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Will Globe & Mail’s first Public Editor (aka Ombudsman) make a difference? The question of Sylvia Stead.

Public Editors, or Ombudsmen as they are more often known, can be iffy things. Defined loosely as “one that investigates, reports on, and helps settle complaints”, the role can be broadly defined.

The New York Times is probably the best example of an effective Public Editor, where its ‘Ombudsman’ researches complaints of bias by its reporters and opinionators and serves as a protector of the public from shoddy and at times corrupt journalists.

On the other hand, the Washington Post uses its Ombudsman primarily to protect its journalists from the public’s complaints. The Post’s last three Ombudsmen - Deborah Howell , Andy Alexander and now Patrick Pexton - have a deplorable record of ignoring public outcry and coming down firmly on the side of erring and partisan hacks like George Will and Jennifer Rubin. This should be no surprise as the Post’s Editor, to whom the Ombudsman reports, is Fred Hiatt whose right wing views are well known.

On which side will the Globe & Mail’s new Public Editor sit? Never having one at the Globe before this, it’s hard to say. But it is welcome news. Announced today, long-time employee Sylvia Stead takes the role of first-ever Public Editor for the paper.

The public editor will be expected to address issues of journalistic integrity; investigate complaints or signs of improper conduct; explain our work and our purpose, both in print and online; and work with the editor and staff to understand and address shortcomings in our journalism.

The Globe & Mail has a reputation as a reasonably fair broker of news. However, its editorial policy is not so balanced. In fact, the editors (of which Stead is one) at the Globe are probably the farthest right of any publication in Canada, including those of the Conservative Sun and Post medias. In fact, the Globe’s editorial page more resembles Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal than either the New York Times or the Washington Post. The Globe has editorialized almost exclusively for the right-wing, from the Iraq war and Bush to its almost embarrassing devotion to Stephen Harper.

Will Ms. Stead follow the path of the New York Times’ editorial responsibility or instead adopt the Washington Post’s fealty to its writers and the country’s conservative political party? Will she protect the Globe’s writers or its readers? Perhaps Stead will choose to defy her compatriot editors and bosses and follow the New York Times’ model.

But it doesn’t bode well for the Public Editor at the Globe & Mail. Sylvia Stead will report to the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. That is not good news. Knowing the political and cultural slant that rules the top echelons of that publication, one can only surmise that well-entrenched Globe lifer Sylvia Stead will have no choice but to toe the line of the right wing echo chamber and follow the Conservative leanings of her bosses. This is a sad indicator not just for Canadian journalism but also for the many more fair-minded and hard-working reporters at the Globe & Mail who try to maintain journalistic integrity and a balanced view.

Don’t get me wrong. A Public Editor is long overdue for the paper of record. It is a good thing. But I feel for Sylvia Stead. She is in a spot. For her personally, I hope she is ready for the flack. If she is a ‘company man’, which I believe she is, Stead will get flack from the public for ignoring their views.

If Ms. Stead is a renegade truth-seeker, she will be in constant head-butting mode with her superiors. Seeing that Stead has been employed by the Globe & Mail since 1975, much of it as an editor, I tend to believe it is the former.

How can Stead add to the ethical nature of the paper when she has been at heart of the most corrupt part of the beast for so long? How can she cross her cocktail weinie-munching editorial buddies whose kids have grown up around her feet? For a Public Editor, whose job it is to be cooly impartial and strict when it comes to calling out errant compatriots, it appears to be an impossible feat to maintain the necessary distance. In other words, knowing her personal and professional proximity to the established and very conservative editorial staff, how can she protect us from them?

All of which begs the question: should not have the Globe & Mail hired an outside, independent journalist for its Public Editor? How else can the grey lady claim impartiality?

For now I’ll wait and see, cross my fingers and pray. In what passes for fair and balanced journalism in today’s Canada , that’s all we can do.

X-posted at Let Freedom Rain .

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