Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Brian Cathcart on the press regulator IPSO’s decision to use the cover of press freedom to undermine the freedom of people whose gender, race, religion or sexual orientation the newspapers despise

In six years, IPSO, the complaints body of the corporate press, has received approaching 20,000 complaints about articles that people considered discriminatory – and of those it has upheld only one. Editors have now reviewed this state of affairs and have concluded that it suits them fine.

The Editors’ Code of Practice Committee decided against any change in arrangements which, in practice, licence racism and religious hate speech in newspapers such as the Sun, The Times, the Mail and the Telegraph. These papers are thus reassured that no matter how discriminatory the content they publish, they will face no sanction from IPSO.

Although there is a clause in the Code that appears to address discrimination, the editors’ decision means that the vast majority of relevant complaints will continue to be dismissed before they even reach the first stage of consideration. 

This comes at a time when hate crime is high (105,090 crimes in 2019-20, according to the Home Office) and when several prominent IPSO members stand accused of publishing discriminatory articles about women and minorities such as Muslims, Jews, trans people, the disabled and Travellers. 

What the editors say is this:

“The Code committee concluded that accepting complaints about generalised comments regarding groups would limit freedom of expression and prevent a free press examining and debating key issues.”

In other words, they claim a right to publish generalised discriminatory material. Wrapping themselves in the flag of ‘press freedom’, they insist that they have no obligation and no wish to stop editors, columnists and reporters likening minority groups to rats and cockroaches, or declaring that they carry disease, or blaming entire communities for the acts of individuals. 

The Code committee, to be clear, is dominated by editors. Of its 15 members, two are IPSO officials and three are described as ‘independent’ but are not appointed by a genuinely independent process. The remaining 10 are editors or senior newspaper executives and they ensure that the Code serves the interests of their industry and not of the public. 


No Option for Group Attacks

Discrimination, the editors insist, is not IPSO’s business, but a matter for the law: “Incitement to hatred is already a criminal offence and the Code seeks to supplement the law, not to echo or replace it.”

They say this knowing full well that the prosecuting authorities are extremely reluctant to charge anyone, let alone a big newspaper, under the existing discrimination legislation and that, if such a case were actually brought – against, say, the Sun or the Mail – whatever the merits, they themselves would be the first to the barricades denouncing it as an assault on press freedom. 

This illustrates vividly the manner in which IPSO – sold to the public in 2014 as the toughest press regulator in the Western world – is, by design, the opposite of what it appears. By giving the outward appearance of seriousness and rigour it encourages the belief that member publishers are accountable, while its rules and processes, its lack of powers and its inability to impose sanctions all ensure that it makes no difference. 

The big news organisations that created it, own it and dominate it – the Murdoch, Mail, Mirror and Telegraph newspapers – and are thus able to publish what they like in the knowledge that the Code of Practice they claim to uphold is never seriously enforced. 

The first paragraph of the first clause of the Code tells the story:

“The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.”

Only rarely and reluctantly, however, does IPSO require newspapers to publish corrections, and these are almost always buried low on inside pages. And there is nothing more – no newspaper has ever been fined, indeed none has even been the subject of an investigation. 

When it comes to discrimination, Clause 12 of the Code states that “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” and that “details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story”.

But IPSO makes it so difficult to mount a complaint that this is nothing more than a veneer. In practice, only those ‘directly affected’ may have their complaints considered and, where a whole group has been maligned, IPSO takes the view that no individual can claim that status. 

Even where an individual has been attacked, IPSO allows itself to cherry-pick complaints and, if a case manages to reach the point where it is actually considered, IPSO’s extremely generous interpretation of freedom of expression is routinely allowed to trump all comers. 

The result is that the vast majority of the 20,000 or so complaints made to it have been dismissed out of hand and, of the few that were considered, all but one were rejected. And in that one case, involving a trans woman, IPSO allowed the Sun to wriggle away. This is Google’s cache.

What of the ‘press freedom’ argument?

It is a distraction. The press itself agrees that there should be a code of practice and it agrees that it should include a clause about discrimination, as above, which states clearly that editors and journalists ‘must avoid’ expressing prejudice. 

The facts show, however, that this is utterly meaningless – a sham. In a world in which we know only too well the damage being caused by the expression of prejudice, there is no outrage that any IPSO member could perpetrate that would be found in breach of Clause 12, and no meaningful sanction even if there were. 

In reality, this really is about press freedom: about the freedom of billionaire-owned newspapers to discriminate, express prejudice and to malign and abuse people whose gender, race, religion or sexual orientation they despise. 


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