OPINION: Why the Press is not working for the People

Elizabeth Mizon – press reform advocate

Does the following headline sound as though it was written by a concerned editor making an appeal for witnesses?

“EXCLUSIVE: Shocking moment young woman is killed by speeding hit-and-run driver escaping police – as she is flung 20 feet into the air and lands in front of horrified onlookers at London bus stop”

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) thinks so.

Over a decade ago the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the UK’s corporate press found serious and endemic violations by newspaper editors had taken place on the watch of the Press Complaints Commission, the newspaper industry’s ‘self-regulation’ body. Lord Justice Leveson recommended what he called an ‘effective self-regulator’ independent of “both the Government and the industry”.

IMPRESS, a new independent regulator which followed Leveson’s guidance was set up. However, the industry refused to engage with it and instead set up IPSO, another ‘self-regulator’ which, as Professor Stephen Barnett has shown, veers in significant ways from Leveson’s recommendations for independence.

Hacked Off’s new film, The Press and The People, demonstrates not just the ongoing gross misdemeanours of certain national corporate newspapers, but the ongoing failures of IPSO to regulate in good faith their worst activities in pursuit of profit.

Clause 4 of IPSO’s Editor’s Code is concerned with ‘Intrusion into grief or shock’:

“In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.”

The film’s three case studies show clearly and painfully the effects that press intrusion can have on people’s lives. It gives clear evidence of continued endemic breaches of privacy and dignity at, often, the worst moment in the life of a press victim. IPSO has upheld just 7 of 257 complaints of intrusion into grief or shock since it was launched.

Unfortunately, the Garner family’s complaint was not one of them. Mandy Garner and her family had to endure a lengthy back and forth with the Mail, who published the clickbait headline at the beginning of this article, as they sought to justify exploiting a video of her daughter’s death for money.

The Mail received the graphic CCTV footage of the incident from a local shop, publishing it before the family knew it existed, before everyone in the family had been informed, and against the advice of the police.

“IPSO ruled that it was not a breach of their code,” Mandy explained to Hacked Off, as “you couldn’t make out my daughter’s face because the footage was ‘grainy’”. The Mail would go on to claim their motivation for publishing was to appeal to witnesses who may recognise the driver or the car – without acknowledging the effect of the ‘grainy’ footage on this angle, or that a still image of the car, number plate or driver could have been shared independently of the footage.

The ruling shows IPSO took the Mail’s justifications at face value. The Mail won not simply on technicalities, but on IPSO’s stated faith in their public interest intention. And yet we know corporate papers use unethical  tactics and run exploitative stories for profit – they make no secret of this; former Express editor Richard Desmond openly offered it as an acceptable trade off to keep their failing business model alive during his evidence to Leveson.

As a media and labour journalist, I understand the fear of not making enough money. As a human being, I understand that I can’t exploit other people in order to prop up my worst habits. The Mail’s excuses are at best disingenuous: it is undeniably horrific that a video of this devastating incident exists, let alone that it was published under that headline, and profited from. I don’t know how journalists and editors at the Mail are justifying to themselves the publication of these sorts of stories. But anyone involved in creating content that exploits individuals’ and families’ worst tragedies needs to step up and tell their colleagues they won’t do it.

An ethical code is not easy to create; therefore it’s crucial we get it right and implement it effectively. Regulation that genuinely protects people is non-negotiable – whether it pertains to the road or the press.

IPSO’s original whistleblowing hotline, by their own admission, received few calls and was eventually outsourced due to complaints it “potentially inhibit [journalists] from raising concerns”.  To assist journalists who want to refuse a story that intrudes into grief or shock, and address a multitude of industrial frailties, the NUJ needs a radical new approach to its recruitment process – one that engages more members to build strength, reimagines the rights of media workers, and achieves economic and cultural overhaul.

We have seen again and again that an extractive culture, experienced both internally and externally, lies at the heart of some of our biggest media companies. As Professor Barnett writes, this is “an industry notorious for a culture of bullying and workplace victimisation”.

If we want to, the UK’s 17,000 journalists can band together to recreate it.

Elizabeth Mizon writes about the media, and is on The Charitable Journalism Project

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