The biggest newspaper companies have got together and designed IPSO – the Independent Press Standards Organisation – which they intend to launch as a new self-regulator this year.
It isn’t nearly good enough. In fact it conforms to what Lord Justice Leveson called ‘a pattern of cosmetic reform’ by the press industry. How can we tell? The Leveson Report set out ways of establishing whether any future press self-regulator would be fit for purpose. Here are four key ways in which IPSO fails the Leveson test:
IPSO will be under the thumb of the big newspaper companies, through a body called the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC), which they will dominate. The RFC will hold the purse strings of IPSO and have substantial influence over appointments, regulations, investigations, sanctions, the code of practice and arbitration – every significant aspect of IPSO activity.
Where Leveson said that appointments to the board of a self-regulator must be made by a transparent process and free of influence by the industry, IPSO includes ‘industry representatives‘ and gives them a veto by insisting on unanimous decision-making. Further, IPSO board positions and other key jobs are open to working politicians, leaving the self-regulator wide open to political meddling.
2. Complaints handling
IPSO can’t be impartial in handling complaints from the public because it is not independent (see point 1). Its procedures allow news publishers generous opportunities to filter out complaints which may be perfectly legitimate and concern serious code breaches. Publishers also have many chances to interrupt and delay the handling of a complaint once it is under consideration, and we know from experience that some papers exploit every opportunity to create what Leveson called ‘complaint fatigue’ – eroding complainants’ will to continue.
IPSO, like the PCC, will also routinely insist on mediating behind-the-scenes ‘resolutions‘ to complaints rather than making simple rulings as to whether the code has been breached and what the remedy should be. At the PCC in 2013, out of about 6,000 complaints received only 39 were the subject of formal rulings (known as adjudications).
IPSO allows publishers an a la carte approach to arbitration, even though Leveson said it was essential to give the public access to justice when their legal rights are breached. IPSO may if it chooses run a pilot arbitration scheme and then, if the big newspaper groups in the RFC like the result, it may then offer arbitration on a case-by-case basis, at the discretion of news publishers. There will be no pressure on papers to use this. In this way IPSO gives news publishers the option of refusing complainants access to arbitration whenever they like, leaving ordinary people with no alternative but High Court litigation – which the overwhelming majority can’t afford.
IPSO’s industry code of practice will be written by a committee dominated by editors, contrary to Leveson. IPSO will not have to actively monitor for code breaches and when complaints come it it will not automatically seek to determine whether the code has been breached. This means that most code breaches will not be recorded and the public will not know about them, and IPSO won’t be able to tell where there are patterns of unethical behaviour, let alone act to uphold standards. If a serious problem arises, IPSO will only be able to investigate if the RFC – an industry body dominated by big papers – has allocated enough money. And if there is an investigation IPSO has built in six opportunities for the subject paper to delay and challenge the process (where the public has none).
Given the track record of some big papers, we know that this makes it extremely unlikely that any investigation of a major news publisher will ever be completed, and without complete investigations IPSO is powerless to impose sanctions of any kind. IPSO’s famous £1 million fines will thus never happen.
To sum up:
These are not minor shortcomings, and nor are they the only ones (see a fuller examination of IPSO here). IPSO is fatally flawed because the big papers – the Times, the Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph and others – want it that way. It preserves all the worst features of the Press Complaints Commission and so it will inevitably suffer the same fate of failure and disgrace. How many people must suffer cruel and unfair treatment without redress before that happens?
If the big companies want to win back public trust they should see sense and redesign IPSO. They should then submit it to the independent Recognition Panel created under last years’s Royal Charter, which will determine whether it passes the Leveson test. Then both they and the public can enjoy the benefits of independent and effective press self-regulation coupled with cheap and quick arbitration.