Old typewriterHow independent is the Independent Press Standards Organisation (“IPSO”)? It’s hardly independent of politicians, with two Conservative Peers on its interim Board (David Hunt and Michael Grade) and scope for further political Peers to sit on the Board of the regulator. And it’s hardly independent of the major newspaper publishers, who will control its processes and purse strings through the Regulatory Funding Company.

In fact, IPSO is utterly dependent on the patronage of the handful of men who control the British press, as I argued this week in a post for the National Union of Journalists.

This may explain why news publishers outside this cabal are suspicious of IPSO. The publishers of the Financial Times, Guardian/Observer and (ironically but revealingly) the Independent have yet to sign up. In his blog today, Roy Greenslade suggests that these three groups will only consider joining IPSO if its backers can recruit a sufficiently independent chair:

“It is possible that a wise choice could persuade the trio of refuseniks to risk signing the Ipso contract”.

However, a ‘wise choice’ of chair cannot change IPSO’s fundamentally compromised structure. There are six questions which any non-aligned publishers, or distinguished candidates for the role of chair, must ask of IPSO.

  1. Will the chair have authority over IPSO’s budget?
  2. Will the chair have authority over IPSO’s appointments?
  3. Will the chair have authority over IPSO’s code?
  4. Will the chair have authority over IPSO’s investigations?
  5. Will the chair have authority over IPSO’s sanctions?
  6. Will the chair have authority over IPSO’s arbitration scheme?

The answer to all six questions is a resounding ’no’. In every case, the Regulatory Funding Company exercises a veto. It collects subscriptions for IPSO and sets its budget. It vets industry appointments to the Board and the Complaints Committee, and sets the remuneration of all Board and Committee members. It convenes the Code of Practice committee and vets any change to the regulations. It controls the budget, and therefore the capacity, of IPSO’s investigations arm. It writes the guidance on the financial sanctions (fines) which IPSO may impose. And it has a veto over the existence of any arbitration scheme.

I’m sure that IPSO are looking for a wise head to stick on top of this operation. However, it would be an unwise choice for anyone to take public responsibility for an organisation over which they will have such little authority. And it would be an equally unwise choice for any publisher to imagine that the choice of chair is anything other than cosmetic. Unless IPSO can answer ‘yes’ to all six of these questions, there is simply no role here for a chair, wise or otherwise.

IMPRESS may still be a David against IPSO’s Goliath. However, in the long-run IMPRESS will be the only viable regulator, because it is the only regulator that recognises the need for independence, from both politicians and newspaper proprietors.

The IMPRESS Project has now launched Phase Two of its fund raising on Indiegogo