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Sun 12 July 2020
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It is as if the football club is playing an away fixture, uphill, under rules written by the opposing side – which also happens to employ the referee, argues Brian Cathcart.

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Complaining to IPSO, the ‘independent’ press regulator operated by the big newspaper companies, is almost always a waste of time.

First, because the dice are loaded against complainants. Second, because, even if the complaint is upheld, IPSO has no power to deliver a meaningful remedy.

This is worth remembering in the context of Manchester United’s complaint against the Sun newspaper, over its reporting of an incident outside the home of the football club’s vice-chair, Ed Woodward.

The club has alleged “a clear breach both of the Editors’ Code and of journalistic ethics”. In reality, the Sun will probably be able to laugh its way through the whole process and come out the other side unscathed.

Look at what happened to the Queen. Buckingham Palace complained to IPSO about the Sun’s ‘Queen Backs Brexit’ front-page splash in 2016. Even though IPSO condemned the report as misleading, all that resulted was a small correction and when the Sun’s editor announced that he didn’t care and would do the same again, IPSO did nothing. 

Manchester United’s complaint is a serious one. “The club believes that the Sun newspaper had received advance notice of the intended attack, which included criminal damage and intent to intimidate, and that the journalist was present as it happened,” its statement says. “The quality of the images accompanying the story indicate that a photographer was also present.

“Not only did the journalist fail to discharge the basic duty of a responsible member of society to report an impending crime and avert potential danger and criminal damage, his presence both encouraged and rewarded the perpetrators.”

For its part, the Sun has admitted its journalist was at the scene, but insisted that “at no time was our reporter made aware of what was to take place, nor incited it or encouraged any criminal activity”.

The ethical issues here seem straightforward. Where journalists become aware that a crime is about to be committed, or is being committed, they have the same obligation as any other citizens to report it to the police. Only if there are compelling public interest grounds (such as that they are in the process of uncovering a worse crime) might they be justified in remaining silent. 


The Problems with IPSO

There appear to be three problems ahead for Manchester United. 

The first is the nature of IPSO itself. Though its full name may be the “Independent Press Standards Organisation”, it is arguably anything but independent and the publishers of the Sun – Rupert Murdoch’s News UK group – are among its most powerful puppeteers. 

The second is that IPSO will usually go to great lengths to avoid tackling serious conflicts of evidence (an example being its refusal to tackle the Times‘ discredited report on the ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’), so that even if Manchester United has a battery of evidence up its sleeve, it will be no surprise if IPSO feebly declares itself unable to decide who is telling the truth – thus handing the benefit of the doubt to the newspaper.

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The third problem is that IPSO does not make judgements about journalistic ethics, only about breaches of the Editors’ Code and that code is written by a panel convened by the press industry and packed, as its name suggests, with newspaper editors. Manchester United may have difficulty finding any clause of the Code which it can argue was breached.

To attempt a footballing analogy, it is as if Manchester United was playing an away fixture, uphill, under special rules written by the opposing side, which also happens to employ the referee. 

And then there’s a fourth problem. In the event that the club manages to overcome all these difficulties, the best it can hope for in terms of a remedy is one-paragraph ‘clarification’ buried on an inside page. No fine, no public rebuke for the Sun’s editor or its reporter, no investigation of the newspaper’s standards processes. Nothing at all that might prevent it happening again. 


An Important Test

Despite all of this, there is some truth in Manchester United’s claim that its complaint is “an important test of the self-regulatory system for newspapers”.

Few complainants in IPSO’s five-year history have had a higher profile and are better equipped to press a complaint effectively. That means that more people than usual will be watching to see how IPSO rises – or not – to the occasion, which is no bad thing.

Even before the complaint is lodged, what we can learn from this affair is that IPSO is not fit for purpose. By any normal measure, Manchester United has a case worthy of consideration by a genuine press regulator with a genuine code of conduct (that is if it is not actually a matter for the police). 

Such a regulator, acting to uphold standards and protect the public, would spare no effort in establishing the facts and making them public and, if it found the newspaper had breached the code, it would ensure that the public was appropriately informed, that the newspaper was appropriately sanctioned and that measures were put in place to ensure such conduct was not repeated. 

That, indeed, is what the Sun itself would demand of a regulator operating in any other sphere of life – from banking to professional football. There can be no excuse for newspapers having a unique power to mark their own bad homework and award themselves free passes whenever they like.

It is possible for a code of conduct to encompass these issues if it is written with the sincere intention of reflecting definitions of ethical conduct. Let us imagine that, in this case, the Sun has done nothing wrong. With a credible, independent regulator and code, when a complaint fails, the public are far more likely to believe it has been rejected for good reasons. 


Imagine It Was You

Consider now the plight of ordinary citizens who have been wronged by newspapers.

Unlike Ed Woodward and Manchester United, they don’t have lawyers to do the work or the clout to ensure that they are listened to. They don’t have a PR machine to get their message out in the face of a conspiracy of silence about such matters that persists among the corporate newspapers.

In reality, ordinary people are simply unable to hold the press to account.

Manchester United, if it really wants the Sun condemned, could find more effective ways to use its power. It could urge supporters not to buy the newspaper or click on its online products, and it could even follow Liverpool FC in refusing to deal with Sun journalists. That might actually make a difference.


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