The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) – the so-called press regulator which in seven years has never investigated or fined even one of its members – appears to be paralysed in the face of a very obvious collapse of standards at the Jewish Chronicle.
Seven weeks after nine victims of the newspaper’s falsehoods demanded a formal standards investigation, and although they have sent several follow-ups and reminders, the IPSO is still fobbing them off with holding letters.
Meanwhile, the conduct of the Jewish Chronicle, a fully-signed-up IPSO member contracted to abide by the Editors’ Code of Practice, continues to mock the very idea of press regulation.
The IPSO’s complaints committee has just had to record two more breaches of the Code by the weekly newspaper, bringing its total number in three years to 33. Apart from big national newspapers and regional groups, no other IPSO member comes near. Remarkably, over the same period, the newspaper has been forced to admit, and pay damages for, four serious libels.
For the IPSO – created and dominated by the corporate press in defiance of the wishes of Parliament, the Leveson Inquiry and public opinion – this represents a dreadful humiliation and one of its gravest crises.
To make matters worse, while it claims it gets results by swift, discreet interventions, it seems to have done next to nothing to tackle the problems at one of its smaller member publications – even though as early as 2019 the Jewish Chronicle was referred to IPSO’s standards department by its complaints committee for “unacceptable” conduct. Annual reports submitted to IPSO by the weekly title strongly suggest that no sanctions were imposed and no disciplinary or remedial action was taken as a result of the referral. Indeed, no practical consequences of any kind resulted.
A Contemptuous Response
IPSO should have received a stark reminder of the Jewish Chronicle’s attitude last year when, as is understood, a complainant reported to it the first response he received when he wrote to the newspaper. It contained just one sentence: “Thank you for your email, which I have to say is one of the most ludicrous I have ever received.” The complaint has since been upheld, meaning that even in the IPSO’s eyes it was not ludicrous but justified.
And that contemptuous response came from a paper that faithfully declares to the IPSO year after year that it “prides itself on its even-handed approach to complaints”.
Given this background, if a formal investigation of the Jewish Chronicle actually happens – and we don’t even know yet whether the IPSO’s board will consider the idea – it should surely have to examine the IPSO’s own role in allowing the spree of journalistic dishonesty to continue.
Will it finally investigate? That is highly doubtful because the people who pull the IPSO’s strings regard the Jewish Chronicle as a friend and ally, and because those same people – at The Times, the Telegraph, the Sun and the Mail – fear setting a precedent which might ultimately place their own low standards under scrutiny.
We had a glimpse of their views in a recent Telegraph article which – while presenting the signatories of the letter to the IPSO as a sinister left-wing group bent on gagging a plucky little paper – fired a shot across the IPSO’s bows. The article portrayed the IPSO as failing to cope properly with trivial complaints and as “moving away from its intended remit as a conciliator and… increasingly acting as a prosecutor, to the detriment of both the system of regulation and to free speech”.
The message was clear: in the Telegraph’s view, it wasn’t the Jewish Chronicle that was out of line but the IPSO, with its string of adverse rulings.
In A Corner
Caught between (a) owners who have never believed in regulation; (b) a newspaper with no regard for standards; and (c) people whose individual complaints it has found to be valid and who are now simply asking it to do the job it claims to do, the IPSO is clearly in crisis.
It is the worst to hit it since its gross mishandling of the complaint brought by Channel 4 and its news presenter Fatima Manji in 2016 – a case that exposed its total inability to tackle press racism, its shocking intimacy with the big newspapers, and its eagerness to accept the most contrived defences when put forward by powerful editors.
The IPSO’s chair, former Conservative minister Lord Edward Faulks, is in a corner. He received the demand for an investigation into the Jewish Chronicle on 3 August. Jo Bird, one of those who signed it, was told on 11 August that he would respond “in due course”. Six weeks on, no reply has materialised and Bird’s requests for even a vague indication of when it might come have gone unanswered. Meanwhile, her attempts to extract even basic information from the IPSO about its dealings with the Jewish Chronicle have gone nowhere.
We should not be surprised at such signs of paralysis, given that the IPSO has never in seven years mounted an investigation. Through three election campaigns marked by gross press inaccuracies, the Brexit referendum and negotiations, years of press Islamophobia and transphobia, the hounding to death of Caroline Flack, the attacks on Ben Stokes, Gareth Thomas and the Duchess of Sussex, it has simply sat on its hands.
Hacked Off, the press reform campaigning group, has suggested four newspapers and four specific subjects that are worthy of immediate investigation. Have a look.
So flagrant is the misconduct of the Jewish Chronicle that Lord Faulks must know that if he and his board fail to launch a standards investigation the whole idea that the IPSO has investigatory powers will be relegated to fantasy and the last shreds of press window-dressing will fall away.
On the IPSO’s own grid of complaints in 2020, some 90 members are listed – of which just 12 saw complaints against them upheld. The only members with more upheld complaints than the Jewish Chronicle are Reach (the publisher of the Mirror newspapers and many regional titles), News UK (the publisher of The Times and the Sun), and Associated (the publisher of the Mail newspapers).
So, in terms of breaching the Code, this small, hard-up, niche publication – which appears only once a week and has a modest circulation and a sparse online output – is holding its own in the IPSO’s league of shame with big, national, seven-day operations with online services of global reach, and with regional groups operating dozens of titles.
Lack of Action
That IPSO is notoriously reluctant to find any fault with any member organisation only makes the Jewish Chronicle’s record look worse. It was a rare, if not unique, bout of outrage in November 2019 that prompted IPSO’s complaints committee to refer the newspaper to the standards arm.
The evidence for what happened, or rather failed to happen, after that comes from the annual compliance statements by the Jewish Chronicle published on IPSO’s website. In response to the referral, there was “an offer from IPSO staff to visit the offices to deliver an advisory session”.
Note that this was an offer and not an order: it was explicitly not disciplinary action. And, in the event, it didn’t happen because it wasn’t convenient for the Jewish Chronicle. A “separate meeting” with IPSO that was also scheduled around this time was also cancelled because of the Coronavirus lockdown.
On this evidence, it looks as though IPSO’s standards department made some phone calls or sent some emails and then, when complications emerged, simply let the matter drop. And when the person who made the complaint that sparked the referral wrote to ask what the standards department had done, no one at IPSO responded.
Meanwhile, the libels and Code breaches were piling up – falsehoods about people that caused them personal harm and embarrassment misled the Jewish Chronicle’s readers and brought journalism into disrepute.
There is one more crumb of evidence. After the nine victims wrote to IPSO at the beginning of August, one of the holding replies stated that it had “recently” delivered a two-hour training session to Jewish Chronicle staff. It made a point of noting, however, that this was a service available to all members – which means that even this small, belated gesture cannot be presented as a sign that the so-called “toughest press regulator in the Western world” had flexed its feeble muscles.
Footnote: Matthew Holborow, whose complaint was upheld last month, has added his name to the list of those demanding that the IPSO launch a standards investigation.
Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)
This post originally appeared in the Byline Times and is reproduced with permission and thanks.