Labelled “EXCLUSIVE: BOMBSHELL CLAIM OVER EUROPE VOTE” the Sun in letters more than 6cm high exclaims: “QUEEN BACKS BREXIT”. This startling revelation is then followed by the Sun sub-heading “EU going in wrong direction, she says”. The Sun is however guilty of a grotesque deception not only of its own readers but of millions who have not bought the paper or visited its website.
The unique power of the front page
For the vast majority of British people who do not actually buy The Sun, the content of the front page is the entirety of the story. This is what they read on their news aggregation apps, what they see on late night and early morning news programmes, what they hear on radio programmes, what they read as they pass newspaper stands in newsagents, newsstands at railway/tube/bus/petrol stations etc.
So far, as all of these millions of people are concerned, the Queen has waded into the debate as to whether we should leave the EU and come down firmly on the side of those backing an exit vote, thereby driving a coach and horses through the conventions that bind her as a constitutional monarch.
The inset article
Even the brief inset article on the front page the impression created by the giant text is reinforced:
“THE Queen was hailed as a backer of Brexit yesterday after details emerged of an alleged bust-up between her and Nick Clegg over Europe.
Her Majesty is said to have let rip at the then Deputy PM during a lunch at Windsor Castle, telling pro-European Mr Clegg that she believed the EU was heading in the wrong direction.
A source said: People were left in no doubt about her views on Europe. “
The vast majority of those that read the front page will have not seen the tiny inset article, which is approximately the same dimension as just one of the letters of the main headline. However, even if someone had taken the trouble to squint at the inset text, the only clue that the headline migh be misleading is the reference to Mr Clegg being the “then Deputy PM”. Mr Clegg only ceased to be Deputy Prime Minster in May 2015 at the end of an election process where the Conservatives were promising an in-out referendum. For the tiny minority of non-purchasers of The Sun who actually managed to read the inset article, this will have been by no means sufficient to diminish the impact of the headline.
The hidden truth
You have to read to the fifth paragraph of the page two article to discover that the alleged conversation actually took place during a lunch in 2011. This was years before any decision had even been taken to hold a referendum about the EU; let along an in-out referendum. However on the front page, above the main headline the reader is told that the Queen’s expression of opinion about the EU was made in the context of the referendum debate. That is completely untrue, and millions of Britons were misled by The Sun‘s front page.
All that the page two article actually claims is that in 2011 the Queen told Mr Clegg that she thought “the EU was heading in the wrong direction.” So the ugly truth is about this Sun story is that it tells all that glimpsed the front page of The Sun that the Queen has unequivocally stated her view on the in-out referendum, and said that Britain should exit the EU, when in fact even according to The Sun she has done nothing of the sort.
In fact, even if the actual Sun story is true (which surely it is not), then all that the Queen actually did was express the view that the EU was heading in the wrong direction. That is by no means the same thing as saying that Britain should come out of the EU; it would be just as consistent with a view that Britain should stay in the EU and try to use its influence to bring about change in the EU’s direction of travel. This is precisely what David Cameron and the campaign to remain in the EU propose as the preferable alternative to leaving.
The Palace complains to IPSO
The Palace has announced that it has “written to the Chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation to register a complaint about the front page story in today’s Sun newspaper. The complaint relates to Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice.”
The specific clause that the Palace will rely on is sub-paragraph (i) which says;
“The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.”
What could IPSO do?
There can be no more obvious example of a headline not being supported by the text of an article than The Sun‘s front page. The Queen’s complaint is therefore one which IPSO can adjudicate today. It need do no more than apply its own rule to the Sunarticle, and if that is done there is not the slightest doubt that The Sun‘s headline is not supported by the text of the article. In fact the headline is contradicted by the story as a whole.
What IPSO should then do is instruct The Sun to publish a correction with equal prominence on its front page, so that an equivalent number of people who read the false and misleading headline will be disabused of the extraordinary claim that the Queen has entered into the Brexit debate contrary to all the constitutional rules of which she is acutely aware, and of which she is a most conscientious guardian.
Unfortunately, because IPSO is entirely the creature of the press that is not what it will do. This is despite IPSO’s website claiming that: “We operate a new complaints procedure that is designed to achieve a speedy and fair resolution of your complaint.” It does nothing of the sort.
What will IPSO do?
The first communication which the Palace will receive from IPSO is a standard form email informing that its complaint has been received, but that it must then wait while one of the IPSO staff assesses the complaint to decide whether it falls within the IPSO remit. This is no formality. The Palace may find that the IPSO staff member assigned to the complaint will delay the process by arguing bad points in favour of the newspaper in order to try to prevent the complaint going forward at all.
Assuming that the Palace makes it though this first hurdle (which can take up to a week) it will then informed that it has entered the IPSO’s complaints process, at which point it will be told this:
“In line with IPSO’s complaints procedure, we have therefore sent a copy of your complaint to the publication. This is to provide it with the opportunity swiftly to resolve the matter to your satisfaction, directly, if possible. You should expect the publication to contact you in due course in response to your complaint.”
