By Brian Cathcart
That was a bad week for the Sun. First the Hillsborough verdict removed the last shred of doubt that the paper’s infamous ‘The Truth’ front page report on the disaster was entirely untrue.
Then, by refusing even to mention the verdict on its front page, the paper insulted the Hillsborough families, the people of Liverpool and its own readers.
And two days later another ghost from the past returned when a judge ruled that the Sun must face a civil trial over allegations – long strenuously denied – that its reporters hacked phones or published stories based on hacking and unlawful blagging just like their colleagues did at the News of the World.
If this was a police force or a hospital trust we would have seen sackings or resignations – indeed other papers such as the Mirror and the Mail would be howling for them. But not at Rupert Murdoch’s flagship, now overseen once again by Rebekah Brooks, a person no responsible company would employ.
The Sun does not do shame, no matter how much it should, and shoving the Hillsborough verdict on the inside pages is only the latest proof of that. In fact since Brooks returned last September the Sun has gone out of its way to prove that it is as reckless and arrogant as it ever was.
Here is a sample of what she has presided over:
- Last month a senior Murdoch executive, David Dinsmore, was convicted in court of breaching the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act while he was editor of the Sun by publishing a picture in which it was possible to identify a rape victim. Since committing that offence Dinsmore has been promoted.
- Last November, days after the Paris terrorist attacks and at a time when British Muslims were experiencing a peak in Islamophobic attacks and abuse, the Sun published a wholly misleading front-page story headlined: ‘1 in 5 BRIT MUSLIMS’ SYMPATHY FOR JIHADIS – EXCLUSIVE’.
- When even IPSO, the tame industry ‘self-regulator’, eventually condemned that ‘sympathy for jihadis’ story four months later, the Sun buried the adjudication on an inside page and offered no apology.
- The paper had already done its best to bury another IPSO adjudication in December, this time relating to a false story about Jeremy Corbyn. Told to put something about the ruling on its front page, it tucked into the bottom left-hand corner three tiny lines stating obscurely: ‘IPSO complaint on Labour Short money is upheld’.
- In February Dame Janet Smith, in her report on Jimmy Savile and the BBC, not only found that that Sun had published an incorrect story that had a significant influence on public opinion and had never corrected it, but she also placed on record that the paper refused to cooperate fully with her investigation.
- Also in February the Sun published a front-page story that Prince William had entered the Brexit debate when he patently had not, and it then tried to drown out the response by waging a personal campaign against the prince.
- Over recent months the Sun has published on its front page a series of false claims about the scale of immigration to the UK, but when it has been proved wrong it has never corrected with due prominence nor has it learned from its mistakes. See for example this and this.
The complete file is much fatter. It amounts to a rampage of cruelty, inaccuracy, unfairness, distortion, unethical conduct and worse – and it shames British journalism.
Can something be done? Government ministers, and notably the compromised Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, want us to believe that IPSO, the industry’s tame ‘self-regulator’ is the answer to problems of press abuse.
Given the Sun’s record, given the open contempt it has shown for IPSO and given the involvement of a figure so ethically questionable as Brooks, you might think that IPSO would take some kind of action.
You might also think that such action would be in the interests of the industry as a whole, both as a means of restoring public trust in the press and to shore up the reputation and authority of IPSO itself.
But whatever you think and whatever John Whittingdale might say he believes, there will be no meaningful action. No matter how bad things get – and they are only likely to get worse – we can be sure that IPSO will never do what is needed to make Rupert Murdoch’s Sun see ethical sense.
To expect otherwise is to misunderstand the purpose of IPSO, which is designed merely to process complaints and give the impression of regulating without doing anything that might cramp the style of the big corporate papers that own it.
Again and again, after all, when the Sun has mocked its authority, IPSO has done nothing. (Here is another example.) This supposed regulator knows who is boss.
You may have read that investigations and £1m fines are part of IPSO’s armoury, but that is for show. If any news publisher is ever fined, IPSO’s rules ensure it will not be a big paper like the Sun or the Mail.
For a start, no fine can be imposed until after an investigation, and no investigation can happen unless it receives funding from the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC), the shadowy body that owns and dominates IPSO and is made up of top industry executives, including one Pia Sarma from Murdoch’s News UK.
Although the RFC’s voting regime is deliberately obscure we know that News UK has a lot of clout, so in practice almost all the other corporate national newspaper companies would have to gang up on it before it could be outvoted. That will never happen in what is, after all, a mutual protection society.
Even if by some miracle IPSO launched an investigation of the Sun’s journalistic standards it is almost impossible to imagine it reaching a conclusion because built into the rules are half a dozen opportunities for a paper to stall, obstruct and appeal. And in the absence of a complete and successful investigation no fine of any size is possible.
All of this is fantasy in any case, because IPSO has no desire to tackle the Sun. Not only does it routinely take the paper’s defiance lying down but we should remember that the ‘regulator’ itself is tainted by association with the Hillsborough scandal.
The first Sun representative on IPSO’s board was William Newman, who back in 1989 took the lead in defending the paper’s coverage of the disaster, and when Hillsborough families called for his resignation from IPSO he refused to budge.
When eventually he moved on he was replaced by Trevor Kavanagh, who as a journalist played a key role in the Sun’s ‘The Truth’ story in 1989. Again the Hillsborough families complained and again it made no difference.
IPSO is, as the public knows, a sham – all show and no effectiveness or independence. And yet this is the body that Whittingdale and David Cameron want to hold up to Parliament as sufficiently credible to justify abandoning all of the efforts at change that flowed from the press scandals of the past 15 years.
Leveson recommended and in 2013 all parties in Parliament endorsed a scheme for effective, independent press self-regulation, independently audited to ensure it meets the basic standards that IPSO does not. In this way the public would gain protection from press abuses while freedom of expression would be shielded.
Through Royal Charter and the Press Recognition Panel the framework was established, but Whittingdale is now sabotaging the entire scheme by refusing to sign the administrative document giving effect to the clause of legislation (Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act) which provides the engine for change.
In doing so, Whittingdale is providing shelter for the abuses of the Rebekah Brooks’s Sun and other papers. Cameron, meanwhile, is breaking his explicit promises to Parliament, to the public and to the victims of press abuse.