- It could publicly and formally put editors on notice about their conduct, reminding them of their commitment to avoid publishing inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.
- It could alert the public to their right to complain, insisting that member publications carry advertisements about this in their pages.
- It could announce that it stands ready, every day of the campaign, to use the new powers it claims it has to investigate possible code breaches without waiting for the public to complain.
- It could introduce fast-track processing of these cases to ensure that findings on accuracy are reached while they might still be relevant (instead of long after everyone has voted).
- It could announce, as a shot across the industry’s bows, that it is launching a formal investigation into a prominent newspaper title on matters of accuracy, with the possibility of a substantial fine at the end.
(On paper IPSO can start an investigation when it ‘reasonably considers that there may have been serious and systemic breaches of the Editors’ Code’. (Rule 53). The difficulty would not be finding grounds but deciding whether to start with the Sun, the Express or the Mail.)
Of course IPSO is the industry’s patsy, so it would be little short of a miracle if it adopted even the feeblest of these. Indeed so structurally weak and dependent is this ‘regulator’ that even if it adopted all of them we would probably not see a difference. (Every national newspaper editor knows he or she has the power to sandbag an IPSO investigation in the unlikely event that one is ever launched.)
And yet this is a moment when this country cries out for effective, independent press regulation. It is the moment when the democratic role of news publishers in print and online is at its most important, the moment above all others when voters must have access to accurate information.
Let’s be clear: there can be no question of interfering with the expression of partisan opinion in newspapers. Editors are rightly free, to borrow a word of their own, to ‘editorialise’. But the code that IPSO is supposed to uphold is unambiguous:
‘The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.’
That is a pledge freely given by editors to the public, and there is no exception for election time.
We know what happens. IPSO rarely finds against newspapers, particularly the big ones, and when it does its verdicts are feeble and usually late. As a result, during both the 2015 election and the 2016 referendum editors flouted the code recklessly and outrageously. Now they are set to do so again.
Any regulator serious about upholding the code, any regulator serious about democracy, would not be content with this state of affairs. But don’t expect IPSO to act.