If the Pilling Review [pdf] was the industry’s attempt to give IPSO some legitimacy then it has backfired.
The review was set up by IPSO, paid for by IPSO, and had terms of reference agreed with IPSO, in order to assess the independence and effectiveness of IPSO. In that sense its purpose was compromised before it had even begun.
Yet it still had an opportunity to show, through the review itself and its findings, that it was capable of constructive criticism. It has failed to surmount even this low bar.
The Pilling Review has, somehow, managed to overlook not only the many smaller but still significant structural faults with IPSO, but has virtually ignored the four fundamental problems that prevent IPSO from being either independent or effective on behalf of the public. These four are:
- Industry dependence: IPSO is controlled – at every level – by the industry, chiefly through an organisation called the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC). The RFC organizes the funding of IPSO, its structure, its membership, its rules, its investigations fund, and oversees its Code (via the Code Committee). It has vetoes on any substantive changes. Yet the Pilling Review does not even assess the role of the RFC. It is as though there was a review of BBC governance that did not assess the BBC Trust, or an examination of how the World Cup was run that ignored FIFA.
- Constraints on investigations and sanctions: the rules governing IPSO investigations (written by the industry) are so lengthy, and give so many opportunities for publishers to intervene, that they make it very hard to launch an investigation, and even harder to complete one against a recalcitrant publisher. Perhaps that is why, since its launch two years ago, IPSO has shown no signs of wanting to pursue a standards investigation, despite cause (such as the need to examine payment of public officials, as proposed in Press Gazette last year). No fine can be imposed on a publication until after the successful completion of an investigation. Yet, again Pilling’s assessment offers no assessment. ‘[I]n circumstances where one [a standards investigation] has not yet taken place,’ Pilling writes, ‘it is not possible for me to say one way or the other whether it will be effective and independent’.
- Mediation not regulation: just like the PCC before it, IPSO mediates on complaints, it does not regulate. Even after complainants have taken the time to go to the offending newspaper and have been unable to resolve the complaint there, IPSO does not automatically rule on their complaint but asks the newspaper to offer some sort of resolution (and so avoid a ruling). As a consequence we are led to believe that the Daily Mail and MailOnline were found to have breached the Editors’ Code only three times in two years (and one further partial breach), and the Daily and Sunday Express only four times. This despite Associated Newspapers reporting that it had itself resolved 343 complaints in 2015 alone (settled without admission of liability). The Pilling Review does not even raise this issue.
- Lack of access to legal redress: one of the leading injustices revealed by the Leveson inquiry was how ordinary people were unable to access legal redress when they had been illegally intruded upon or libeled. A system of low cost arbitration was Leveson’s recommended response. Two years after IPSO launched it has still only got as far as a pilot scheme. Even if this scheme is rolled out it will still be voluntary for publishers to join, and optional on a case-by-case basis – leaving people who cannot afford to go to court without assured access to justice. Yet Pilling’s assessment is; ‘Given the very early stage of the arbitration pilot it is not possible for this review to reach any conclusions on its effectiveness’.
Since the Pilling Review fails to assess the role of the RFC, ignores the fundamental problems with IPSO investigations and sanctions, does not appear to have understood the difference between mediation and regulation in this context, and does not make a judgment on IPSO’s lack of low cost arbitration, it is difficult to take it seriously.
Rather, it makes more sense to judge the review politically, since this appears to be the purpose for which it was intended. The Pilling review was published immediately prior to publication of the Press Recognition Panel’s (PRP’s) first annual report of the ‘Leveson system’ (to be published two days later). This PRP report necessarily has to conclude that the Leveson system has – to date – failed, since one of its main criteria for success was that most newspapers be part of a recognized regulator. Most newspapers are not; they are part of their own system – IPSO. If the proposed system failed, Leveson said, it was then Parliament’s duty to decide what to do next.
The Pilling Review is the industry’s attempt to send a message to Parliament to do nothing. It is an attempt to give Parliamentarians cover to say, ‘well, the Leveson system might not have worked, but maybe we should give IPSO a chance’. Yet judged politically the Pilling Review has also failed. It has failed because it is not credible. It has ignored even the most obvious and significant aspects of IPSO’s dependence and ineffectiveness. Only those Parliamentarians looking for an excuse to do nothing will use the Pilling Review as cover.
Yet perhaps most disappointingly, the review has failed on its own terms – it has not sought to evaluate IPSO comprehensively or critically, and as such it has been an exercise in futility.