The title of mediator comes from the Anglo-Saxon term ombudsman. The function originated in Sweden in 1809 and aims to defend citizens in conflicts with public services.
In 1970 the Washington Post created the first press mediator: “a journalist in charge of relations between the newspaper and its readers whose function is to listen to their grievances, write internal notes and publish a column with complete freedom of expression” (AGNES Yves, Les mediateurs de presse en France, Cahiers du journalisme, no 18, spring 2008, Quebec, p. 34)
Europe only learned about the role of mediation in the 1980s.
Generally speaking, it is difficult to formulate a type or accurately describe the role since it covers so many different realities, depending on the editorial organisation or the country. However, the international organisation of press mediators describes someone who “receives and handles complaints from readers, listeners or viewers about relevance or balance in the way the news has been presented. He or she then recommends the most appropriate ways to correct or clarify the piece of journalism.”
Frédérique Béal describes two theoretical models of mediation in Médiateurs de presse ou press ombudsmen. La presse en quête de crédibilité a-t-elle trouvé son Zorro ? (Press mediators or press ombudsmen. Has the press found its saviour in its search for credibility?) Collection Journalisme responsable, International Alliance of Journalists:
The ‘conciliatory mediator’ whose role is to play the intermediary between editorial and readers in the interest of conciliation
‘The regulatory ombudsman’ whose role goes beyond conciliation and who applies sanctions
The author insists on the fact that most of the time the mediator oscillates between the two poles of conciliator and judge.
André Laurens was the first French mediator, a position created by Le Monde newspaper in 1984.
Since then, the function has changed a little but remains precarious.
A club of press mediators was created in 2006 and is currently headed by Marie-Laure Augry. Today it has nine members: France 2, France 3, France-Télévisions, TF1, Radio-france, France Médias Monde, Le Monde, Sud-Ouest, La Nouvelle République du Centre-Ouest.
Only a few Brazilian news media organisations have a mediator, e.g. A Folha, TV cultura.
There are currently 13 mediators in Switzerland, some of them are not associated with specific titles but work in a press group, e.g. Axel Springer, tamemedia, Edipress. They work for the written press, as well as in the private and public audio-visual sector.
The idea of a press mediator has never had great success in Belgium. In Flanders, the only written press mediator works for the De Standaard quality daily in which he has a well-received weekly column.
VRT – the Flemish public radio-television station also has a ‘professional ethics manager‘– not a ‘real’ mediator but someone who mainly monitors professional standards of non-journalistic programmes at the station.
In French-speaking Belgium, there had been a mediator at the daily newspaper Le Soir but the post was not renewed and there is now only one French-language mediator – at RTBF, the public TV station which is legally obliged to have one.
However, the task of press mediation for the country as a whole is ensured by two press councils.
There are few mediators in Spain. As democracy was only recently established, the press has not yet adopted this practise. Most newspapers have preserved the principle of informal mediation which is ensured by an internal individual, in this way observing the tradition of linking the paper to the name of its director (one often speaks of ‘so and so’s’ El Mundo or ‘so and so’s El ABC).
El País was the first to create the position of mediator in 1985, followed by La Vanguardia in 1993, and later Punt Diari / Avui and El Periódico (whose mediator is charged in particular with monitoring gender equality for the publication), La Voz de Galicia, and, latterly, the Spanish national TV channel (TVE), the Catalan TV/Radio station/channel (TV3) and the Andalusian channel (Canal Sur).
Press mediation is developing in Germany. In 2014 there were 11 mediators for the following titles from the written press: Rhein-Zeitung, Freie Presse Chemnitz, Braunschweiger Zeitung, Berliner Zeitung, Hamburger Abendblatt Volk, Neue Presse Coburg Wendt, Volksstimme Magdeburg, Süderländer Tageblatt, Main-Post Würzburg, Wetzlarer Neue Zeitung.
De Standaard : Yes, recently put in place
The role of mediator – unique in the Flemish press – has existed at De Standaard since 2010. The current mediator has been in place for three years. He has a column in the newspaper which appears every Wednesday. He can also intervene at any moment on the website.
Europe 1 : Only via the internet
There is no mediator but more and more interfaces have been created between the radio station and its listeners.
Firstly, with Europe 1 Club – feedback is encouraged when a programme is broadcast on the road.
Secondly, on our website europe1.fr (a million visitors), a Contact section, with several options, enables listeners to give their opinions about a particular programme, the programme schedule or a presenter. It is also possible to comment on the way how a news item has been handled and/or to contact a journalist. A department exists to deal with these questions and transmit them to the journalists concerned or to Denis Olivennes, CEO of Europe 1.
France 24 : Yes
France 24 has a mediator who is a member of France Médias Monde.
Le Monde : Yes
The post of mediator was created in 1994 and awarded at the time to the former newspaper manager André Laurens.
The newspaper reiterates on its site that “The mediator is a receiver (of complaints, criticisms and suggestions), an intermediary (between our readers and the newspaper) and a sort of arbitrator“.
There are different recourses of action: readers’ letters, a column in the weekend edition and a blog named « Le Monde of the readers » mediateur.blog.lemonde.fr
Ouest France : No
Berliner Zeitung : None
ZDF : No but…
The personalised function of mediator does not exist as such at ZDF. However, a system for formal and informal complaints has been put in place by the Managing Director of ZDF-Fernsehrat (television council) with a detailed regulation procedure.
The Irish Times : There is an equivalent
A readers’ representative has been receiving complaints for the past ten years and has written or published corrections in the newspaper’s Corrections and Clarifications column.
The role of the readers’ representative is, however, not as broad as that of a real press mediator whose role is ensured by the Irish press council in which the newspaper plays a part.
Polskie Radio, kanal 3 : Via a spokesperson
Polskie Radio does not have a mediator but a spokesperson can respond to questions, if necessary, particularly if these are from a political power or an important citizens’ group.
Theoretically, there can also be mediation via the equivalent of the Polish press council.
BBC : Yes
In 2010, the Editorial complaints unit received 220 000 messages which were managed by a team of six people.
In 250 to 270 cases, viewers were not satisfied with the response they were given and upheld their complaint. In these cases the mediator, Fraser Steel, intervenes to check if there has been a breach of editorial policy.
Fraser Steel is in constant communication with David Jordan, director of the Editorial Policy team.
He replies by recommended letter reiterating the rules applied in the case concerned. He watches the programme or report in question and interviews the journalist before making a decision.
If the complaint seems justified, the mediator can refer it to the Department head concerned and sends a letter to the complainant apologising in the name of the BBC. Apologies can also be published on the website or broadcast on air.
The decisions of the Editorial Complaints unit are final and the mediator reports directly to the BBC Trust, the body defining BBC global strategy.
The Guardian : Yes, there is a system for receiving complaints
When a mediator receives a complaint from a reader, the mediator investigates, provides an explanation and then publishes a corrective article or apologises in the name of the newspaper.
Unlike the Editor-in-chief, the mediator has no disciplinary role but can still attend editorial meetings to highlight any professional standards that may have been breached.
The mediator has a column in the newspaper every Monday and a page on the website.