The Press Complaints commission was a self-regulatory body founded in 1991 to act as an alternative to state regulation of the UK press. Following the exposure of the phone hacking scandal perpetrated by publications under Rupert Murdoch’s News International, predominantly the News of the World, Sir Brian Leveson conducted The Leveson Inquiry to explore ‘culture, practices and ethics of press’ (Leveson, 2012: 1). Leveson’s findings lead to the closure of the News of the World and the PCC was discredited over their lack of investigation into the NOW’s illicit actions.
The Leveson report highlighted the weaknesses of self-regulation, stating the PCC operated in the best interest of the press rather than public (Leveson, 2012: 1579) and recommended a truly independent self-regulatory body be created; free from industry bias and power of the government, supported by legislation while protecting the freedom of the press, and encouraging transparency from newspapers to provide the public with clear arbitration system for victims of the press (BBC, 2012: online).
In 2013, a Royal Charter was introduced, viewed by David Cameron as a compromise between state regulation and self-regulation (BBC, 2012: online), which has since endorsed the press regulator IMPRESS. Many publications found this troublesome, believing it too close to state regulation, preferring to align with the Independent Press Standards Organisation which has been considered the successor to the PCC.
IPSO has shown improvements over the PCC and has enforced better standards throughout regional and local titles with journalists taking greater care not to breach the Editors’ Code of Practice (The Guardian, 2016: online). Furthermore, IPSO has expanded on the Code, initially carried over from the PCC, by incorporating specific sub-clauses for the accuracy of headlines and demonstrating vigilance over issues of discrimination against minority groups. However, there are similarities which can be drawn between the practices of IPSO and its predecessor which have led to disapproval that the organisation is simply the “PCC reborn with a few extra bells and whistles,” (The Guardian, 2014: online).
Leveson believed the PCC had “A profound lack of any functional or meaningful independence from the industry,” (Leveson, 2012: 1520) and IPSO has been criticised in a similar manner for the organisation’s close ties to publishers. This opposes the recommendation that a regulator of the press should be overseen without influence from the industry or government (The Guardian, 2012: online). The Regulatory Funding Company, which finances IPSO, can be considered evidence of this as all of the RFC’s directors work within the publishing industry (The Transparency Project, 2016: online). Furthermore, in regards its own Board and Complaints Committee, IPSO claims: “The majority have no connections with the newspaper and magazine industry,” (IPSO: online) although this is only a minor majority as nearly half of the staff in both departments have media ties, some with publications under IPSO’s jurisdiction (The Transparency Project, 2016: online).
However, IPSO’s Readers’ Advisory Panel could be viewed as an effort to adhere to Leveson’s notion that external input is necessary to regulate the press in an unbiased manner. Formed in 2016, the Readers’ Advisory Panel consists of six panellists, including a former victim of the phone hacking scandal (The Guardian, 2016: online), all without ties to a publisher which could be regulated by IPSO (IPSO, 2016: online). The panel provides feedback from a perspective outside of the journalism community and is intended to “Act as a focal point for the public or representative groups to feedback on their experience of IPSO,” (IPSO, 2016: online).
After their first meeting in November 2016, the Readers’ Advisory Panel recognised that IPSO, unlike the broadcasting regulator OfCom, does not regulate material based on taste and decency (IPSO, 2016: online), defined by Chris Frost, in Journalism Ethics and Regulation, as “a range of issues which are not rights-based but clearly need to be considered,” (Frost, 2000: 327).
Concerns surrounding taste and decency often underpin issues of discrimination – covered in Clause 12 of the Editor’s Code of Practice, which states: “The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability,” (IPSO, 2016: online). However, Frost deems: “Print codes rarely mention taste and decency. The ability to print pictures or text that might cause offence is so widely open to interpretation and is so dependent on social pressure, audience and community mores that newspapers and magazine codes such as that of the IPSO ignore the issue,” (Frost, 2000: 327).
