The big national newspapers are on the warpath again about regulation, desperately promoting the supposed virtues of their pet regulator, IPSO, and warning hysterically that any alternative means the end of the world as we know it.
They are doing this because, despite having exerted all their behind-the-scenes influence over politicians, and despite hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of effort by their lawyers, they have still not managed to prevent steady progress towards a reformed and genuinely independent system of accountability.
This makes them nervous, and what they fear is not, as they suggest, a threat to free speech (there is none), but a threat to their freedom to lie and to abuse people. They are terrified that, if they were ever answerable to a regulator that is independent and effective rather than to a puppet such as IPSO, they would lose the power and the revenues they derive from bad, cruel and dishonest journalism.
Unfortunately for them, their campaign is built on sand, for with every week that goes by the public can see more clearly the timidity and powerlessness of IPSO and its publicity-loving chair, Sir Alan Moses.
IPSO, you may remember, was sold to the public as ‘the toughest press regulator in the western world’ , supposedly endowed with all the draconian powers to investigate and fine wrongdoers that its discredited predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission, had so conspicuously lacked.
Yet IPSO’s fate is to make no difference to anything. It plods along, handling complaints from the public as if each was a totally isolated event with no bearing on anything else. It never interferes with the culture of the industry it supposedly regulates, and it does nothing that might lift trust in the national press from its present appallingly low levels.
Its shortcomings are obvious to all. The code of practice IPSO claims to uphold says that newspapers should try to be accurate. Is there anyone in the country who seriously thinks that the Sun, the Mail, the Express and the Mirror make a priority of accuracy – even on their front pages? The code also says papers should ‘distinguish clearly’ between comment and fact. Is there anyone on the whole planet who believes they do that? Editors mock the code and IPSO can’t and won’t stop them.
Failure to investigate
As for those investigations and fines, in two whole years – lively years for the press, everyone would agree – IPSO has investigated nobody and fined nobody. This, even though there is an obvious candidate that any serious regulator in any other industry would surely have tackled at the outset: the Sun and its parent company, News UK.
What grounds are there to investigate the Sun? Try these for a start:
- Mazher Mahmood, a very senior journalist and long-time confidant of News UK management, has just been convicted of perverting the course of justice in connection with a ‘sting’ operation for the Sun on Sunday. This has prompted private legal suits and police investigations relating to many other such past stings by News UK papers. Yet there is no indication that the paper or the company is even investigating what went wrong.
- Two former very senior executives, an editor and the legal affairs chief, were recently found to have lied to parliament in the service of the company. There has been no apology or investigation.
- The Sun now has a sustained record of code breaches that even IPSO has been unable to overlook or excuse, some of them on the front page and one of which could only be construed as a reckless aggravation of religious tension in this country.
- When IPSO imposed what is in practice its toughest sanction on the Sun for another breach, the paper’s editor openly flouted its authority, declaring on national radio that IPSO’s ruling made no difference and he would do it all again. This was not the first or even the second time the Sun had publicly humiliated its regulator.
- The Mahmood conviction is, notoriously, only the latest instance of proven criminality at a company whose employees are known to have bribed, hacked and stolen private data. After the News of the World, the courts are now hearing civil claims against the Sun for alleged phone hacking.
- Where bribery was concerned, nobody denied that illegal payments were made to public officials, but executives escaped punishment by blaming underlings while the underlings mostly blamed their bosses. Many in the company continue to demonstrate alarming confusion about the ethics of payments and bribery.
- The Sun published the infamous and utterly false ‘Truth’ front page in 1989, insulting the Hillsborough dead, but though it claims to be sorry it continues to employ the editor responsible, Kelvin McKenzie. It also continues to employ Trevor Kavanagh, the political reporter who encouraged McKenzie to publish the story and still makes excuses for it.
- The person running News UK, Rebekah Brooks, a close friend of the criminal Mahmood and of the convicted editor Andy Coulson, and a close former associate of both the executives who lied to parliament, is the same CEO who presided over the company while the law was being broken on an industrial scale
Obviously there are grounds to investigate whether a flawed and unethical culture at News UK and a pattern of reckless and bad management might be operating contrary to the interests of Britain’s newspaper-reading public. Obviously a responsible regulator would want to tackle such a company in the attempt to protect innocent people in the future from the effects of bad journalism.
IPSO and its chair, Sir Alan Moses, would not even consider such an investigation. They know that it would simply not be permitted and they will not risk humiliation by raising the idea.
Sir Alan, we were told when he was appointed, is fiercely independent-minded and something of a maverick. To date his displays of independence appear to have been limited to making a joke about immigration in the presence of the editor of the Daily Mail and telling the Financial Times that some papers were ‘nasty’ (though he wasn’t going to do anything about it). For these courageous sallies he received the applause of some in the press – indeed the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade thought the FT comments a masterstroke.
Contrast Sir Alan’s level of bravery with that of another so-called maverick once appointed press regulator – Sir Louis Blom-Cooper. At the end of the 1980s Sir Louis took his job seriously, mounting forthright investigations on behalf of the public into chequebook journalism, the appalling, hysterical coverage of the Strangeways prison riot and the reporting of Hillsborough. (See for example Press at the Prison Gates, Press Council, London 1991).
Unsurprisingly editors were horrified and the reign of Sir Louis was short. It is one of the reasons papers were happy to see the the old Press Council replaced by the Press Complaints Commission – which they ensured had no powers of investigation.
Sir Alan may think it prudent not to annoy his bosses with frontal assaults. The trouble is, there is no sign of a softly-softly, case-by-case approach either.
Recently, for example, IPSO made a rare finding against the Daily Mail over a front page headline that was so plainly wrong the paper itself took the rare step of printing a correction. IPSO decided that an obscure paragraph on an inside page next day was sufficient remedy, and took no other action.
It did not investigate how the fact-checking systems on a wealthy paper missed so gross a journalistic error, managing to get wrong the six most prominent words to appear in the whole paper that day. It did not ask whether the paper had been so keen to publish a story that suited its urgent political agenda that it threw proper journalistic caution to the wind. It did not find out whether any steps had been taken to ensure such a mistake would not happen again. It just did nothing, with the consequence that there could be no consequences.
As if that were not bad enough, the same story was copied and published by the Daily Express, incorporating exactly the same gross error, and although the Express never published a correction and still has the false report on its website, IPSO has not lifted a finger.
Four years ago Sir Brian Leveson, after a year-long public inquiry in which he heard the evidence of every conceivable interested party, concluded that national newspapers were guilty of ‘wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people’. He recommended ways of putting things right, and every party in parliament endorsed them. But the corporate national newspapers wanted to carry on wreaking havoc, so they set up IPSO, and IPSO is allowing them to do just that.