by Brian Cathcart
Once again Rupert Murdoch’s Sun has lost a case before IPSO and once again the so called regulator has let the paper off with a slap on the wrist. All those promises that IPSO would stand up to big national newspapers are proving predictably hollow.
The case is a reminder that the ethical standards of the Sun have sunk measurably since the return to the helm of the Murdoch press of Rebekah Brooks. Murdoch may have been humbled by phone hacking, but any effect on his papers wore off very quickly.
The Sun’s latest brush with IPSO arose from its inflammatory front-page headline on 23 November: ‘1 IN 5 BRIT MUSLIMS’ SYMPATHY FOR JIHADIS – EXCLUSIVE’. The organisation Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend) complained on grounds of inaccuracy, saying the paper’s poll, conducted by Survation, did not say any such thing.
Since Survation distanced itself from the headline, and since the Sun’s sister title the Times actually corrected its own pick-up of the story, it would have been very hard for IPSO to justify finding in favour of the paper, and it didn’t.
IPSO’s adjudication declared that the Sun had breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code on accuracy, that it had ‘failed to take appropriate care’ in reporting the poll and that its report had been ‘significantly misleading’.
So what did IPSO actually do about this? Remember that the misleading report was published a few days after the Paris terror attacks, at a time when British Muslims were experiencing an increase in abuse and violence. Remember too that IPSO was billed at its launch as ‘the toughest regulator in the Western world’.
It is worth tracking the sequence of events closely.
So far as Mend was concerned, correspondence on the issue ended in December, but it was 17 February before IPSO informed Mend of its conclusion. That is just under three months after publication, proving the old adage that a lie is halfway round the world before the truth can get its boots on.
Even then it was not over, for IPSO made no announcement and also insisted that Mend remain silent, and remarkably another five weeks were allowed to pass. What happened in those five weeks Mend was never told, and if there was communication between IPSO and the Sun the details were never shared with the complainant. Mend, in other words, was not shown any correspondence.
At last, on 23 March – now exactly four months after the publication of the offending headline – IPSO informed Mend that the adjudication would be published within five days. In the event, the Sun printed it on the Saturday of the Easter weekend.
Given that the offending headline had appeared in big, bold type across the front page you might expect that ‘the toughest regulator in the Western world’ would insist on a front-page correction, but no. There was not a word about it on the Sun’s front page.
The adjudication appeared on page 2, recognised throughout the press industry as a location unlikely to attract the interest of many readers – especially when page 3 carried a large picture of a Coronation Street actress in a bikini.
More than that, it was tucked into the side of Page 2 beneath the passive headline ‘Ipso ruling is upheld’. This headline is in itself nonsensical, a complaint was upheld in a ruling, a ruling was not upheld. There was then an obscure sub-heading ‘Mend v The Sun’. The text began: ‘Following an article published in The Sun on 23 November 2015 . . .’ The reader had to get to line 14 to find that the Sun had been found at fault.
Sun sub-editors are masters of presentation who know exactly how to project a story so that readers will look at it. Equally, they know how to bury something, and this was a burial.
The principal fault here is not with the Sun, which sadly can be counted upon to behave in a surly and unrepentant fashion when it is found to have done wrong. The fault is with IPSO, which does such a poor job of regulation.
Almost every normal member of the public recognises the plain justice of front-page corrections for front-page errors. First, it is right that the correction should have something approaching the prominence of the offending article, so that roughly the same number of people who were misinformed are actually told the truth.
Second, when a newspaper fails to check properly a story it considers important enough to put on the front page it is right that the penalty should be a high one. That way, editors might learn the lesson that accuracy matters.
IPSO doesn’t even seem to have considered requiring a front-page correction. What it got instead was the most grudging page 2 treatment the Sun thought it could get away with.
There is no excuse for this, since the Sun already has a history of raising two fingers to IPSO. Last May the paper buried an adjudication about the abusive treatment of parliamentary candidate Emily Brothers at the bottom of a page and openly defied an IPSO instruction to print a headline. IPSO did nothing.
And last December the paper mocked an IPSO requirement for a front-page reference to an adjudication relating to Jeremy Corbyn by tucking into the bottom corner three lines saying ‘IPSO complaint on Labour Short Money is upheld’. This did not mention the Sun, nor did it acknowledge error, indeed the wording was manifestly obscure, suggesting that a complaint against Labour had been upheld, rather than saying that an “compliant against the Sun by Labour had been upheld”. Again, the Sun was mocking IPSO’s authority and IPSO did nothing.
Let’s not forget Mend, which was only one of thousands to complain about a reckless, stupid and dangerous front-page headline and story. Given the timing, it is no exaggeration to say that this piece of misleading reporting could have put people in harm’s way.
Mend was forced to wait four months for a result (including an unexplained final delay) and then, even though the facts ensured that IPSO had to find in Mend’s favour, the outcome was wholly unsatisfactory.
What all of this proves, if proof were needed, is that IPSO is not independent of the newspaper industry as it claims, and that it is not a real or effective regulator. In the power relationship between IPSO and the Murdoch papers, it is obviously the Murdoch papers that have the whip hand.