IPSO has come under fire for disregarding complaints as matters of taste and decency even when the issue is grounded in a breach of Clause 12 – highlighted after a column written by Katie Hopkins, where she compared migrants to cockroaches (Hopkins, 2015), resulted in over 400 complaints. IPSO considered all inapplicable as Clause 12 is “designed to protect identified individuals mentioned by the press against discrimination, and does not apply to groups or categories of people,” (The Guardian, 2015: online). This mirrors the PCC’s policies on discrimination which did not attend to “generalised remarks about groups or categories of people, which would involves subjective views, often based on political correctness or taste,” (PCC, 2012: online).
However, IPSO has exhibited improvement over the PCC’s policies on groups by upholding a complaint from a representative group in 2015. Acting on behalf of Emily Brothers, a blind and transgender Labour politician, Trans Media Watch accused Sun columnist Rod Liddle of attempting to further humiliate Ms Brothers in a column issued as an apology for prior comments about her disability and gender identity. IPSO upholding this complaint led to The Sun imposing a new policy surrounding transgender matters (The Guardian, 2015: online). As The Sun is the second most popular newspaper in the UK (Press Gazette, 2017: online), this could be viewed as IPSO having a substantial impact on the practices of UK press. Furthermore, their positive response to a group taking action for an individual also suggests IPSO has engaged in an area where criticisms of the PCC arose (The Guardian, 2015: online). The Leveson Inquiry also found there was “a cultural tendency within parts of the press vigorously to resist or dismiss complainants almost as a matter of course” and some newspapers use “high-volume, extremely personal attacks on those who challenge them,” as a defence mechanism even when an apology is owed (The Guardian, 2012: online). Therefore, IPSO’s actions against the repeated targeting of Ms Brothers is evidence of the organisation regulating the press in a manner previously unaddressed.
IPSO are able dictate the remedial action of their rulings including the size, location in print and online presence of an apology. Their verdict over the case of Trans Media Watch v The Sun stated: “The adjudication should be published in full on the same page as the column in a forthcoming edition, and on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the adjudication published on its homepage for a period of no less than 48 hours. The headline should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, and refer to its subject matter,” (IPSO, 2015: online). Although when printed in The Sun’s May 28th2015 edition their ruling lacked any headline (The Guardian, 2015: online). This brings into question the sincerity of IPSO’s power to impose their rulings and reflects criticisms of the PCC who, although the prominence of their corrections and adjudications was also intended to be agreed with in advance, there is evidence of their guidelines being ignored.
In 2011 the Daily Mail was ordered to apologise to actor David Morrissey for a defamatory story with the headline ‘Le Binge Drinking’, which resulted in libel action against the paper. The wording and prominence of the apology was negotiated, and seemingly agreed, with the PCC beforehand which Daily Mail’s lawyer had indicated “would appear on a right-hand page, above the fold, before page 19, and with a specific heading,” however, the apology was located in the paper’s ‘corrections’ column (The Guardian, 2011: online). Mr Morrissey stated: “The story was a blatant falsehood. And a piddling little half-inch apology is just not good enough given the big display they gave it and how they behaved,” outlining a corrections column is an insufficient apology for someone who has been libelled (The Guardian, 2011: online).
In 2016 IPSO updated Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editor’s Code of Practice, to state: “The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text,” (IPSO, 2016: online). This component of the clause was integral to case of Buckingham Palace v The Sun, which followed the paper’s front page story claiming the ‘Queen Backs Brexit’ (The Sun, 2016: 1), and resulted in the first occurrence of a newspaper being regulated over a headline. IPSO stated The Sun’s story would require “the text of the article to both clearly identify the factual basis for the headline, and provide clear evidence of its accuracy,” (IPSO, 2016: online). Therefore, placing a specific focus on headlines can be viewed as IPSO implementing a more thorough policy on accuracy than that of the PCC.
