The readers aren’t always right: sometimes we journalists have to be their ethical guide

His Twitter profile says he’s a pursuer of a quiet life.

Like they all do, it says his views are his own.

But Craig Borland suggests that no one else would want those views.

Well I want them.

And I don’t think – to his eternal credit – he really does seek a quiet life, either.

For the editor of the Buteman newspaper is waging a brave battle for decency, humanity and sanity in his neck of the woods.

craig

His area of Scotland will soon be taking some of the first refugees to touch down in the UK.

But not all his readers have been impressed, with some taking to his own website to argue that charity should begin at home. As a certain type of people do – and more of that later.

Craig has had no truck with their views, however.

In a marvellous editorial, which yesterday was quoted at length by Kevin McKenna in The Observer, and which today is celebrated by Guardian media expert Roy Greenslade, Craig puts his readers firmly in their place.

“There have, predictably but depressingly, been grumbles about how we should look after our own first, how we should be spending our taxes and so on. But mostly these are just not-very-thinly-veiled ways of people saying ‘I don’t want them in my back yard’.

Well, I do. I want Bute to be a place where people who come here with little more than the clothes they are standing in can feel safe and at home.

I want Bute to be a place known not for narrow-minded bigotry, but for its warmth, and humanity, and willingness to help people with nothing in whatever way it can.

The families coming to Bute have been through things we can’t begin to imagine. Surely as human beings we have a duty to help. But more than that, we have an opportunity to show them, and the world, that Bute is a wonderful place to call your home.”

Like Roy, I very much like the cut of his jib.

Because this is an editor showing real civic and community leadership despite the fact that his standpoint might be unpalatable to some of his own readers.

It’s a huge irony that the journalists who find themselves propping up league tables of Britain’s most trusted professionals often have to act as moral guides for their communities.

There are many times when our ethical standards are Himalayan compared to those of the people we write for.

The best journalism moves debates along, breaking down taboos and challenging everyday discrimination and stereotypes.

“I’m not sure the readers are ready for this” is an alarm bell phrase that has rung in the ears of every editor in the land at one time or another.

Sometimes that alarm bell should point us in a different direction, though, signalling a step we should be taking to drag our community kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

One of my favourite front pages of last year was the Bristol Post’s take on the city’s first gay wedding.

kiss groom

It showed two men kissing and provoked a significant number of complaints from Bristol’s finest.

It arguably lost the Post some sales.

But it made my heart leap with joy – and it still does.

A few years ago when I was responsible for moderating comments on the Bath Chronicle’s website, I played the equivalent of a game of chess with a reader who – from the comfortable anonymity of his keyboard – had suggested that we had been wrong to describe a driver who chased after some armed robbers as ‘brave’.

I pursued him, arguing with him, until I had checkmated him into agreeing that he had been small-minded, cynical and unkind.

At which point I wished him a happy weekend.

My successor Alex Brown, has no time for the cruelty of keyboard warriors either.

Like Craig Borland, he had the perfect answer to heartless comments about Syrian refugees recently, and challenged charity-begins-at-home devotees to prove their commitment by becoming Poppy sellers.

By and large, the hundreds of journalists I’ve worked with over the years have been among the kindest, most decent and community-spirited people I’ve ever known.

When our communities and our readers lack those qualities, it’s time for our own decency to come to the fore.

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