According to Hacked Off, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is ‘a sham regulator’ that defies the will of Parliament and ignores Leveson. For the newspapers that set it up, including the Telegraph, the Mail and the Times, it is a gamble that might save press freedom in Britain.
The reality of the current standoff is both more complex and more reassuring to those who care both about press freedom and responsible journalism. Although IPSO was indeed set up, and is mainly funded by those newspapers most opposed to the Leveson reforms, it has appointed who appears to be a genuinely independent chair, Sir Alan Moses, and a board who hope to reform IPSO into a credible self-regulator. Although the IPSO rules, budget and structure have been widely dismissed as flawed, in that they offer insufficient independence from the press, Moses has met victims of press abuse, and also peers and campaigners, and has been keen to demonstrate independence from the newspapers that pay for IPSO.
The widespread view is that reforming IPSO from within will be a difficult task. If he has not re-written the terms of association and regulations by Christmas, the support he enjoys will ebb away, and he and his board will come under pressure to resign.
The newspapers would be well advised to support a stronger IPSO. In time, they may even need to re-assess their position on recognition under the Charter. After all, Parliament has passed the Crime and Courts Act, establishing the legal framework for the Leveson system of press self-regulation to be put into place. The Act creates a system of incentives: if you fail to join an approved regulatory system, you are likely in due course to be exposed to considerably higher costs and damages in relation to privacy, libel and other legal risks associated with journalism.
As Leveson himself acknowledged, if membership of a self-regulatory body is to confer such privileges on journalists there must be some form of oversight – to ensure the body is not a sham, as many claimed the PCC was. So the Leveson scheme is an ingenious combination of oversight with multiple protections against interference by government. But the newspapers that support IPSO are not convinced. For them it is the Charter system of recognition that by definition pushes the regulator over the definitional rubicon from self-regulation to government regulation.
Newspapers are also aware that unlike the PCC, IPSO has no monopoly on self-regulation of newspapers. The Guardian, the FT and the Independent remain outside the tent and IMPRESS; an alternative regulator led by civil society organisations including local news websites, may seek recognition under the Charter. If it is successful, it could trigger the ‘incentives’ (i.e. the end of press protection from damages and costs) under the Crime and Courts Act. Then all newspapers would have to think again.
This post originally appeared on the LSE Media Policy Project blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks