The NUJ has written to the Press Complaints Commission claiming that senior journalists in Johnston Press are being ordered to compromise editorial standards and put accuracy at risk.
The complaint involves new rules governing the operation of the Atex editorial content management system which say editors should not "continue with the old practise of reading every story." The NUJ wrote to the PCC following a "workflow memo" from Paul Bentham, managing director of the group's South Yorkshire titles, to editors and senior journalists, setting out new rules following the introduction of the Atex system.
According to the union, 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.
The union has published the memo on its website. Among its rules are that: "Editors are not permitted to change the templates 'on the fly' . . . All locally written stories must be ordered out to reporters and written using Incopy to fit the requested page shape. The number of staff authorised to 'order out' pages should be kept to a minimum and Editors need to ensure that the policy of "right first time" is embedded in the newsroom culture. They should not however continue with the old practise (sic) of reading every story. Editors should evaluate the risk for each story based on content and the seniority of the journalist and act accordingly."
NUJ Northern organiser Chris Morley wrote to the PCC stating: "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?"
NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear 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".