Within days of his appointment last summer as chair of Ipso, the new press self-regulator, former judge Sir Alan Moses, was promising that he would reform it dramatically. In September he acknowledged the shortcomings of the Ipso in terms of Leveson compliance.
Then, in a fringe meeting at the Tory party conference, he agreed that its investigations rules were unfit for an effective regulator. He gave the impression of understanding that he had been given a poodle that he needed to turn into an Alsatian or, at least, a blood hound.
He left many with the impression that he wanted to make Ipso comply with the Leveson recommendations in every way bar one: that it would never seek recognition under the royal charter because editors and proprietors had a “theological” objection to that.
It was bold talk, clearly designed to impress the legions of Ipso sceptics, and it seems increasingly clear that it was empty talk. Moses made a speech on Sunday to the Society of Editors that was billed as his big challenge to the industry, but it wasn’t so much a lion’s roar as a mouse’s squeak.
It did not begin well. After promising to engage in reasoned argument he promptly misrepresented the views and position of victims of press abuse. They are angry, he claimed, because the government had made them unrealistic promises and then failed to deliver.
This is untrue. First, any promises were not government ones but cross-party ones, and they arose from the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson in his role as chair of a lawfully-constituted, carefully conducted public inquiry. Those recommendations have what Ipso lacks: legitimacy.
Second, there is nothing unrealistic about the scheme proposed by Leveson and embodied in the royal charter backed by all parties in parliament; it is only the cynical and “theological” obstruction of leading newspaper companies, acting without having consulted anyone but each other, that has so far prevented it happening – and that is why victims are angry.
Moses insults victims of press abuse when he suggests – in the cosy company of newspaper editors who brazenly reject the word of the judge and of parliament – that they have been taken for mugs.
They have not. But perhaps he has.
Next, his answer to his own question about establishing Ipso as “the truly independent regulator it wishes to be” was “the open cooperation of those who have submitted to the process”.
What this appeared to mean, as he developed his argument, was that he was asking politely for the editors’ permission to simplify some of the Ipso rules and procedures. Not to change them fundamentally; just to simplify them.
Leveson, having carefully weighed evidence from all the relevant parties, made 38 recommendations for what he said would be an effective, independent self-regulator worthy of the public trust. According to an external analysis published over a year ago and still unrebutted by Moses or the industry, Ipso complies with just 12 of them. Simplification will not bridge that gulf. Simplification will not make Ipso acceptable to the public.
Moses spoke in passing of the “eye-watering difficulty” of applying a press code of practice, a difficulty which arose because many cases involved judgements as to what was in the public interest. And, he said, “no one has defined what that means”.
Really? The code of practice Moses has inherited from the Press Complaints Commission defines the public interest. So do the codes at Ofcom and the BBC. And the Crown Prosecution Service has also published a definition. It is the job of a regulator such as Moses to interpret such a definition, and no doubt that can be difficult, but it is simply wrong to say there is no definition.
What Moses might have said, if he had been prepared to tell the editors anything they did not want to hear, was that it was not their job to decide what was in the public interest, as they have been in the habit of doing. But then again, since Ipso has no legitimacy it can’t do that job either.
Where Moses showed just a hint of bravery was in saying that Ipso “must monitor standards and do its best to ensure compliance”. It doesn’t sound very brave, indeed it sounds like the very least that a regulator should do, but the remark amounts to an admission that Ipso is not set up to do this, and a plea that it should be allowed to.
Ipso is merely a complaints handling body, and one designed to deny the victims of press abuse effective remedy, just like the PCC before it. It has no remit to go looking for breaches of the code that are not brought to its door, nor any remit to name and shame offenders and ensure repeat breaches are avoided.
The pity is that Moses finds himself going cap in hand to editors to ask for something so fundamental. That is because they have all the power as, in turn, IPSO is not independent.
And here was the biggest hole in Moses’s supposedly challenging speech. There is not a word about a body called the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC), a shadowy committee of top press executives (nine white men) that owns Ipso lock, stock and barrel. It holds the purse strings, it controls the code of practice, it (and not Moses) is in charge of the Ipso rules and regulations, and much more.
There is no justification whatever for the existence of the RFC, which was explicitly rejected by Leveson as making a mockery of independence. Yet Moses made no complaint about it to the Society of Editors.
And finally, on that vital element of the Leveson recommendations, the need for cheap, swift arbitration in cases where members of the public feel their legal rights have been breached, Moses could only announce a weakening of the already feeble Ipso position.
Ipso is promising only to conduct a trial, voluntary scheme. And now in his speech the Ipso chair has offered to exempt the regional and local press from that trial altogether, with not a shred of evidence that they would in any way be adversely affected by it.
Moses struck some brave poses after his appointment, attempting to give the impression that he would take on the editors and proprietors and secure radical reform of Ipso. His speech to the Society of Editors, however, shows him slipping into conformity with the desires of his new masters and pushing the interest of the public to one side.
Brian Cathcart is the founding director of Hacked Off, the campaign group
This post originally appeared on the Guardian Comment is Free and is reproduced with permission and thanks
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