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Johnston Press forced to respond to NUJ complaint to PCC

14 June 2010

The Press Complaints Commission has called on Johnston Press to respond to a complaint from the NUJ that senior journalists are being ordered to compromise editorial standards and put accuracy at risk.

The PCC has written to the NUJ confirming it has approached Johnston Press for an explanation of new rules governing the operation of the Atex system. The union has said they undermine the editorial independence of editors and put accuracy at risk.

The letter also confirms that, if any complaint over accuracy is upheld, the PCC would look into whether there was any systemic problem.

The NUJ wrote to the PCC following a memo from Paul Bentham, Managing Director of the group's South Yorkshire titles, to editors and senior journalists. The letter set out new rules following the introduction of the Atex content management system.

The rules removed a number of checks for accuracy and seriously undermined the role of the editor, removing their final responsibility for the content of the paper.

Chris Morley, NUJ northern organiser, wrote to the PCC highlighting the union's concerns. He wrote:

"I know that you and the PCC are now aware of the recent instruction to Johnston Press editors in South Yorkshire regarding ATEX. The memo from the managing director contains a number of extremely worrying developments which strike at the heart of an Editor's responsibilities.
"I believe it is important for the PCC to take a formal view on this as the PCC's code is written in to JP employees' contracts. I'm hopeful that the company will think again, in light of the seriousness of our concerns.
"But, if employees were to carry out these instructions of the company, it is entirely possible that editors and other journalists will be in breach of the code and therefore their contracts, not to mention the NUJ Code of Conduct if they are a member.
"This is an intolerable position for our members to find themselves in and, if a case arose where the fault for a substantial inaccuracy lay with inadequate checking (as directed by the aforesaid memo), where would the PCC put the blame – on the individual editor or the company whose procedures had created the conditions for the complaint to arise?"

Jeremy Dear, NUJ general secretary, said:

"This makes a mockery of Johnston Press's stated commitment to editorial independence and puts editors and senior journalists in an intolerable position. It is yet another sign that Atex is purely about commercial imperatives not about improving journalism".

Tags: , newspapers, johnston press, pcc, atex, south yorkshire newspapers, local newspapers, editorial quality, complaints