The Daily Mail’s misinformation about ‘the new press watchdog’: comparing the paper’s selective defence of IPSO with reality
By Dr Evan Harris
Today the Daily Mail – the newspaper exposed as being responsible for by far the greatest amount of definite or likely Standards Code breaches under the PCC, despite its editor controlling the PCC’s Standards Code Committee – attacked John Prescott for daring to speak out against the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the new regulator set up by the biggest publishers to avoid meaningful reform following Leveson, but yet to achieve the same level of support among papers than even the discredited PCC had. Here, the Mail’s falsehoods, distortions and misrepresentations are examined against the reality that they would rather nobody saw:
CLAIM: “A majority of the members of IPSO at all levels are independent and there is no industry veto on appointments to the body. The selection panel – which also has an independent majority – was headed by Sir Hayden Phillips, previously permanent secretary at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The new chairman of IPSO, Court of Appeal Judge Sir Alan Moses, was said to have been so enraged by ‘sensational and lurid’ coverage of the Soham case that he threw a pile of newspapers across the courtroom during a pre-trial hearing”. (This is a response to the claim by John Prescott that “The body (newspapers and magazines) have set up is controlled by the industry”)
REALITY: This is an astonishingly misleading claim, given the overwhelming factual evidence that IPSO is in fact dominated by the biggest newspaper groups. It has never been alleged that there is an industry veto on the appointment of non-industry members of IPSO – that is pure misdirection. Instead, the legal documents underpinning IPSO show that the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC) – the over-powerful funding body controlled by the newspaper industry – has the following levers of influence over IPSO:
- A VETO over any changes to the regulations of IPSO
- A VETO over changes to IPSO’s Standards Code
- A VETO over the existence of any low-cost arbitration scheme under IPSO that might have allowed ordinary people to contest valid civil claims without going to the High Court
- A VETO over the appointment of industry members to IPSO
- CONTROL over the processes of voting by IPSO members, including the share of votes given to each member, meaning that the biggest newspaper publishers will dominate at every level.
- CONTROL over the fund available to IPSO if it wishes to launch an investigation of wrongdoing
- CONTROL over the scope of any financial sanctions that IPSO can apply in the case of serious wrongdoing by a newspaper
- CONTROL over the pay of the IPSO Board, Complaints Committee, and Appointment Panel
- CONTROL over the size of the IPSO budget, any increases, and the power to set the budget annually
This represents only some of the powers the RFC has over IPSO. A list of the full range of powers, and other aspects compromising the independence of IPSO from the Mail and other newspapers can be found in a report here. Most importantly, the RFC has even more power than its predecessor, Pressbof, which Leveson identified as a key reason for the failure of the PCC to be an effective regulator.
The Mail’s reference to the selection panel headed by Sir Hayden Phillips is surprising, given that it has now been found that IPSO broke its own rules to appoint Phillips and his team. In the IPSO Articles of Association officially lodged at Companies House (not the version IPSO has made available to the public), a ‘Special Resolution’ disapplied Article 26 of the IPSO Articles, allowing IPSO to bypass its ‘independence and transparency’ rules, and appoint the panel in secret.
VERDICT: IPSO is subject to substantial control by the industry, particularly larger publishers with substantial regional news holdings, like the Daily Mail’s publisher.
CLAIM: “IPSO has far tougher rules than the previous regulator, the Press Complaints Commission. The watchdog will have the power to impose fines of up to £1million for systemic wrongdoing and can require editors to publish prominent corrections ‘whether editors like it or not’. IPSO will also include a standards and compliance arm, with investigative powers to call editors to account” (A response to the claim “[IPSO] is worse than the one we already have”)
REALITY: While IPSO will include an investigations function, it will only come into play following the detection of evidence of “serious and systemic” wrongdoing. The size of the fund that IPSO has to investigate newspapers, is in fact decided by newspapers through the RFC (see above). During an IPSO investigation, the newspaper will have SIX separate chances to intervene or appeal, while there is no formal role for the victims in this process. And the RFC (again) sets the sanctions guidance for IPSO.
In addition, IPSO continues the system of mediation that prevailed under the failed PCC, except IPSO’s will take even longer: complaints go to newspapers first, but there is no penalty to newspapers if they stall the complaint for the maximum 28 days, and even then IPSO will not record the majority of code breaches, even if there is substantial evidence.
IPSO has also raised the bar for considering complaints by third parties or representative groups, compared with the PCC, and – while the PCC was criticised for the absence of Richard Desmond’s Northern and Shell newspapers, IPSO currently has even less support among the national press, as the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times have elected not to join, in some cases citing concerns about IPSO’s lack of independence from larger newspaper publishers.
IPSO is worse than the PCC in having on its board one of the executives responsible for the reprehensible Hillsborough coverage by the Sun.
VERDICT: From the perspective of the public, IPSO is worse than the PCC. Its complaints system is more weighted against individuals, it will continue to ignore code breaches, the likelihood of stiff financial punishments being applied is minimal, and the power of larger newspapers is structured into the system. It will be less likely to accept third-party complaints, whether or not the code has been breached, and it has the support of fewer newspapers than the PCC.
