Ian Murray said he must “take the blame” following heavy criticism of the industry body, and step aside.
A strongly-worded statement issued by the organisation following Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey said it was “not acceptable” for the couple to make claims of racism in the press “without supporting evidence”, adding that the press in the UK was not racist.
Mr Murray said the comment was “not intended to gloss over the fact the media industry in the UK does have work to do on inclusivity and diversity.”
He said: “While I do not agree that the Society’s statement was in any way intended to defend racism, I accept it could have been much clearer in its condemnation of bigotry and has clearly caused upset.
“As executive director I lead the Society and as such must take the blame and so I have decided it is best for the board and membership that I step aside so that the organisation can start to rebuild its reputation.”
Mr Murray said he was stepping aside “with a heavy heart” adding he is “proud” of the SoE’s work “defending media freedom over the three years I have been at the helm as well as the initiatives we have created and continue to create on diversity in the newsroom”.
The editors of the Guardian and HuffPost UK previously issued statements saying they did not agree with the Society of Editor’s position.
Guardian News and Media editor-in-chief Katharine Viner said on Tuesday: “Every institution in the United Kingdom is currently examining its own position on vital issues of race and the treatment of people of colour.
“As I have said before, the media must do the same.
“It must be much more representative and more self-aware.”
HuffPost UK editor-in-chief Jess Brammar also tweeted to say she disagreed with the statement.
She wrote on Monday: “I considered not saying anything about this because I’m aware I won’t make myself popular with my peers, but I’m just going to stand up and say it: I don’t agree with statement from my industry body that it is ‘untrue that sections of UK press were bigoted’.”
ITV News presenter Charlene White also said she would not host this year’s Society of Editors’ Press Awards because of the row over the comments on Meghan and Harry’s interview.
Alison Gow, president of the Society of Editors, said: “I would like to thank Ian for his tireless work on behalf of the Society; he has led campaigns for journalists’ rights and freedoms and worked hard behind the scenes when it appeared legislation might threaten those.
“The society is committed to representing all journalists and upholding Journalism; I am clear on what our mission must be, and we will strive as an organisation to listen and hear everyone’s views, and be strong advocates and allies for all those we represent.”