(Photo of Emily Brothers)
by Brian Cathcart
Two brief paragraphs written by the chair of IPSO have given us a clear insight into the power relationship between the so-called ‘toughest regulator anywhere in the developed world’ and one of the biggest papers it regulates.
They come from a letter sent in July by Sir Alan Moses to Trans Media Watch (TMW), a group representing transgender people, and they form part of his response to a series of complaints by TMW about IPSO’s performance. TMW has shared the correspondence with Hacked Off.
What the paragraphs demonstrate is the impotence of IPSO in its dealings with a national newspaper that defied its authority – and the shoddy manner in which it tried to obscure that impotence from a complainant.
The case in question involved Emily Brothers, a blind, transgender woman mocked by the Sun in clear breach of the Editors’ Code. (There is a fairly full account of it here.) Although IPSO upheld the original complaint against the Sun (it could scarcely avoid that) it did almost nothing else right, and meanwhile the paper was allowed to attack TMW and victimise Ms Brothers at will.
Most brazenly, when the Sun was eventually forced to print the IPSO adjudication against it, it did so without putting a headline on top.
The text appeared at the bottom of the page with nothing to draw the reader’s eye or indicate it might be important.
Make no mistake: the people at the Sun knew what they were doing. A headline was part of the terms of the adjudication, so they knew they were defying IPSO. And they also knew that in the absence of a headline most readers would not even notice the article was there. In short, it was a deliberate insult to Emily Brothers, to TMW, to transgender people – and to IPSO.
Crass behaviour is likely to arise even in an adequately regulated industry (although the Sun has been as ardent as all the other serial code-breachers in publicly stating its determination to behave properly). What matters is how the regulator responds.
A real regulator would surely insist that the adjudication was published again, at the first opportunity, with a headline – thus reminding the Sun of its obligations, ensuring that the purpose of publishing the adjudication (that people would read it) was fulfilled, and showing other papers that such conduct would not be tolerated.
What did IPSO do? Nothing.
TMW naturally included this in its subsequent list of questions and complaints for Sir Alan Moses, asking him to explain what had happened. This brings us to the two paragraphs.
Here is what Sir Alan wrote in reply:
‘The adjudication appeared in the location specified in the ruling – on the columnist’s page – with a headline agreed with IPSO. This was “Emily Brothers – IPSO Ruling Upheld”, a wording which complied with the Committee’s requirements and which was published in bold.
‘However, it was published in the same type size as the remainder of the article. The Committee did not make a requirement as to the size of the headline, so this cannot be said to constitute a breach of the Committee’s requirements. In future, the Committee may consider whether to impose specific requirements on this issue in appropriate cases.’
It is a remarkable piece of prose. First, the chair of IPSO explicitly asserts to the complainant that there was a headline after all: ‘The adjudication appeared . . . with a headline agreed with IPSO.’ Look at the picture again. Everybody knows what a headline looks like and there isn’t one there.
Sir Alan then points out feebly – as if it were to IPSO’s credit – that the words that should have been in the headline appeared at the beginning of the article, in bold text. And then comes the really shaming sentence, for him and for IPSO:
‘The Committee did not make a requirement as to the size of the headline, so this cannot be said to constitute a breach of the Committee’s requirements.’
Sir Alan and IPSO are claiming that the Sun did print a headline, albeit a very small one, and since IPSO never said the paper should print it any bigger, the paper was in the clear.
As an argument, it is embarrassing to read. Look at any edition of the Sun: it does not publish headlines in the same type size as article text. In fact, any sub-editor who produced such a layout would almost certainly be in immediate trouble. This was obviously deliberate, but IPSO, rather than recognising the fact and accepting that in consequence it must confront the Sun, tried to fob off TMW with these shabby contortions.
It is as if the editor of the Sun had publicly raised two fingers in Sir Alan’s face and the IPSO chair then went around insisting to witnesses that it was just a friendly wave.
How they must have laughed about it, over at the Sun. They probably laughed about it all over again when Rebekah Brooks returned as boss a few weeks later. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch himself had a chuckle.
That the two paragraphs end with a vague promise to try to do better in the future is all the more toe-curling. Everybody can see who has the power in these matters, and it isn’t IPSO. Nor, with Brooks back at the controls of the Sun, is that going to change.
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University London and a member of the Hacked Off board.