The case for an IPSO Standards Investigation into the Jewish Chronicle

By Brian J Cathcart 

The test for the board is whether a suspected failure of standards is serious and systematic. There can be no doubt in this case that it is both.

A serious failure

A slim, weekly publication, the Jewish Chronicle has been found by IPSO to have breached the Editors Code of Conduct 33 times in three years. In the same period it has admitted libel on four occasions, paying damages and publishing apologies. This is a failure of standards on a scale not witnessed by IPSO before.

The great majority of code breaches identified by the IPSO Complaints Committee have related to accuracy, engaging Clause 1 (i) of the Code.

The libels, by definition, also reveal inaccuracy. Almost all three inaccuracies, have caused harm to individuals, harm that this is at best only partially remedied by the subsequent publication of corrections.

Further, the readers of the Jewish Chronicle have been repeatedly misinformed, and since this inaccurate reports have sometimes been echoed elsewhere the misinformation and the harm have gone wider.

By any measure, the failure of the standards at the Jewish Chronicle is a serious one.

A systematic failure

The numbers alone demonstrate that this is systematic. The Jewish Chronicle has either broken the law or breached the Code roughly once in every four editions it published over three years. No other IPSO members comes near to rivalling this. Only large groups publishing several or multiple titles, including substantial national daily papers and news sites, see comparable numbers of upheld complaints.

Not only have journalists and editors at the Jewish Chronicle shown disregard for the Code, but they have also persisted in doing so even as the paper published successive IPSO-directed corrections and rulings. IPSO regards the obligation to publish corrections and rulings as a serious sanction on members, a device intended to ensure compliance. Here is a member that took no note of such sanctions, defying IPSO’s authority.

All of the code breaches identified by the Complaints Committee that did not relate directly to inaccuracy involved failures to provide prompt and appropriately prominent corrections, under Clause 1 (ii).

The editorial management of the Jewish Chronicle, who are supposedly familiar with and committed to membership of IPSO and compliance with the Code, thus repeatedly dragged their heels over corrections or refused to publish them where they were required.

In the case of Audrey White, the IPSO Complaints Committee, was driven to state in its ruling:

‘The Committee expressed significant concerns about the newspaper’s handling of this complaint. The newspaper had failed, on a number of occasions, to answer questions put to it by IPSO and it was regrettable the newspaper’s responses had been delayed. The Committee considered that the publication’s conduct during IPSO’s investigation was unacceptable. The Committee’s concerns have been drawn to the attention of IPSO’s Standards Department.’

The threshold for libel is higher than the threshold for a breach of Clause 1(i), yet the Jewish Chronicle admitted four libels in this period, again a rate only matched by much bigger publications that publish daily. When Lord Black, at the Leveson Inquiry, set out the blueprint for what became IPSO he indicated that a single proven libel could be enough to trigger a Standards Investigation.

The editorial management of the Jewish Chronicle failed to address this harmful crisis of standards and failed to respond to sanctions applied under the code or under the law. IPSO’s authority has been flouted. Whether, as appears to be the case, this has been a matter of policy at the newspaper is something for an IPSO Standards Investigation to establish. If the word systemic means anything, it applies in this case.

Can it be argued that the problem has been resolved?

This year has seen IPSO uphold three complaints against the Jewish Chronicle, involving seven Code breaches, while there has also been one libel settlement. Given the publication’s small size there is a very strong argument that this alone, independent of what went before, should be enough to trigger a Standards Investigation.

There is a compelling case that IPSO should have instigated a Standards Investigation into the Jewish Chronicle early in 2020. The Audrey White complaint had been upheld in November 2019 with no fewer than 10 code breaches identified, and the paper had been obliged to publish a lengthy ruling. Within three months IPSO had upheld two more complaints against the same paper and had received at least two more.

Nothing meaningful was done at that time to reassert IPSO’s authority or bring the paper into line on Code compliance. The paper was offered an advisory session which it did not find it convenient to accept, while a proposed separate meeting with IPSO never took place. When Audrey White wrote to IPSO to ask what had happened as a result of the referral of her case to the Standards Department by the Complaints Committee, she received no reply.

The price for IPSO’s failure to take timely and effective action has been high. Since the White ruling the Jewish Chronicle has published no fewer than five articles that were subsequently the subject of upheld complaints to IPSO, involving 15 breaches of the code, while the paper has admitted and paid damages for three libels. This is harmful journalism.

It is significant that there has been no public acknowledgement by the Jewish Chronicle of the sustained failure of standards that has occurred, nor has there been any public undertaking that things will change. The editor who has presided over 33 code breaches and four libels remains in post and though the paper has changed hands its new owners appear to have have endorsed the position of the editor and by implication his conduct and his interpretation of editorial standards.

What is to be gained by a Standards Investigation?

A Standards Investigation, which must of course be rigorous, impartial and thorough, should establish what has gone wrong so that lessons can be learned across the industry. By showing the Jewish Chronicle the route to higher standards it should break the pattern of failure at the newspaper and prevent it repeating conduct that causes serious harm to individuals and misleads its readers.

A Standards Investigation could confirm to the IPSO membership and the rest of the press that IPSO will not tolerate the open and repeated flouting both of the Code and of its own authority.

A Standards Investigation in a case such as this, where the failure has been so flagrant, could reassure the public that IPSO is not afraid to use its powers in their interests. This in turn could boost the public’s confidence in the journalism of IPSO members.

Brian J Cathcart is a Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London


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