Damned in an official report, exposed as useless by a select committee, incapable of tackling flagrant press dishonesty, caught cherry-picking complaints – the sham press regulator is blundering between disasters
IPSO, the sham regulator operated by the big newspaper corporations since 2014, has never enjoyed much credibility. After all, it was set up in defiance of the reforming recommendations of the Leveson Report by press bosses openly determined to keep their freedom to lie and bully, and ever since then their papers have been breaching its code of practice with impunity almost every day.
Recent events, however, have been exposing IPSO’s failures in the starkest possible fashion.
The Kerslake Report
Sir Robert Kerslake’s report on last year’s Manchester Arena attack expressed shock at the ‘intrusive and overbearing behaviour’ of some journalists and demanded that IPSO ‘review the operation of its code’.
There is no excuse for IPSO’s failure to tackle this. Press thuggery at times of great grief is nothing new: it happened after the Shoreham air disaster in 2015, it loomed large in evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in 2011-12 and it has been a serious problem going back to Hillsborough in 1989 and beyond.
IPSO’s code contains clauses that ought to deter these things, but the problem is that the code is not enforced in any meaningful way. Journalists who bully and lie to bereaved families know that while IPSO is around they will face no consequences, and sadly history shows that the Kerslake demand for change will produce nothing more than palliative words.
The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has vividly exposed IPSO’s abject failure to tackle the plague of hate speech and discrimination directed at Muslims in the national press. The chair, Yvette Cooper, revealed that although the organisation received 8,148 complaints of discrimination in one year, it upheld only one.
When IPSO’s chair, Sir Alan Moses, was challenged on the point he was reduced – revealingly – to blaming shortcomings in the code, which is written for him by a committee dominated by working editors.
Editors and senior executives of IPSO papers responsible for relentless abuse of British Muslims have since appeared before the committee, most of them adamantly and preposterously denying that any problem of Islamophobia existed in the press at all.
When it emerged that IPSO had ordered the Times to publish a correction in relation to last year’s series of ‘Muslim fostering’ articles the news at first brought relief to some observers – but then came a familiar disappointment.
Though the offending four articles had all appeared prominently on the front page, the correction was tucked away on page 2, with just a tiny reference to it at the bottom of the front page.
Worse, it turned out that the correction related to just a single, narrow point (valid in its own right, but minor in context) and left the whole of the rest of this distorted and shoddy Times campaign uncorrected. Eight months after the articles appeared – articles that patently tended to inflame hostility towards Muslims and whose accuracy is challenged on almost every point – IPSO still refuses to investigate properly.
In a development that only IPSO and its press masters can welcome, the regulator has just defeated the first attempt to overturn one of its rulings in court. The judgment not only leaves open the possibility that IPSO may be unaccountable to the courts for anything it does, but it clearly highlights just how unfair and arbitrary its processes are.
Jonathan Coulter’s judicial review case challenged a decision by IPSO to reject his complaint on the grounds that he was not ‘directly affected’ by the alleged code breach and the court held that this rejection was in line with IPSO’s rules (although importantly it did not endorse those rules).
In other words, the court confirmed that IPSO’s rules grant it wide discretion to pick and choose between complaints on the basis of who has brought them – and this happens irrespective of the intrinsic merits of the complaints themselves and of the gravity of the potential breach complained of. The so-called regulator is thus free – by design – to ignore even flagrant breaches of the code where, for example, the victim feels too intimidated by the press to bring a complaint in person.
The bigger picture
Behind these recent developments lies a shaming background. IPSO was sold to the public in 2014 as a fit replacement for the disgraced Press Complaints Commission on the grounds that its powers of sanction made it ‘the toughest press regulator in the free world’ – but those vaunted powers are never, ever used.
It does not make national papers print front-page apologies for even the most glaring front-page errors – at best delivering tiny and obscure trailers as shown above and more usually allowing corrections to be buried on inside pages. It never conducts an investigation, no matter how obvious it is to the rest of us that there are sustained problems of unethical practice at some papers. And, though it claims to be able to impose million-pound fines, it has never detected any problem in the press worthy of even a £10 fine.
Lastly, it is worth remembering that this is the best we can ever hope for from IPSO. Right now (though it may be hard to believe) the press bosses would like IPSO to look effective because this might help them head off pressure in Parliament for something better. If they get their way and those reforms don’t happen we can be certain that even the flimsy vestiges of authority that IPSO is currently permitted will be torn away and the Mail, the Murdoch papers, the Mirror and the rest will consider themselves even more free to abuse people than they are now.
This piece was first published on Byline.com and is republished with thanks.