The Independent Press Standards Organisation, or IPSO, the so-called ‘press self-regulator’ operated by the big UK newspaper companies for their own benefit, is suffering a double crisis.
On the one hand, it appears to be paralysed in the face of its biggest-ever case, involving the Sun and Jeremy Clarkson’s notorious column about Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. And on the other, one of IPSO’s smallest member publications, the Jewish Chronicle, is making a mockery of its authority and of its claim to uphold journalistic standards.
Such challenges were inevitable given the basic dishonesties that have underpinned IPSO since it was established in defiance of the Leveson Inquiry recommendations nine years ago. A regulator designed not to regulate, as IPSO is, is bound to come a cropper.
Jeremy Clarkson and the Sun
This week it will be six months since the Sun provoked an explosion of public outrage by publishing Clarkson’s article railing against Meghan Markle. You may recall that, among other things, he declared that he dreamed of seeing her paraded naked through the streets and pelted with excrement.
A country that often appears deeply divided about Prince Harry’s wife suddenly seemed almost united in revulsion. MPs of all parties complained to the Sun until the article was taken down, while no fewer than 25,100 people reported the case to IPSO in the hope that it would do something.
There is nothing unusual about an IPSO complaint taking months to grind its way through a system that is intended not to be public-friendly. In fact, the average time taken over any complaint is about six months – though it must first get through the organisation’s ruthless triage arrangements, which 98% do not.
But with so much public engagement on this issue – it prompted the most complaints ever received about a single article – you might have expected IPSO to get a move on. But no, half a year has passed and all we have is silence.
There is clearly a blockage, a stand-off, either within IPSO itself or between IPSO and the newspaper. And the stakes on both sides are high.
The complaints body knows that to clear the Sun of wrongdoing in so flagrant a case would be the equivalent of taking out advertisements on national television announcing that IPSO is useless and nobody should ever bother to complain to it again. For people who work there, that might be too much to bear.
At the same time, the entire corporate national newspaper industry – not just the Sun but the Mail, Mirror, Express, Times and Telegraph – will be furious if IPSO rules, as it has been asked to, that the article breached the clause of the code of conduct that relates to discrimination.
That’s why, when they were designing IPSO, they placed the bar for discrimination so high that only twice in the nine years of the organisation’s existence has a newspaper been found to have done it. Tens of thousands of complaints have failed.
This self-awarded licence to discriminate, incidentally, has the commercial advantage for the papers that it protects professional shock merchants such as Clarkson who generate millions of lucrative clicks in a way that reasoned opinion never could.
So it is easy to see why IPSO is stuck. Whether the paralysis is internal or whether the complaints body is at loggerheads directly with Rupert Murdoch’s company has not been made public, but the long delay is surely eating away at what little credibility the organisation may still claim.
The 25,100 people who complained, most of them doubtless unaware of IPSO’s dubious history, and the hundreds of thousands more who were outraged by the article, will have expected more than silence.
A word of caution. This may be a David and Goliath contest, with IPSO in the role of David, but it would be unwise to invest hope in the underdog. If IPSO was eventually to uphold any of the complaints against the Sun, no real action would flow as a result. In particular, the Editor who published the article, Victoria Newton, and the writer, Jeremy Clarkson, would suffer no consequences and would be free to continue acting as badly as they choose.
The Jewish Chronicle
As if that were not bad enough for IPSO, it is also contending with the reopening of a painful old wound. Its most wayward member publication of recent years, the weekly Jewish Chronicle, has once again been indulging in journalistic abuses too gross for even IPSO to ignore.
This is a big problem because the Chronicle was supposed to be a success story for IPSO, an advertisement for its softly-softly, ‘nudge and wink’ approach to press ‘regulation’. It turns out, embarrassingly, that this doesn’t work, even when directed at a tiny publication on the margins of the national press.
It is 18 months since IPSO was forced into a corner after reckless journalism by the Jewish Chronicle led to a welter of libel settlements and a remarkable tally of 34 identified breaches of the IPSO code of conduct.
Victims of these abuses publicly demanded that IPSO launch a ‘standards investigation’, a formal step that would have involved actual regulation – scrutinising the Chronicle’s operations in detail and producing a formal report identifying necessary changes. Like findings of discrimination, however, this is something that, though it may appear possible, IPSO was actually designed not to do. The bar for investigations is set so high that not one has ever occurred.
Inevitably, IPSO ducked out of conducting a standards investigation and announced instead that it had provided some training to Chronicle staff and would monitor the newspaper’s conduct.
That decision in itself was perverse, given that during the monitoring period there had been three further upheld complaints against the Chronicle – still a very high tally for a small weekly. But the real embarrassment came just weeks after the February announcement.
On 6 April this year, IPSO’s complaints panel concluded its consideration of a new case against the Chronicle in which the paper had wrongly accused a rabbi of suggesting that Jewish suffering in the Holocaust was exaggerated. Moreover, when it realised it was wrong, according to the IPSO ruling, the paper waited a month before issuing a correction.
The ruling contained the following paragraph: “The [complaints] committee expressed significant concerns about the newspaper’s conduct prior to the publication and the absence of a published apology as part of the remedial action which had been taken. The committee considered that the publication’s conduct was unacceptable, and their concerns were drawn to the attention of IPSO’s standards department.”
So the sequence of events from the beginning is this:
- The Chronicle behaves so appallingly over several years that IPSO is publicly shamed into doing something.
- Incapable of launching a standards investigation, IPSO instead provides a little training and says it will monitor the results.
- This monitoring allegedly goes on for a year, at the end of which the paper is given a clean bill of health while IPSO congratulates itself on a job well done.
- Two months later, the complaints panel is forced to condemn the paper once again for “unacceptable” conduct that raises “serious concerns”.
In short, the cowardly approach did not work, even on one of IPSO’s smallest member publications, and the failure is so obvious that even the IPSO complaints panel noticed.
Will something be done? Two months after the ruling there is no sign of it.
If IPSO is in a mess it is an inevitable one, for such things are bound to happen at a ‘regulator’ with a lie at its heart – one that purports to protect the public but is chiefly concerned with protecting the press. When something goes obviously wrong, such as the grotesque misogyny of the Sun’s Clarkson article or the serial abuses of the Jewish Chronicle, the underlying deception can’t be concealed.
This state of affairs isn’t just bad for IPSO. It is very bad for journalistic standards generally in the UK, aggravating the industry’s already disastrous trust problems. Worse still, it is brutally unfair on ordinary members of the public who need far more effective protection from abuses of journalistic power.
Brian Cathcart is a journalist, academic and campaigner. He was one of the founders of the Hacked Off campaign for a free and accountable press. He is the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’
This post originally appeared in the Byline Times and is reproduced with permission and thanks