories). And Jim Murphy? Page five is where he ended up. Disappointed reader? Yes. Surprised? Not really, as this is how audiences in Scotland regularly have south-east England and/or London-centric items foisted on us.” (Complaints about putting Lindsay Lohan on page one were not limited to Scotland: “Lindsay Lohan planning to make London her home is NOT headline news,” was a typical response.)

A year ago, readers wrote concerned about the male-dominated nature of sports coverage: in one issue not a single female face could be found on the sports pages. “How can it be possible that it’s difficult to find any women’s sport to cover?” asked one disappointed reader at the time.

I asked her if she had noticed any difference since then. “I was heartened to read the interview with Helen Glover last month,” she replied, “but Helen exactly echoes my feelings in her remark, ‘I still find it frustrating when you open a newspaper and there’s not one single women’s sport story when I personally know athletes who have done something incredible that week.’ It was also good to see the montage for Sports Personality of the Year contenders but overall I can’t say that I have noticed an improvement .”

Back in the spring, readers protested about a story headlined “New grammar school tests thwart ‘pushy’ parents”. It said that Buckinghamshire schools had introduced a new “tutor-proof” 11+ test out of concern that richer, but not necessarily brighter, children were winning places in the county’s grammar schools. The story said that provisional results had indicated that a more diverse selection of pupils had passed the test, but it contained no actual figures to support that claim. Local campaigners had winkled out provisional data from the county council which, extrapolated, they believed showed that actually fewer state school children were winning places. The grammar schools would not be drawn and urged everyone to wait until September to see the results.

September came and went but no data was forthcoming. Campaigners had to pursue multiple Freedom of Information requests and only after the intervention of the information commissioner were the full 11+ results finally released last month. Partial data made available in June tended to confirm the concerns of campaigners that I reported on in March. Now the latest figures show that the pass rate for state schools has dropped to 19.7%, compared to 23.4% the year before, while the pass rate for private school pupils stays almost unchanged at 70.1%.

The chairman of Bucks Grammar Schools, Philip Wayne, told an inquiry set up by the council’s education committee: “We can’t stop people having their children tutored, we just have to try and mitigate the effects of that. I have never said it is tutor-proof.”

Finally, in September I asked if we should continue to refer to Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria as Isis when media and politicians describe them variously as Isil, Islamic State or even Daesh. The paper’s style guide team said it was considering abandoning the term and promised a decision soon. Here it is: “We are sticking with Isis – it’s much the most widely used search term and editors were concerned people would simply not find our stories online if we switched.”

The readers’ editor on… unfinished business © Guardian News & Media Ltd

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