The General Election: a further test for IPSO which it will fail – Jonathan Coad

25 04 2017

Almost all the most powerful elements of Fleet Street will line up behind Mrs May in the run-up to the next election – and indeed they have already begun the process of doing so. As for the voting public, they are reliant on (inter alia) Fleet Street to help them make their voting decisions. The grandees of Fleet Street will be considering whether their titles are likely to be held to account in a way that they care about if it misleads voting public on key electoral issues.  The answer to that question is; almost certainly not.

During the last major political campaign, the Brexit referendum, the Sun had no qualms in publishing the wholly false “Queen Backs Brexit” headline as part of its campaign – which it backed with a six-figure advertising campaign – to ensure that we left the EU. It did so no knowing that there was no danger whatsoever that the prominence of any correction that it was ordered to publish had any equivalence to the offending article.

During the course of the Scottish referendum misleading front page stories were published on key issues, and Jeremy Corbyn has been subject of false and misleading press headlines, all titles safe in the knowledge that they could be sure of being permitted to correct in an inner page whisper lies that they had shouted from their front pages.

The editorial hubris of Fleet Street will rampage undaunted while the sanctions imposed by the regulator are so mild as to the well worth bearing for the sake of being free to publish whatever a newspaper wants to publish whether it is true or not. Since that everybody knows there is not the slightest prospect of any newspaper being either investigated or fined by IPSO, we come again the same situation as was the case with the PCC; namely the way in which Fleet Street wields its only stick; obliging newspapers to publish corrections or adjudications (not even apologies).

This brings straight back into sharp focus one of the key problems which any complainant faced when dealing with the PCC; namely that it was content to allow newspapers to publish corrections or adjudications with a prominence which was a fraction of that of the offending article; typically about 5%. The IPSO policy does not appear to be substantially different.

It is via the issue of prominence that the claim made by IPSO to be independent can be tested with absolute certainty. Without seeing all the evidence it is impossible to undertake an informed review of a decision by IPSO Complaints Committee as to whether an article is or is not inaccurate. However, when it comes to the issue of prominence then we have all the material we need to make an informed judgment. We also know that if IPSO’s policy concerning prominence unequivocally favours the press, then IPSO’s claims to be independent are grossly misleading in a way which, when published by one its newspaper members, contravenes paragraph 1(i) of its own Code.

When it comes to deciding what the prominence should be of the correction or adjudication there are three stakeholders; the newspaper, the complainant, and the general public. So far as the newspaper is concerned, its interests lie in the correction or adjudication being smaller/less prominent and the offending article (or errant part of the article). So far as both the complainant and the general public are concerned, it is in their interest that the correction or adjudication be published with a prominence which was at least equivalent to that of the offending article.

There then is the definitive answer as to whether IPSO does the bidding of the press or fulfils a genuine public service as being a legitimate independent regulator. Invariably the interests of the paper are elevated above those that the complainant and general public when the issue of prominence falls to be decided. It follows that IPSO is a sham regulator.

This is never so obvious as when it comes to front page breaches of the IPSO code. These are viewed by millions on apps, evening and breakfast television, bus stations, petrol stations, railway stations etc. None of those who read those headlines will ever know that they are misleading unless they are corrected both on the front page and with a size of script it can be read from many yards away, and be visible via television screen or an app. Unless a correction is published in this way, it is of virtually no value because the vast majority of those who will have read misleading headlines will be none the wiser if the correction or adjudication is published either on page 2 or there is a thin slither of script at the bottom of the front page informing anyone that notices it that there is an IPSO adjudication somewhere in the paper.

The reality is that IPSO does not actually need a power to fine (which it has and never uses). If it ever genuinely fulfils its mandate/promise to be a tough and independent regulator, then it can prove that by obliging transgressors to publish corrections and adjudications with no less prominence than the offending copy. At that point the quality of Fleet Street publications would improve radically overnight.

Alas, there is no prospect whatsoever of IPSO doing any such thing. It has never managed any credible justification for its press-biased decision-making concerning prominence to displace the obvious reason. This is why Parliament must intervene either force IPSO into full Leveson compliance, or ensure that it is replaced by a Leveson compliant regulator in the form of Impress. That is another reason why Fleet Street will do all in its power, unconstrained by IPSO, to secure a Parliament that will not.

Jonathan Coad is a consultant solicitor at Keystone Law. Follow him @jonathan_coad.


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25 04 2017
daveyone1

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