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Newspaper Industry releases revised “Editors’ Code”, more comfort for tabloids, nothing for the public – Evan Harris

PressA group made up mainly of newspaper editors has released a revised version of the press industry standards code which it instructs IPSO to administer and to “take active steps to ensure that publications” adhere to.

The revisions are the result of secret meetings of the “Editors’ Code of Practice Committee”, a body which is, remarkably, still chaired by Paul Dacre, the Editor of the Daily Mail, the newspaper which has, consistently, been found to have committed the most breaches of the Code.

The Committee is a sub-committee of the Regulatory Funding Company (“RFC”), another secretive body which controls IPSO’s rules and resources. The RFC have never published minutes of their meetings, and the Code Committee – which did so once a year for the last 5 years – stopped doing so when the RFC took it over.

There has been no transparent public consultation of on the revisions.  The last consultation took place in early 2013 [pdf] and this was hardly publicised and reportedly received only 200 responses. This consultation is not mentioned in their press release [pdf] and the consultation responses have never been published. Nowhere is there any suggestion that the views of the public (or even of journalists themselves) had any influence on the revisions.

In accordance with their well established track record of distortion and misinformation, Mr Dacre and his colleagues (including the Chair of IPSO Sir Alan Moses) falsely claim that the revisions “reflect the findings of the major review of the Code recommended by Lord Justice Leveson”.  In fact, Lord Justice Leveson recommended that a properly independent and recognised regulator – rather than a self-appointed group of editors  – should consider

engaging in an early thorough review of the Code (on which the public should be engaged and consulted) with the aim of developing a clearer statement of the standards expected of editors and journalists (Recommendation 36)

IPSO is, of course, not remotely independent nor is it a recognised regulator, and the public has not been engaged or properly consulted.

The Code Committee naturally fails to inform the public that it has ignored another Leveson recommendation, that the

The standards code must ultimately be the responsibility of, and adopted by, the Board [of the Regulator], advised by a Code Committee which may comprise both independent members of the Board and serving editors (Recommendation 7)

In fact, the Code is not the responsibility of the IPSO Board but of a Committee of 10 serving editors, appointed by the industry, plus 3 lay members (appointed by a panel in which the industry held a veto), plus industry employees Sir Alan Moses and Matt Tee (the Chair and Director of IPSO).

Many of the changes in the Code are simply changes to the wording with no substantive effect.

The Code Committee highlights a number of changes in a press release][pdf] which repeatedly breaks clause 1 (accuracy) of the Code it is promoting. In particular:

  • The reporting of suicide becomes the subject of a stand-alone clause, reflecting concerns about the publication of excessive detail about methods of suicide (new clause 5).

This is cosmetic. Suicide was always included and the substantive terms have not changed. This is a serious missed opportunity to include reference to the good practice guidelines provided by bodies such as MIND and the Samaritans and which are designed to prevent simulative acts. These organisations say that not speculating on the motive nor reporting that suicide was felt to be the answer to the deceased’s problems would save lives. This has been ignored or rejected.

  • Gender identity is added to the list of categories covered by the discrimination clause, which protects individuals from prejudicial and pejorative reporting(in new clause 12).

This is again cosmetic. It has long been accepted that the previous version of the Code covered gender identity, In fact when “sex” was changed to “gender”  in clause 12, ten years ago the Code Committee proudly announced [pdf] that this would mean that gender identity was included.

  • The Code’s definition of the public interest, and the circumstances in which editors can invoke it, has been updated and expanded in line with the Defamation Act, Data Protection Act and Crown Prosecution Service guidance.

This is not true. The categories of “public interest” have been expanded to include three new categories which have nothing to do with the Defamation Act (which contains no definition of Public Interest), or the Data Protection Act (which contains no definition of Public Interest) .  The new categories are

(iv)       Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject ….

(vi)       Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.

(vii)      Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

The CPS guidelines on prosecution in cases likely to involve journalists (para 31) include the (iv) and (vii) but the CPS version of (vi) is

“Conduct which is capable of raising or contributing to an important matter of public debate. There is no exhaustive definition of an important matter of public debate, but examples include public debate about serious impropriety, significant unethical conduct and significant incompetence, which affects the public” (emphasis adeed).

The editors have deliberately warped the wording of the CPS approach and not explained the fact that they have done so.  The distorted definition of “public interest” will be used to justify the publication of information concerning matters of unimportant “public debate” about – for example – unfaithful footballers and their “likely concealment” of what only tabloid editors woudl regard as significant “unethical conduct”.

The new definition has also not been properly aligned with definitions found in the CPS guidance as it still includes a stand alone reference to the public interest in the freedom of expression itself (but ignores the public interest in respecting the rights of others) which does not feature in the CPS guidance.

Most importantly, the revised code does nothing whatever about the endemic tabloid practice of the abuse of minority groups.  The issue was specifically covered by Lord Justice Leveson’s Recommendation 38

 “consideration should also be given to Code amendments which, while fully protecting freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, would equip that body with the power to intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting, and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation”.

In short, the new version of the Code is more of the same.  It is a Code prepared by the newspaper editors, for the newspaper editors and to the exclusion of journalists and, most importantly, the public.

Evan Harris is the Joint Executive Director of Hacked Off, which campaigns for a free and accountable press.


  1. Dr Paul Wragg

    Also, of course, the CPS approach to public interest is fundamentally different in nature. The threat of imprisonment as well as state censorship requires the CPS to tread carefully when it comes to public interest matters and to be absolutely sure it is not interfering with a person’s liberty. But this is a different standard to the one that might be found in an ethical code. IPSO’s standards should be aspirational and not based on what is rock bottom. Everything else in the code becomes window-dressing if ‘public interest’ is used a) as a defence and b) is too easily met.

  2. Evan Harris

    Exactly so Paul

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