However, IPSO’s remedy of the case was met with criticism as their ruling addressed only The Sun’s headline and not the story itself. The Sun was also able claim to stand by their original story (iMediaEthics, 2016: online) and the lack of prominence given to IPSO’s ruling did not match that of the original ‘Queen Backs Brexit’ article, echoing Mr Morrissey’s grievances over his apology from the Daily Mail reminiscent of the PCC’s effectiveness to adjudicate on such matters.
In light of this, Evan Harris of Hacked Off argued of IPSO’s inadequacy: “Millions of people read the false front-page banner headline and they deserve to see the truth. But only a small proportion of them will read the adjudication to learn how they were misled, because the front page reference, and the page 2 headline are both small and neither correct the record,” (Hacked Off, 2016: online). Following a review of the Editors’ Code in 2017, IPSO enforced corrections should provide ‘due prominence’ – meaning “the remedy is published in an appropriate and proportionate way to the breach of the Code,” (IPSO, 2017: online). The case of Buckingham Palace v The Sun presents an argument that ‘equal prominence’ would be more beneficial to enforcing better practice in UK journalism as there would be more encouragement only publish what is supported by truth as “the psychology around getting the facts right would change dramatically. Such corrections would involve a loss of credibility with readers. They would embarrass proprietors and editors. The journalists who made the mistakes would probably receive dressing downs from their bosses,” (InFacts, 2017: online).
The Press Recognition Panel founded under Royal Charter to approve a press regulator which fully adhered to Leveson’s recommendations and, as already outlined, the ties between IPSO and the publishing industry have raised questions as to a contradiction of this key requirements. However, it bears consideration that if a regulator is Leveson-compliant to the degree required for approval by the PRP this could be viewed as ‘one step away’ from government interference in press freedom (Inforrm, 2016: online).
IMPRESS has been approved by the PRP (Press Recognition Panel, 2016: online) although this has been protested by the News Media Association who believe IMPRESS fails to achieve independence as it is almost entirely funded by Max Mosley – “a single benefactor with outspoken views on press conduct and regulation.” The NMA has argued IMPRESS is unrepresentative of the press and is not credible as it lacks an editorial code of standards (Press Gazette, 2016: online) like that of IPSO.
Although IMPRESS has a long-standing free arbitration scheme covering court costs and exemplary damages (IMPRESS: 2018, online), a key concern of recognition by the PRP is that it is parallel to the enforcement of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act – meaning non-members of a government approved regulatory body must pay both sides’ legal fees in a libel case even if the publisher wins (National Archives, 2013: online). This imposes on “the vast majority of UK publishers a system of penalties in circumstances that were never intended,” (Press Gazette, 2016: online). Roy Greenslade, of the Guardian, has argued IMPRESS’ scheme is a “carrot to lure publishers into an approved regulator or a stick to compel them to do so, it is a form of blackmail and, by extension, inimical to freedom of expression,” (Guardian: 2016: online). IPSO has since introduced an arbitration scheme which “offers low-cost access to justice as envisaged in the Leveson report,” (Press Gazette, 2017: online) which IPSO Chief Executive Matt Tee enforces that “papers are not able to choose which cases they take,” (IPSO: 2018: online). Therefore, considering IPSO’s expansive registrars – a correlation can be drawn between the notion of regulator “able to secure voluntary support and membership” (Leveson, 2012: 1771) and the NMA’s discrediting of IMPRESS due to its limited member base (NMA: 2016, 2) that IPSO is an appropriate regulator for the UK press.
The NMA also argues: “The Royal Charter defines “Regulator” as “an independent body formed by or on behalf of relevant publishers for the purpose of conducting regulatory activities in relation to their publications,” (NMA, 2016: 2). Leveson’s concept of a regulator “established by the industry,” (Leveson: 2012, 1771) indicates IPSO’s inclusion of staff with long-standing experience are necessary for effective self-regulation. However, the inclusion of staff members no longer tied to any publication under IPSO would be favourable to ‘achieving balance between the interests of the subjects of stories and the press,’ and avoid conflicts of interest and apprehensions of a regulator who advocates ‘the interests of the industry as a whole,’ (Leveson, 2012: 1530).
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