Nearly two years after the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics which condemned the Press Complaints Commission, a “new” press regulator IPSO finally opened its doors on 8 September after months of delay. The Express Group, the Mirror Group, The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times, the Mail Group and the Telegraph Group all signed up to their new creature, which promised to be ‘rigorous, independent, fair and transparent’ .
While these papers had heralded every previous industry announcement about the imminent start of the regulator – all false dawns – this time there was an eerily muted response. Only one of the newspapers mentioned considered it newsworthy that a new press regulator had opened its doors. The Daily Mail carried a quarter-page article on page 4 heralding ‘the dawn of [a] new era as rigorous Press regulator starts work’. It parroted the party-line that IPSO was committed to rigorous, independent, fair and transparent regulation. The Daily Mail is normally scathing about both toothless regulators and any constraint on its freedom to abuse. This article was adulatory. This was not journalism. It was propaganda.
One might ask whether IPSO was acting in a transparent and fair manner when it decided there would be no official announcement of its birth through a public meeting, open press-briefing or even a press release; the news emerged because of an item on the website of the Newspaper Society, the trade body that represents regional publishers but which is joined at the hip to the body that represents the nationals, the National Newspaper Association. Together with the magazines’ Professional Publishers Association, these trade bodies control IPSO through the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC). This the only body that can change the rules and it also decides IPSO’s budget, already starving it of resources.
And most of the newspapers (print versions) followed this vow of silence, not even recognising that they owed it to their readers to inform them of changes to the way they might seek redress if they wish to complain about an article.
The Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Sun name-check IPSO in their small-print compliance statement on page 2, though you may need a magnifying glass to read it. The Daily Express and the Daily Star do not mention IPSO. They all include contact details for readers to write directly to them if they wish to make a complaint under Code rules – but they assume and expect readers to know what this means. Only the Daily Mirror gives contact details for IPSO, saying it is “available for advice”. The Daily Telegraph does not include any information or contact details on how to complain.
Was this damp squib of a launch due to embarrassment? Embarrassment that the “dawn of a new era regulator” – the one we’ve all been waiting for – was opening from the same offices as the failed PCC, had the same company number as the PCC and many of the same staff as the PCC. Embarrassment that they opened without having a sufficient budget, without a chief executive in post, and with a board member who was the chief defender one of the most egregious press abuses in history – the Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. Embarrassment that they opened a service purportedly for the public without consulting the public. Without a plan for monitoring the outcome of complaints in a transparent way and without any decisions on provision for low-cost arbitration, despite promises that this was a priority. And having appointed to its Complaints Committee, two former members of the PCC, one of which Peter Wright, is in charge of ethics at the Mail – the paper that breaches the Code most often – and was accused by the Guardian of helping to cover up the hacking scandal 8 years ago.
Perhaps most shameful of all, IPSO opened with a two fingered salute to the public and to victims of press abuse, completely ignoring the public support for Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations and the clear expressed will of a democratically-elected parliament. The new regulator fails the basic Leveson requirements of independence and effectiveness, fulfilling only 12 of the judge’s 38 recommendations.
IPSO’s chairman, Sir Alan Moses, did give an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme and found himself having to defend the half-baked and ill-prepared regulator, struggling to answer accusations that it was a “sham”. He said IPSO’s aim was to rebuild public trust. But how can people even begin to trust an organisation they don’t know the first thing about? Certainly anyone looking to the newspapers for enlightenment would have found themselves even further in the dark.
What the newspapers do not tell us is that is that anyone making a complaint – whether directly to the newspaper or to the regulator – the complaint will first be dealt with by the newspaper that perpetrated the potential code breach. IPSO refers – or let’s be honest, defers – to the newspaper in the first instance. According to IPSO’s complaints procedure guidance on its rather primitive website, the publication is given the “opportunity to resolve the matter directly…to ensure the swift resolution of substantive complaints wherever possible.”
In practice this means the publication gets the chance to swat away the complaint as they might an irritating fly. The perpetrator of a possible code breach is given opportunity to play judge and jury over its own mistakes, and gets the chance to nip the problem in the bud to their own satisfaction, with the Regulator in all probability knowing nothing about it. The complainant is at their mercy.
IPSO will only then intervene if the publication does not resolve a matter satisfactorily – “either once the publisher’s internal complaints procedures have been exhausted, or if the matter has not been resolved after 28 days.”
However, there is some ambiguity as to when the 28 days count starts (the guidance issued by the Newspaper Society says it shouldn’t start until the complainant has provided all the correct paperwork). And how the complaint is escalated after 28 days is equally vague. Does the newspaper escalate it? Does the complainant? Does IPSO step in? Certainly not if the complainant has gone directly to the newspaper – how would they know? Even if a complaint has been resolved within 28 days, the onus is on the newspaper or publication to inform IPSO. It is unclear how this is enforced.
In any event any complaints ‘resolved’ by a publication within this time frame will not be included in IPSO’s annual complaints statistics. This leaves a huge black-hole in any basic record of a publication’s compliance with the Editor’s Code of Practice.
IPSO claims to be there to support victims of press abuse during this “initial period”. Sir Alan has said “IPSO will stand behind them and the moment they feel oppressed or they get some clever-dick letter from an internal lawyer, they must come back to us and come to IPSO and we will stand behind them.” It is not clear how they can do this when they are not usually going to be aware that a complaint has been made.
See also David Banks’ article on the Guardian Media Blog, “Complaining to Ipso can lead you into a tangled web”