by Brian Cathcart
As chair of IPSO, the tame regulator set up by the corporate national papers, Sir Alan Moses is responsible for upholding a code of practice which says, among other things, that journalists must take care not to be inaccurate. And yet he seems to have trouble being accurate himself.
A guest on Radio 4’s Media Show last week, he was chatting on air with host Steve Hewlett when he made reference to David Wolfe, the chair of the Press Recognition Panel (PRP). This is the Leveson-inspired independent body set up to determine on the public’s behalf whether press regulators are fit for purpose – a test IPSO has not undergone because it knows it would fail.
Sir Alan declared:
‘Poor old David Wolfe was saying to me the other day, “Oh well, we’ve got people ringing up saying we’re – Oh I want to make a complaint about X.” The Recognition Panel doesn’t deal with complaints. . .’
The offensive tone (‘poor old David…’) is characteristic, but when the PRP wrote a withering letter to IPSO in response [pdf] it wasn’t about the tone; it was about accuracy.
Susie Uppal, the PRP chief executive, pointed out that – in striking contrast to IPSO – the PRP has a strict policy of transparency, and consequently any meetings between Sir Alan and David Wolfe are minuted and made public on the website. From this it was clear, she wrote, that:
‘the most recent communication between David and Sir Alan was on 15 May 2015. There was no conversation “the other day” or any other day.
‘If by that phrase Sir Alan actually means 15 months ago, then we would refer him to the minutes of that meeting (agreed by IPSO at the time) which report David as simply noting that, given the volume of complaints to IPSO, the PRP would have a role in assisting the public in signposting their complaints accurately.’
Perhaps Sir Alan was confused about this conversation ‘the other day’ that happened a year and a half ago in which Wolfe did not really say the thing attributed to him. If so, it would not be the first time he has displayed confusion on national radio.
Less than two months ago he announced on the World at One (the BBC give him plenty of air time) that in its first two years IPSO had forced newspapers to print ‘18 dictated front-page corrections’. This was a significant claim, since it was explicitly intended to prove to the public that IPSO was not a toothless poodle after all, but was standing up to editors and proprietors.
Alas for poor old Sir Alan, this was another accuracy malfunction. IPSO itself subsequently admitted (according to Press Gazette) that he had ‘mis-spoken’, which you might think a weaselly word for a regulator to use. IPSO asserted that there had been 13 front-page corrections rather than 18, but even this was not accurate.
The exact number of actual corrections published by newspapers on their front pages on the orders of IPSO is zero – just as the number of investigations IPSO has conducted is zero and the number of fines it has imposed is zero.
The most it can claim is that in a handful of cases, often where an untruth was blared across the front page in large headlines, it has required an editor to print a small item in a corner of a front page indicating, usually in obscure terms, that an IPSO adjudication appeared somewhere on an inside page.
So twice in six weeks the BBC listeners have been allowed to form an erroneous impression thanks to remarks by Sir Alan. It is certainly odd behaviour from a former senior judge and a regulator of press accuracy. Perhaps the BBC will be on its guard in the future.