There is then a further 28-day period during which IPSO does nothing. It expects the complainant to try to negotiate a resolution with the newspaper, however clear the paper makes it that it has no intention of doing so. In this second communication the Palace will find this paragraph:
“If the matter cannot be resolved to your satisfaction, IPSO is able formally to consider your complaint after the publication’s internal complaint process has been exhausted or, at the latest 28 days from the date of this letter, unless we determine that our early involvement is essential. The publication may also request IPSO to begin its investigation with the complaint sooner.”
So it emerges that the paper may request the intervention of IPSO within the 28-day period to speed the process on, but the complainant may not. A request from the complainant for expedition of the process will be turned down even where there are exceptional circumstances requiring IPSO to swing into action before the 28-day period has expired.
If the Palace raises with the IPSO chief executive (Matt Tee) a refusal by complaints handler to expedite the complain then they will be told that while there is correspondence between the complainant and the newspaper IPSO will continue to sit on its hands, and that allowing the paper to spin out the complaints process is “in full compliance with IPSO’s procedures”.
After the 28 days have passed without resolution of the complaint then the newspaper will be given a further seven days within which to respond, which can mean that a full 40 days can elapse before IPSO does anything at all. All that happens though is that the dialogue begins again, except via IPSO which will then attempt a mediation; and only when all else has failed, months after the complaint has been made IPSO eventually adjudicate it.
So what will happen in this IPSO complaint?
In this case, this whole process up to adjudication will be a complete waste of time because The Sun has said that it stands by its story, and will defend the complaint “vigorously.” The Sun will doubtless do this despite the fact there is no possible justification for its grossly misleading front page according to the IPSO Code, of which it is the co-author. The Sun does not do “sorry, we got it wrong” – even when it has wronged someone as grotesquely as it did Tulisa. As its editor also recently said,The Sun “takes no prisoners”.
So how long will the Palace and the general public have to wait to find out what the IPSO verdict is on the front page? Since its inception, the average time taken between a complaint and its adjudication is three months and five days. The longest is seven months and four days. This is what IPSO means when it says that it provides a “speedy” resolution to complaints.
Will the complaint be resolved before the referendum?
Probably not. The EU referendum takes place on 23 June. The average period required before IPSO will adjudicate a complain is three months and five days which means the adjudication will be around 14 June; just nine days before the referendum. This means that the determination of the “vigorously” contested complaint by the Palace only has to slip by just over a week to post date the EU referendum.
This is the most likely outcome because The Sun is masterful at spinning out the complaints process, having managed to delay an adjudication of one PCC complaint by the best part of a year via a procedure which had less built in delays than that of IPSO, whose procedures favour the press even more blatantly than did those of the PCC. In that case having denied that it was in breach of the PCC code for all of that time, the Sun only admitted the breach when legal proceedings were instigated against it and it would then be obliged to “stand by its story” in a forum which it did not own or control.
What will IPSO do if it upholds the complaint?
Just as did its predecessor the PCC, IPSO further betrays it bias to the interests of the press by permitting the publication of corrections and adjudications which are a fraction of the prominence of the offending article. IPSO’s chief executive Mr Tee has advanced a whole series of justifications for this policy of preferring the interest of the press over both the interests of the complainant and the public.
He has claimed that this policy is “proportionate”, when it is precisely the opposite. He has expressed concern that the “design and layout” of a newspaper may suffer aesthetic damage should an equivalent prominence be ordered for corrections. Of front page corrections, he has said that IPSO does not require them because the front page is “valuable to a newspaper”. He is of course right, because the front page of a newspaper is read by millions of people who do not buy the paper and serves as its pitch for sales.
It is difficult to imagine a more constitutionally significant issue about which a national title which claims to be “BRITAIN’S BEST-SELLING PAPER” could mislead the general public. However, in addition to the absurd press-biased procedures that IPSO has adopted which will mean that it will take months to reach an adjudication even if the Queen succeeds in her IPSO complaint, then she will not be granted either an appropriate or adequate remedy.
So even if the Queen wins her IPSO complaint, the millions of her subjects who read a false account of her views on the EU referendum on the front page of the newspaper will not be told by that front page that the story was cynical journalistic invention published merely to sell more copies and swell the already enormous coffers of News UK.
The Queen will also find that dealing with IPSO is like playing football uphill on a sloping pitch with the wind against her and where the referee is the best mate of the manager of the opposing team, and that team also writes the rule-book. So she will learn that the country in which she reigns so graciously is subject to a press which has scant regard for the truth, and conceals its wrongdoing by means of a form of self regulation which ensures that it is never properly held to account.
Jonathan Coad is a partner in the Media Brands and Technology Group of Lewis Silkin LLP, and represents both claimants and defendants in media disputes
This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post and is reproduced with the permission of the author.