IPSO shirks responsibility for false newspaper stories’ circulation on extremist forums: rebuttal

Our recent report, White Supremacism, the Press and the Absence of Regulation, showed how false newspaper stories critical of Muslims and immigrants were being shared and circulated by white supremacists on internet forums.

None of those false stories were adequately remedied by IPSO, the sham complaints-handler controlled by the press. 

IPSO’s failure to sanction newspaper inaccuracies appropriately leaves the largest publishers with little incentive to get stories right.

Too often, the targets of press inaccuracy are Muslims and immigrants – and now, as set out in our Report, we know that false stories which are critical of those groups are fuelling extremist narratives.

The reaction of an effective and independent regulator to such a Report would be swift and decisive.

Firstly, it would set out a clear plan to remedy false newspaper stories attacking Muslims and immigrants, starting by plugging the gaping loophole in the Editors’ Code which prevents IPSO from properly considering cases of group discrimination.

Then it might launch an investigation into how frequently false stories about marginalised communities are published.

At the very minimum, one would expect an independent regulator to begin a consultation with Muslim advocacy groups and counter-extremism experts, with a commitment to make the necessary reforms.

But not IPSO.

Instead the sham complaints-handler is on the defensive, and has published a response which ultimately fails to find any actual inaccuracies in the Report. 

The one error IPSO claims the Report makes is the assertion that “No complaints to IPSO were accepted” about Trevor Kavanagh’s comment in The Sun; “What will we do about the Muslim Problem then?”.

As evidence, IPSO cites a ruling in which…IPSO themselves dismiss complaints on this passage without investigation, saying:

The [IPSO Complaints] Committee made clear that there is no clause in the Editors’ Code which prohibits publication of offensive content. 

“It was clear that many, including the complainant, were offended by this aspect of the article, but there was no breach of the Code on this point.

It is ironic for IPSO to falsely claim inaccuracies in this Report, given it so rarely sanctions inaccuracies in the press.  

Below, we provide a full rebuttal to IPSO’s response [which can be read here]:

 “IPSO rejects any assertion that lack of regulation is responsible for the spread of material on white supremacist internet forums used for malicious purposes.”

IPSO has failed to regulate the press effectively and, consequently, newspapers have been able to publish false stories about Muslims and immigrants without risk of meaningful sanction. Those stories are now being circulated on extremist forums.

“The circulation of racist ideology and hateful content aimed at vulnerable groups is very concerning and is rightly a focus of the Online Harms agenda.”

IPSO should be taking action over their failure to ensure false newspaper articles fuelling racist narratives online are appropriately sanctioned.

“However, the free circulation of information about matters of public interest should not be constrained on the basis that some parties may make use of it in bad faith.

“Any such approach would pose a serious threat to freedom of expression. As the report itself makes clear,

“No newspaper can prevent a person with extreme views from reading it or republishing its content”. This is also true of any regulator.”

No newspaper can prevent extremists from republishing its content – but they can take care to produce accurate articles.  Part of the purpose of regulation is to ensure that newspapers are incentivised to report accurately and are appropriately sanctioned when they do not so (and that the record is corrected).

This does not happen under IPSO.

 “As the independent regulator of most newspapers and magazines in the UK, IPSO holds publishers to account under the high standards of the Editors’ Code. This is in stark contrast to social media and online forums, which are unregulated and offer no form of independent regulation or redress.”

IPSO is neither independent, nor effective, nor does it regulate most publishers.  Most publishers are members of IMPRESS, the independent press regulator.

A minority of publishers choose to persist with IPSO.

Before IPSO and its members start lecturing social media companies on regulation, they must examine the serious biases and inadequacies in their own system of complaints-handling.

“Our role is to apply the terms of the Code impartially and proportionately to the editorial material of regulated publishers, in print and online.

This includes taking care not to publish inaccurate, misleading and distorted information; making a clear distinction between comment, conjecture and fact; and not discriminating against individuals on the basis of any protected characteristic, including religion.”

In theory, this is IPSO’s role.

In practice, it consistently fails to apply the Editors’ Code (itself a flawed document) with independence or effectiveness.

“Of the complaints cited in this report, IPSO dealt with all but one (where no complaint was received) robustly and transparently.

“Most complaints that have concluded were upheld and required remedial action, all of which appeared further forward than the original article.

“Where a complaint was not upheld, we still issued a public ruling, setting out the reasons for that decision.”

None of the stories cited were adequately sanctioned or otherwise appropriately remedied. 

IPSO concedes that they didn’t even look into the other article.  It should not take a complaint (to a body which few prospective complainants are likely to have confidence in) for IPSO to look into a clear case of inaccuracy.

IPSO’s response goes on to set out its actions in respect of the six articles.  Absurdly, IPSO relies on the fact it tweets out complaints decisions to its “9000 Twitter followers” as evidence of robustness.  For comparison, the newspaper websites where these errors appeared are read by 7m+ people every day.

For clarity, these were the actions taken by IPSO in respect of each article, taken in turn:


  1. “Half of UK’s imported Covid cases from Pakistan”

Despite this article being published months ago, and having been widely rebutted (and partially retracted) online, IPSO have still not issued an adjudication.

      2. “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care”

This story ran on the front page of The Times for several days.

Despite being a front page story, the eventually published adjudication was buried on page 6 and was of far smaller size than the story.  Many inaccuracies in the original story remain uncorrected.

   3. “One in five Muslims have sympathy for jihadis”

This was a huge frontpage splash for The Sun.  The adjudication was smaller and hidden inside the paper on page 2.

      4. “Powder Keg Paris”

This was a two-page spread packed with a number of errors.  IPSO only found an inaccuracy on a fraction of these and ordered an adjudication which could have fitted on a post-it note.

  5.“Jailed rapist given chance to see victim’s child”

IPSO claims no one complained so… they did nothing.

   6. “The Muslim Problem”

IPSO wrongly alleges that the report states that no complaints were accepted about the article.  In fact, the Report referred to the specific passage in the article about “the Muslim Problem.”.  Other accuracy complaints about the article were considered.

In the event, none were upheld anyway.

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