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Guestblog, Transparency Project: 296 days to correct a factual inaccuracy – effective press regulation?

The Transparency Project, a charity which aims to increase public understanding of family law and family courts, describe their experience of engaging with IPSO after making a complaint about an inaccurate article in the Daily Express.

 

This blog has been republished with the author’s consent.  The original blog appears on the Transparency Project’s website here.

 

296 days ago, on 27 August 2019, the Daily Express published an inaccurate article in the print edition of their paper. Today (18/06/2020) they have published a correction because the regulator IPSO required this. For those who are interested, we saved the original Express article here.

The article was published under the paper’s ‘crusade’ to ‘End this injustice’ (in family courts). We were concerned that it contained serious inaccuracies and was misleading. We first wrote about these in a post on 30 August.

On 1 September 2019 we also lodged a complaint with The Express about those inaccuracies, referencing Clause 1 IPSO Editors’ Code. The below post, dated 28 September 2019 (the point when we decided we were getting the run around from the Express and went off to the regulator) tells you all about that [TLDR: The Express ignored us for almost a month, then said we’d complained in the wrong way, but graciously agreed to consider our complaint anyway and then said ‘actually we think you had better go to IPSO after all’ (we can’t be bothered).]

Our complaint to IPSO was lodged on 4 October. It was rejected by them on 4 November. We challenged that decision under the review process. On 5 December we were told that the review had been successful and the complaint had been accepted (accepted, mind you, not yet considered or upheld). But IPSO giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other – they were putting our complaint on hold to allow us to exhaust the internal dispute resolution procedures with the Express. Yes, the internal dispute resolution procedures that we’d already exhausted. (It’s exhausting just going back over this, frankly).

Our original complaint was comprehensive and provided details of all the correspondence to date, our concerns about inaccuracy and links to the relevant blog posts. The suggestion that we should perhaps go back to exhaust the internal procedures before going to IPSO, some two months after we had already exhausted those procedures and explained that in our original complaint did not inspire us with confidence that our original material had been fully digested by IPSO. We sent our material back to IPSO again and asked them to proceed with the complaint to avoid further delay.

On 10 December 2019 however, we were told an investigation was beginning! Hurrah. We were asked later that month to comment on the response from the Express (we were given from 20 Dec to 2 January to do that, which was somewhat inconvenient, but we did it). Although the terms of the IPSO scheme do not permit us to publish correspondence forming any part of the process without consent, we can say that the correspondence between IPSO and the publishers, inviting their comment did not accurately summarise our complaint, which we had to explain to IPSO again. In that correspondence the publishers defended the article robustly.

In the New Year, having fed back as requested, we thought we were reaching a denoument. But no, on 31 January 2020 (5 months post-publication) we were told that the case would now be considered by the committee…at a meeting on 10 March 2020 (6 ½ months post-publication).

On 8 April 2020, in response to a chaser from us, we had confirmation that the 10 March meeting had taken place as planned, but that it was quite normal for a decision to take a few weeks, and Covid had impacted on this also. (7 months…)

We were in fact told of the outcome of the complaint on 4 May 2020. (8 months.) But it has taken a further 6 weeks for the correction to be published.

A small part of that delay was because we raised a query about the detail of the correction that the committee were proposing to be published and about how the correction would be expressed. We wanted to be sure that any correction reached the same audience that had originally been misinformed i.e. an online audience, and we wanted readers who might wish to understand the case to have sufficient information to be able to track down source material about it – which required either names, case citations or urls. IPSO required only a print correction for a print article and a limitation of their scheme is that they operate against publications not individual journalists who may choose to republish online in their own name. The online ‘life’ of the article was on the journalist’s personal twitter feed, and not a publication by The Express. But that issue was resolved by 18 May 2020. 8 ½ months.

 

 

Delivery day

Today (18/06/2020) is day 296 (9 ½ months. You can make a whole person quicker than that!

 

Here is the adjudication setting out the reasons IPSO upheld our complaint and required the publication of a correction :

 

07867-19 The Transparency Project v Daily Express,
Decision: Breach – sanction: publication of adjudication

 

Since tweeting earlier today, showing the correction in this morning’s print edition of the Express, Liz Perkins, the journalist who wrote the article and tweeted a screenshot of it on her twitter feed, has deleted that tweet. You can see the text of the original tweet in our original article.

 

View image on Twitter

 

Some conclusions

We are pleased to have finally reached the conclusion of this process but it has once again highlighted the in-built limitations of the IPSO scheme :

  • A correction the better part a year after publication is far less effective than a correction published at or near the time;
  • This is compounded by the confidentiality requirement which has prevented us from fully updating our blog posts pending a decision;
  • A correction in print only, when significant traction was online is of little utility;
  • A correction that is so anonymised that it makes it impossible for the inquiring reader to link back to source material or other relevant commentary is of limited reparative effect;
  • A regulatory scheme that is unable to tackle inaccurate publications by individual journalists on behalf of publications or in respect of material they have written for a regulated publication is a regulatory scheme with a gaping loophole;
  • A complaints process that is as tortuous as this is likely to cause many complainants to give up – we were insistent, and there were a number of tight deadlines that we had to take care to adhere to, to ensure our complaint was not discontinued.

 

Family Court propagandists?

People are entitled to (and do) hold different views about the court case mentioned in the original article. But they are entitled to expect, when forming their views, that an accurate and fair account of relevant judicial decisions will be provided in coverage of the case. Those who wish to read the judgments in the case will find them linked to at the foot of our original post, and from there they can make up their own minds about whether the court was right or wrong and whether there is anything to crusade about in this particular example of a family court case.

 

Hacked Off comment

It’s not unusual for IPSO to take six months to consider a complaint.  On this occasion, it was more than nine.  What is the point of a correction if it is not made until almost a year after the article is published?  It is possible that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people could been misled by the inaccuracy in that time.

The complaint has only reached the stage of adjudication because of the extraordinary perseverance (and expertise) of the Transparency Project. Many ordinary people lodging a complaint would have given up long before they did. When a complainant opts not to continue with a complaint, IPSO doesn’t investigate further – it just drops the case, and the fact the code may have been breached isn’t even reported.

That’s why IPSO’s failure to investigate complaints more promptly is just another way of letting newspapers off the hook. The IPSO process is designed to wear complainants down until they give up, in a process Leveson described as “attritional”.

What is perhaps most damning for IPSO is the fact that all the information needed to reach a judgement was in the public domain from the start. Any reasonable person could have reached a decision on the case in 300 seconds. Why did it take IPSO (almost) 300 days?

Until IPSO is reformed to pass the Leveson Royal Charter requirements of “recognition”, or replaced by a regulator which does, the public will continue to be let down.

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