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The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has got into a tangle of its own making over the “unacceptable” conduct of one of its smallest members and now finds itself confronted with perhaps the most fateful decision of its nine-year existence.
Just three weeks after the weight of 25,000 complaints and the scrutiny of millions forced it to acknowledge for the first time the existence of sexism in the UK press, the sham regulator is under pressure to break another nine-year duck and mount what it calls a “standards investigation”.
This is because a group of individuals whom IPSO can’t ignore have renewed their demand for meaningful action over the Jewish Chronicle, the conduct of which IPSO claimed to have reformed – but which it has had to admit is still unacceptable.
In a letter to IPSO’s chair, Lord Faulks, 15 people whose complaints against the newspaper IPSO has upheld, or whom the Jewish Chronicle has admitted libelling, wrote: “We urge you to recommend a standards investigation to your board, and to do so urgently – in weeks rather than months – before more bad journalism is published, more falsehoods are disseminated among readers and more harm is done to innocent people.”
Most of the signatories made exactly the same demand 18 months ago, only to be told by IPSO that a softly-softly approach would be more effective. Now they are back, with reinforcements, because it’s obvious the softly-softly approach has failed.
Under IPSO rules, the only way it can escalate its engagement now is by a standards investigation – but in nine years it has never done that and it knows such action would be greeted with horror by the big newspapers which ultimately control it.
The Murdoch, Mail, Mirror and Telegraph groups, having designed IPSO to be toothless because they wanted to be sure it could never bite them, would undoubtedly regard action against the Jewish Chronicle as an alarming precedent.
An Extraordinary Record of Editorial Failure
It may also be relevant that the Chronicle’s sole registered owner is a powerful figure in media and government circles: Sir Robbie Gibb, former Downing Street director of communications and currently a controversial ministerial appointee on the BBC Board.
For IPSO to launch its first investigation into the Chronicle would be a humiliation and an embarrassment for Gibb as well as his newspaper.
IPSO’s big problem now is that it appears to have run out of excuses for not ordering an investigation because the Chronicle’s catalogue of bad journalism has been simply relentless.
When it first came under pressure to act, in late 2021, IPSO had found the paper in breach of its code of practice 33 times in three years – an extraordinary record of editorial failure for a small weekly publication, and all the worse because in the same period, the paper had admitted, and paid settlements for, no fewer than four libel settlements.
High though the bar is set for IPSO to launch a standards investigation –problems at a publication have to be officially rated both ‘serious’ and ‘systemic’ – few reasonable people could have doubted back then that it had been reached. (It’s worth noting here that since IPSO upholds an extraordinarily small proportion of complaints it receives, those 33 breaches were probably just the tip of the iceberg of misconduct).
Yet, when publicly confronted on the need for an investigation at the end of 2021, IPSO ducked. In a manner that owed little or nothing to its rules and regulations, it said instead that it would solve the problems by delivering some training in the Chronicle newsroom and placing the paper on the naughty step – subject to “monitoring”.
The ‘Success’ that Wasn’t
A year on from that decision, this February, IPSO’s board declared itself satisfied that “sufficient improvements had occurred in both complaints handling and editorial standards to allow the cessation of active monitoring of standards”.
In light of this, three months later, IPSO was congratulated on the “success” of its “supportive but challenging engagement” in a so-called external review of its operations.
But nothing had really changed.
Even in the year it was supposedly being monitored, the Jewish Chronicle was found guilty of three further breaches of the code of conduct – hardly an indicator of high standards. And in April came a ruling by the IPSO complaints committee that blew asunder the idea that it had achieved a success.
In a case where the Chronicle wrongly accused a rabbi of claiming that the number of deaths in the Holocaust had been exaggerated, the newspaper was found to have breached the code three times.
The ruling included this explosive paragraph: “The committee expressed significant concerns about the newspaper’s conduct prior to 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.”
By IPSO standards this is strong language, while referral to the standards department is rare. And this happened just eight weeks after the IPSO board had given the Chronicle the all-clear.
Little wonder that those now renewing their demand for a standards investigation told Faulks in their letter this week: “We hope that IPSO will now recognise that the mere provision of training failed to resolve the serious and systemic journalistic and editorial problems at the Jewish Chronicle.”
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IPSO’s discomfort will be the greater because it’s just three weeks since it provoked sabre-rattling among its press masters by ruling that The Sun breached the code provisions on discrimination by publishing Jeremy Clarkson’s infamous comments about the Duchess of Sussex in his column last December.
The Sun was furious, to the point where – according to my sources – at one stage it dropped hints it might reconsider its IPSO membership. Meanwhile, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson openly made a similar threat in an angry article in the Telegraph, and Rupert Murdoch’s The Times declared in an editorial that IPSO had gone beyond its powers.
Worse still for IPSO, as this week’s letter points out, this also follows that ‘external review’, which asserted that IPSO was unlikely ever to mount a standards investigation – but that if it did it would be under two possible circumstances, one of which was if its engagement with a publication “was getting nowhere and a stronger response was needed”.
As this week’s letter pithily points out, “it is surely obvious now that IPSO is getting nowhere with the Jewish Chronicle and that a stronger response is needed”.
IPSO is surely obliged to respond in some way to the letter, so what can it do? It can and probably will refuse, once again, to hold an investigation – though how it would justify such a decision is hard to imagine. Faulks’ previous letter of rejection was the most desperate exercise in casuistry.
Alternatively, it can do as it has been asked. That it has never launched an investigation in nine years would make this look all the worse for the Jewish Chronicle, an operation which already has big problems. It lost more than half a million pounds in the latest financial year, and that is after it had been bailed-out by Gibb (and presumably others) following its big libel losses.
Nor will an investigation of the long-running problems at the Chronicle reflect well on Gibb, who in his other role as a non-executive director on the BBC Board, formally shares responsibility for overseeing editorial standards at the corporation.
At the corporate newspapers, meanwhile, an investigation will be seen as ‘proof’ that IPSO is getting out of control. Some will probably wish to denounce the decision as a threat to press freedom, a foolish misjudgement and an overreaching of powers – but the proprietors and editors have tricks up their sleeves.
They could seek to minimise the damage by ensuring the whole business gets minimal coverage. Equally, we might find that the investigation itself turns out to be no more than a cursory affair, over in a few weeks and with unexciting findings.
At the same time, we should not be surprised to read that all of this is a plot by lefties, snowflakes and anti-press activists – even though the only thing that unites the signatories is this: either the Chronicle has admitted libelling them or else their complaints against the Chronicle have been found by IPSO itself to be justified.
And whatever IPSO decides, we may need to stay alert. When it announced its finding against The Sun last month it did so in a press release with a strict embargo – it could not be published before 10pm on a Friday night.