CLAIM: “It is the Hacked Off-backed Royal Charter, which Lord Prescott supports, that compromises Leveson. The judge explicitly rejected the idea of the Government or Parliament setting up a recognition panel for any new press regulator, saying it would ‘likely be perceived by the industry, and possibly by the public, as Government interference in the independence of the Press’. Page 1,578 of Leveson states ‘by far the best solution to Press standards would be a body, established and organised by the industry, which would provide genuine regulation of its members'” (Response to the claim “[The Press] are refusing [to implement Leveson]… and totally ignoring the principal recommendations of Leveson, which Parliament endorsed”)
REALITY: An analysis of IPSO’s Articles – which has never been rebutted – has found that IPSO satisfies just 12 of the 38 recommendations Leveson made regarding a new self-regulation. This is in addition to the fact that Sir Alan Moses – the new Chair of IPSO – admitting on Radio 4’s Media Show that IPSO will not be seeking independent recognition under the Royal Charter. Such independent review of a new regulator is a central recommendation of Leveson, with overwhelming public support (even among the Daily Mail’s own readers).
Further, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) this week ruled that an advert for IPSO which claimed that the regulator delivered “all the key elements Lord Justice Leveson called for in his report” could not be run again, as that claim was misleading. In a twist, the advert was not run by IPSO, but by the secretive ‘Free Speech Network’ – a lobby group backed by the major newspaper publishers – although this fact was not made clear in the ad.
The Mail’s first quote, on Government interference, is lifted, context-free, from page 1,774 of the Leveson Report. The section is about the nature of the independent Recognition Body which, Leveson says is vital. Leveson says the Recognition body should not be Parliament or the Government and the quote (‘likely to be perceived by the industry, and possibly by the public, as Government interference in the independence of the Press’) relates to this. Basically Leveson is explaining why he is NOT recommending Parliament for the role, as this would be too political (even though in Ireland, the recognition body is the Government’s Justice Minister, and the Daily Mail has happily signed up to that system). He goes on to explicitly recommend that Parliament set up an independent Recognition Body by statute. So he could hardly have then “explicitly rejected the idea of the Government or Parliament setting up a recognition panel for any new press regulator.” In fact, Parliament chose – at the request of the Press – to avoid statute and to establish this Recognition Body by Royal Charter, It is not a Parliamentary body and operates entirely independently of Parliament (see below).
The Mail’s quote from ‘page 1,578 of Leveson’ is in fact on page 1,758 and is a deliberate misrepresentation. The Mail has also omitted the rest of the passage, which continues: “If such a body were to be established, and were to command the support of all key players in the market, there would be no need for further intervention, although I believe that there would remain a need for some further support in relation to ensuring that independence and providing incentives to membership”. The incentives are then outlined, and include arbitration – which IPSO will almost certainly not offer – and associated changes to court costs and exemplary damages. The incentives were, Leveson said, to be given effect by independent recognition. The Mail has omitted this by selective quotation.
VERDICT: The majority of Leveson’s recommendations have been ignored wholesale by the creators of IPSO, and this has been admitted in public by IPSO’s new chair. By any evidence-based reading of its Articles, IPSO is miles from what Leveson recommended. This has been independently confirmed by the ASA’s independent ruling on misleading claims in an advert for IPSO.
CLAIM: Leveson didn’t propose a Royal Charter. The idea was dreamed up by Number Ten and agreed with Hacked Off over Pizza at 2am. Leveson wanted ‘voluntary, independent self-regulation’. The Charter – far from being independent – could only be amended by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament. Journalists would live in fear that if they angered MPs, say by exposing another expenses scandal, they could get revenge by making the rules even more draconian. (In response to the claim “Basically, Leveson recommended an independent Press body. They are saying they will not comply with the Royal Charter”)
REALITY: Another astonishingly misleading claim. The Royal Charter can only be amended by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament and by unanimous agreement of the independently-appointed Board of the Recognition Panel (Article 9 of the Royal Charter). Even then, the legal incentives attached to the Royal Charter are in force only as long as a regulator (like IPSO) has applied for recognition. In the entirely unlikely event that the Charter was amended, IPSO could simply withdraw its application for recognition and disable the legal incentives, removing any opportunity for interference in press regulation.
This is in addition to the fact that the threshold for amending a Royal Charter is substantially higher than if a government decided to draft a new law to limit press freedom (which would require just a simple majority in Parliament). The Daily Mail doesn’t seem to be worried about that happening.
Finally, it has already been established on public record that the Royal Charter was not dreamed up at 2am on a Sunday night. And if a Royal Charter is such anathema to the Daily Mail, why did they wholeheartedly back the newspaper industry’s own Royal Charter, which – unlike the one agreed by all political parties – did not deliver Leveson, allowed party-political peers to exercise judgement over the press, and cemented control of a new regulator by the industry through yet another over-powerful funding body?
VERDICT: Leveson did recommend an independent Press body. IPSO is not independent of the big newspaper publishers, including the Daily Mail’s (see above), and party-political Peers can sit at every level of IPSO. Many publishers have said that they will not comply with the Royal Charter, though their arguments against it are self-serving, misleading, and ignore their own previous enthusiasm for Royal Charters.