Entirely predictably, the people who dominate the press industry are ploughing ahead with ‘IPSO’, their go-it-alone scheme for self-regulation on their own terms, periodically boasting about the great progress they are making.
Equally predictably, they are being guided in this enterprise by each other’s views (rather than, say, the views of the public as expressed in multiple opinion polls, or the views of every single party in Parliament as expressed on 18 March, or the views of people who have experienced their abuses in the past).
And also predictably, they are claiming that their ideas fit the ‘Leveson principles‘ and that they have made or are making important ‘concessions’.
Let’s be clear: there are no such things as ‘Leveson principles’. The judge, in his report, made 92 recommendations, of which 47 relate to press self-regulation, and those 47 (amended in a few substantive ways to accommodate concerns expressed by the press) are incorporated in the Royal Charter approved by Parliament.
So if newspaper proprietors sincerely want their scheme to be compliant with the Leveson report, all they have to do is ensure that it meets the criteria set out in schedule 3 or the Charter. If it doesn’t do that it’s not compliant.
Though Leveson set out no ‘principles’, he did say again and again that press self-regulation had to be independent and it had to be effective.
He was scathing in his report about the scheme put forward by PressBoF to his inquiry, which he said failed in a long list of significant ways to meet these requirements of independence and effectiveness. His conclusions are set out here.
Despite this rejection, the people acting for the biggest newspaper groups have stuck by that model. By various sleights of hand and adjustments they have tried to give it a greater appearance of independence and effectiveness, but they can’t conceal their determination to ensure it is neither.
Leveson wrote that after all the decades of failure and abuse, if a new self-regulator is to be credible and trusted by the public the crucial decisions have to be in the hands of people the public can trust. Those people must not be selected, vetted, hand-picked or subject to formal or informal veto by the press. Nor can they be subject to any kind of political influence. They must be genuinely independent.
Parliament’s Royal Charter goes to elaborate lengths to ensure this, and every little way in which the press proprietors’ scheme falls short of that is proof of their unwillingness to accept true independence. So it is shamelessly dishonest that they have called their scheme the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
Similarly with effectiveness. One of the hallmarks of the old Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was the way in which its powers to hold big newspapers to account for their failings were carefully circumscribed. Leveson spelled out in some detail the powers that a truly effective regulator must have, and those powers are also reproduced in the criteria set out in Parliament’s Royal Charter.
If the people who run the Mail, the Times, the Sun and the Telegraph want to convince the public or anyone else that they sincerely believe in effective self-regulation then what they must do is simple and clear. They must show that it conforms to the criteria in that Charter.
Their scheme does not, by miles. By way of example, the PCC had nominal power to investigate newspapers where there were serious grounds for concern about their conduct. But it very rarely did so because it didn’t have the funds, didn’t have the guts to take on its own paymasters and didn’t have the practical authority to make papers cooperate. Leveson said this was not good enough.
IPSO makes provision for investigations. However, it makes it so difficult and cumbersome for the regulator to conduct one, with so many opportunities for the target paper to obstruct and delay, that it’s likely no investigation could ever be seen to a conclusion. It follows, under their rules, that no fine could ever be imposed on a newspaper, since fines will depend on adverse investigation findings.
And this is just one of many ways in which the proprietors and editors have contrived to design a scheme that will not be effective. They do not want effective self-regulation any more than they want independent self-regulation. They have 60 years of experience of sham self-regulation under which they got away with whatever they liked, and they desperately want to pull off the same trick again.
Soon they will make a new announcement about IPSO, which will be slavishly and enthusiastically puffed in the news reports and leader columns of their own papers. No doubt they will misrepresent it again, and they will try again to discredit all things Leveson, but nothing will disguise the truth.
IPSO is the PCC with a facelift. It is the no-change option that would allow newspapers, in Lord Justice Leveson’s words, to go on ‘wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people’.
In July the YouGov polling agency asked members of the public whether, if the regulation system preferred by newspapers went ahead, they thought there would be a repeat of unethical and illegal practices. No fewer than 82 per cent said yes.
The big newspaper proprietors haven’t got the message yet, but everybody else has.
Brian Cathcart is Executive Director of Hacked Off.