By Brian Cathcart
When the editor of a national newspaper announces that, having been found guilty by his regulator of misleading his readers, he is perfectly ready to mislead them again in exactly the same way, there can be no doubt that he is defying the authority of the regulator.
Tony Gallagher of the Sun did just that in his response to IPSO’s ruling that his paper had been wrong to publish its ‘Queen backs Brexit’ front page headline. ‘I don’t accept that we made an error at all,’ he told the BBC. And then this: ‘I don’t think, were I doing this again tomorrow, I would act in any way differently whatsoever.’
What is a press regulator for? At the very least to uphold a professional code of conduct. And when IPSO was created we were promised that such would be its powers that it would rank as ‘the toughest regulator anywhere in the developed world’.
In the case of the Sun and that headline, IPSO had resorted to what it and the big papers claim is a tough sanction that is supposedly feared by editors – requiring the paper not only to print an adjudication but also to trail it at the bottom of the front page. (Whether this was in any way adequate is discussed here and here.)
Yet despite this, Gallagher bluntly announced on the Today programme that he would readily commit the same offence again – indeed that he would not ‘act in any way differently whatsoever’. It would be hard to imagine a more forthright rejection of the regulator or more obvious proof that, for the editor of the country’s biggest-selling newspaper, the sanctions imposed by IPSO were no deterrent at all.
Does it matter? On this occasion the subject of the Sun’s misleading headline was the monarch, who we may assume will get over it. The next time Gallagher chooses to mislead the public on the front page, however, it could be anyone, and in fact the victims of the Sun’s inaccuracies are usually vulnerable people with little or no power to respond, let alone to rebuild their reputations or their privacy. So yes, it does matter.
What should the ‘toughest regulator in the developed world’ do about Gallagher’s brazen conduct? Well, one of the new powers we were told it would have was the power to investigate an errant newspaper, so you might think that IPSO should now initiate a formal investigation into what is going on at the Sun.
But it won’t, indeed any such idea implies a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of IPSO.
It was not created to ensure that news publishers honoured a code of practice. It does not uphold standards. It does not seek to protect the public from unethical treatment by newspapers. As Gallagher’s conduct vividly demonstrates, IPSO is simply a fig-leaf, an elaborate but cynical show of regulation behind which powerful papers remain free to behave as they wish.
Even if the IPSO chairman, Sir Alan Moses, declared that he wanted to investigate the Sun he would be told that the rules do not permit it.
IPSO is allowed to mount an investigation providing it ‘reasonably considers that there may have been serious and systemic breaches of the Editors’ Code’. One serious breach, therefore, would not be enough, indeed two or three would probably not qualify; there would have to be grounds to show that they were ‘systemic’.
(This restrictive wording, by the way, was carefully chosen. The original proposal by IPSO’s creators had the words ‘serious or systemic’ but it seems the newspaper bosses thought this too great a risk, so they upped it to both at once: ‘serious and systemic’.)
Of course there is a strong case to be made that what is going on at the Sun is indeed systemic, and that is not just because the man who edits it publicly rejects IPSO’s judgement. Ever since Rebekah Brooks returned to take over Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers the Sun has been on a rampage of wrongdoing and unethical behaviour that most outsiders would consider systemic.
A stream of front-page stories have been demonstrably misleading or downright wrong, including most notably one, published at a time when British Muslims were experiencing a peak in Islamophobic attacks, claiming: ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis’. Others have related to Jeremy Corbyn, to Prince William and to immigration figures.
So, even when stories are sufficiently important to lead the front page the paper is unable to stop itself getting them wrong. That looks systemic.
There are other signs. Only recently a previous editor (now promoted) was convicted of breaking the law by publishing a photograph in which a victim of sexual crime could be identified. And when an official investigation into Jimmy Savile’s activities at the BBC was looking into another incorrect Sun story, the paper refused to cooperate fully. (See here.)
Nor is it new for the paper to show contempt for IPSO. When condemned over that ‘sympathy for jihadis’ story, it buried the adjudication on an inside page and offered no apology. Condemned over its report on Jeremy Corbyn and told to acknowledge this on its front page, it tucked into a bottom corner three tiny lines of text deliberately written to obscure its meaning and importance.
Whatever anybody else thinks about this, however, makes no difference, because we can be sure that IPSO’s owners consider it all perfectly acceptable. When Gallagher, Brooks and Murdoch mock its authority, the ‘toughest regulator in the developed world’ can do nothing about it.