The men behind IPSO Part 3: John Witherow

Posted: July 17, 2014 at 10:10 am

(This is the latest in an occasional series. Earlier articles were about Lord Black and Paul Dacre.)

When the big newspaper groups were looking for someone to wield their veto on appointments to their new sham self-regulator, IPSO, it made sense for them to turn to John Witherow.

The editor of the Times is not only a loyal Murdoch apparatchik of long standing but he has also been intimately involved with the discredited Press Complaints Commission (PCC) for nearly 20 years. So he knows how to please proprietors and he knows exactly what sort of self-regulation their papers require if they are to go on bullying and abusing ordinary members of the public.

Witherow seems to have played his part: the IPSO board includes, for example, Bill Newman, the former managing editor of Murdoch’s Sun who led the defence of the paper’s appalling coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.

And few editors have been more slavish than Witherow in their efforts to promote IPSO and to dismiss, sideline or denigrate those who, sharing in the overwhelming national consensus in favour of change, demand that big newspaper companies self-regulate themselves in a way that will protect ordinary people.

This is in line with his record. In the years when the hacking scandal unfolded Witherow was editor of the Sunday Times, supposedly a powerhouse of investigative journalism. Yet his paper failed to detect, let alone investigate, the stink emanating from the office right next door – the News of the World.

A little later, the Sunday Times somehow did not report polling data showing that most people supported the Leveson Inquiry’s recommendations for independent, effective self-regulation – even though the poll had been commissioned by the Sunday Times itself.

And on the eve of the the publication of the Leveson Report the Sunday Times published a lengthy article on the inquiry that omitted everything of substance its reporter had gathered from a lengthy interview with Hacked Off.

Misrepresenting the Leveson Royal Charter is now routine in Witherow’s Times. After the hacking trial verdicts, for example, a leading article declared:

‘To rush to draconian regulation using a royal charter under the ultimate supervision of parliament, as the establishment and the pressure group Hacked Off advocate, looks even more of a disaster today than it ever has.’

This is ludicrous. There was no ‘rush’: the Royal Charter was approved well over two years after the Milly Dowler hacking revelations, and following a long public inquiry and months of political consideration. The Charter is not remotely ‘draconian’, in fact it protects press freedom considerably better than IPSO. Nor is it ‘under the ultimate supervision of Parliament‘ – it carries safeguards that make the press more independent, not less.

As for ‘the establishment’, if anyone in this country knows what ‘the establishment’ wants it is Witherow, who is an important part of it. After all, as Leveson found and the hacking trial confirmed, the Murdoch organisation has been far too close to government for decades.

And it goes on. When the Advertising Standards Authority concluded last month that an advertisement for IPSO published in the Times was misleading, did Witherow’s paper inform its readers? No.

Is this a man who has shown an interest in protecting the public against abuses committed by Murdoch newspapers, Mail newspapers, Mirror newspapers and the rest? Has he demonstrated that he puts the interests of ordinary people before those of the press? Does he inspire confidence as someone who wants to see powerful editors made accountable for their papers‘ misconduct?

Take his PCC record: three years as a commissioner of the PCC, followed by no fewer than 16 years as a senior member of the Editors‘ Code Committee. Almost everybody now agrees that the PCC was a failure and that the Code has been and continues to be casually ignored by editors when it suits them, yet in nearly 20 years, John Witherow never stood up and denounced this.

Instead he has chosen to participate in a tainted appointments process for a ‘new‘ body, IPSO, which is designed not to remedy but to perpetuate the faults of its predecessor.