Will the Independent Press Standards Organisation Ever Uphold Any Standards?
After 28 breaches and four libel cases, the Jewish Chronicle is accused of a collapse in journalistic standards. But will the regulator IPSO do anything about it? Brian Cathcart reviews the evidence
After seven years, it is legitimate to wonder whether the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) will ever launch a formal investigation into journalism standards at one of its member publications. We may be about to find out.
The complaints body that was set up by the corporate newspapers in defiance of the Leveson recommendations has been challenged to tackle the collapse of journalism standards at the Jewish Chronicle – which so obviously needs urgent attention that we can probably say that if the IPSO does not act in this case, it never will.
The challenge to the IPSO comes from nine people who have been misrepresented by the newspaper and have either had complaints upheld by it or secured libel pay-outs. They have written to the IPSO chair, former Conservative minister Lord Edward Faulks, urging him to initiate a formal standards investigation.
They point to a remarkable fact – that in the past three years, the Jewish Chronicle has been found by the IPSO itself to have breached its code of practice 28 times, while in the same period there have been four libel settlements. By my count, that means that the weekly newspaper has been caught breaking either the law or the code once in every four or five editions.
The IPSO and its backers often ask us to believe that its so-called ‘remedies’ – requiring newspapers to publish corrections and sometimes longer case summaries – are effective in upholding standards. The evidence that they are not can be seen every day in the national press, but rarely can there have been more vivid proof than that delivered by the Jewish Chronicle.
The IPSO bends over backwards to avoid finding breaches of the code, but the Jewish Chronicle repeatedly makes that impossible. And those ‘remedies’ are exposed as nothing more than slaps on the wrist which the newspaper’s journalists and editors seem instantly to forget.
Merely to launch a standards investigation would be an important signal, confirming that the problems at the newspaper are seen as ‘serious and systemic’, and the unfolding of what would be an unprecedented process could be dramatic. Then there would be the findings, which might be revealing, and after that – sensationally – the possibility of a fine. (The IPSO has never fined any member).
This is a big test for the IPSO. Will it finally discover the courage to act or merely accept its own impotence?
Ideology and Politics
Everything about the IPSO’s history and constitution may stop it. It was carefully designed not to do this sort of thing while posing as an effective regulator of the press.
The threshold for investigations – that a problem must be ‘serious and systemic’ – is set as high as possible without explicitly ruling out investigations. As a study by Westminster University academics has shown, when it came to the final text of the IPSO’s regulations, its creators in the national press deliberately chose to replace the words ‘serious or systemic’ with ‘serious and systemic’ to render the possibility even more remote.
This did not stop the IPSO’s promoters – notably Lord Guy Black of the Telegraph and Paul Dacre of the Mail, form claiming boldly that it has rigorous powers of investigation and, with them, the ability to impose heavy fines. Fines are not permitted without an investigation and, as we have seen, investigations are all but impossible.
The IPSO is a prisoner of these attitudes as much as of the rules. Its owners know exactly what they want and that is a complaints handler. If, in a wild, brave moment, the IPSO threw off its chains and tackled the Jewish Chronicle, the serial fabricators and libellers at, for example, Rupert Murdoch’s Times newspaper would be very displeased.
There is also an ideological issue. The Jewish Chronicle made a lot of the running in the debate about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and the Conservatives have felt the benefit. If the IPSO were to mount a standards investigation, it would risk being accused by the Conservatives and their friends of trying to silence the newspaper. That is a risk it is unlikely to take.
There is another political twist. The Jewish Chronicle may not be owned by a billionaire, but the only owner we know about is a person of some influence. He is Sir Robbie Gibb – former Downing Street advisor and now, as non-executive director on the board of the BBC, one of the guardians of journalistic standards at the broadcaster. He is most unlikely to welcome scrutiny.
Politics, of course, should have nothing to do with it. A publication that voluntarily accepted the rules of the complaints body has been breaking those rules with astonishing frequency for three years. In any normal world the IPSO would act, for the sake of decent journalism and of the readers of the Jewish Chronicle, and to avoid the most abject of humiliations.
Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)
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