In 2012 the UK was given an opportunity: “an independent media regulatory system; with punitive powers, arbitration and prominent corrections & apologies” – instead we got the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Press can be defined here as written journalism for print and online journalism. Effective regulation will be defined here as the reduction of harm and upholding of the industry’s positive aims. Specifically for the media this means rules set in place to report accurately and truthly, to reduce harm to minorities, to stop the creation of sensationalised stories and to ensure those who accidentally or purposefully seek to harm are reprimanded. In short, what IPSO was supposed to do. When the ‘Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press’ was published it made several clear recommendations to ensure a regulated, free press, these included: the formation of a new independent regulatory body which should promote high journalistic standards, the creation of a whistle-blowing hotline for journalists who feel under pressure to do unethical things. However the evidence suggests that IPSO is not the independent regulatory body that the U.K needed.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation was created in the wake of the leveson inquiry that delved into press misconduct, most notably the News of the World phone-hacking scandal – when the UK press used a loophole in voicemail technology to gain information, and to blackmail. It is important to note the Independent Press Standards Organisation Is voluntary and currently has 81 members including most of the national papers except The Guardian, Independent and Financial Times which choose to regulate themselves this can be seen as journalists marking their own homework but the Independent Press Standards Organisation is much the same. The Independent Press Standards Organisation regulates written media – creating a set of rules that allows reporters to be good, accurate and responsible journalists, these are called clauses that include: accuracy, privacy, and how to report a crime properly. In total there are 16 clauses with a number of subcategories to make them more clear and assist journalists in reporting. IPSO begins an investigation if: there has been serious and systemic breaches of the Editors’ Code, there has been one or more failure or failures to comply with the requirements of the board, and according to the Independent Press Standards Organisation “in exceptional circumstances, IPSO reasonably considers that an investigation is desirable of substantial legal issues or editors’ Code compliance issues are raised.” The Independent Press Standards Organisation has multiple powers at hand to reprimands those who break a clause, for instance: it can impose a fine to a member of up to £1 million, it requires its member(s) in question to pay the reasonable costs of an investigation, Ipso also requires the member(s) to pay the reasonable costs of an investigation, as well as this, and arguably the most powerful power at its disposal, IPSO can terminate a members membership of IPSO.
Despite these powers the Independent Press Standards Organisation refuses to take part in the test of Recognition, which is an examination of press regulators conducted by the Independent Press Recognition Panel. The test is based on recommendations from the leveson inquiry and aims to assess the independence and effectiveness of press regulators according to specific criteria. The Media Standards Trust found in 2013 that IPSO satisfied 12 of 38 recommendations, failing 20 and leaving 6 unclear due to a lack of information availability.
People who support the Independent Press Standards Organisation would say that it is an improvement upon its predecessor the Press Complaints Commission which accordion to Levson had: “a profound lack of any functional or meaningful independence from the industry” and “was run for the benefit of the press not of the public” and “in practice the PCC has proven itself to be aligned with the interests of the press, effectively championing its interests.” On the 29th of May 2007, the Press Complaints commission published a report on phone-hacking which said there was no evidence of systematic wrong-doing at the News of the World – which demonstrates they were clearly wrong. Despite this, IPSO is not a perfect regulator.
Despite the array of clauses the Independent Press Standards Organisation fails to regulate the press properly for example: The Suns’ transphobic and discrimination story about Emily Brothers, an MP candidate for Labour im 2015. The story itself featured the headline “Being blind, how did she know she was the wrong sex?” According to Emily, her and Trans Media Watch (explain what is) complaints that The Sun victimised her were initially ignored by IPSO. She goes on to say that the final adjudication was buried and printed without a headline. This clearly demonstrates IPSOs failure to uphold clause 12 of the Editors’ Code, Hacked Off, a campaign to improve press regulation backed by high profile victims of the News of the World hacking scandal like Hugh Grant, said of the case: “IPSO, supposedly ‘the toughest regulator in the western world’, feebly allowed the Sun to make a mockery of the process.” This fails to meet the definition of effective regulation, as determined above because IPSO failed to take adequate action against the Sun who was never fined, or reprimanded for causing harm. An effective regulator should have acted immediately, making the Sun publish an adequate apology. It should have equal space, for example if it was a front page story it should have a front page correction or apology.
Another example of the Independent Press Standards Organistion’s failings can be illustrated with the national written press and their response and romanticisation of Robin Wiliam’s suidiced. The Daily Mirror’s front page detailed his reasoning, method for suicide, as well as attributed family quotes. The Sun’s front page included subheadings with: Hanged on bedroom chair, Vist to AA before suicide, Knife and blood by body.” On the day of his suicide, Mind and the Samaritans sent media briefings that strongly advised newsdesks to follow their guidelines on responsible suicide reporting. This advice was ignored by the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the Metro, the Mirror, the Daily Star, and the Sun. The Hacked Off campaign called on Sir Alan Moses (the then ISPO chair) to join condemnation of the Editors’ Code breaches but IPSO did and said nothing. This example clearly breaks the IPSO clause 5 which says that “care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used.” The samaritan’s argue that this clause does not do enough and has created its own guidelines on reporting celebrity or high profile suicides: “Emotive or dramatic language and images, including public tributes and memorials, can romanticise or glamorise suicidal behaviour. Sensationalist reporting is more common with reports of celebrity suicides, which can also influence an increase in suicide deaths.” This also fails to meet the definition of effective regulation, as determined above because a national press regulator should do everything in its power to stop the encouragement of suicide. An effective regulator would, with all its power stop the romanticisation of suicide within the national press, and take care and responsibility when quoting family members.
Even when it comes to fabrications and clearly misleading headlines IPSO refuses to toe the line. The Daily Mirror and Mail both broke IPSO clause 1, accuracy. During the Ebola epidemic a passenger aboard a flight at Gatwick airport suffered from a pulmonary embolism, and later died in hospital however the Mirror ran with “EBOLA TERROR AS PASSENGER DIES AT GATWICK” and the Mail ran with “Ebola Scare as woman dies at Gatwick.” As you can see from the available evidence the headline are not only misleading but also wrong, and could cause panic as an Epidemic wreaked havoc on North Africa and fears that it could reach Britain were growing. The Mirror printed a small apology and corrected the misleading details, however the Mail refused claiming it was allowed to print false headlines because the story itself contradicted the headline and IPSO agreed.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation fails to supply an adequate clause or subclause that could help a journalist report on domestic abuse. This often results in sensationalised headlines for example “I slapped JK but I’m not sorry” published by the Sun when it was revealed that J.K Rowling was slapped by her husband. This nonchalant treatment of domestic abuse can marginalise victims and make it more difficult for them to come forward. IPSO made it clear that it doesn’t get many domestic abuse coverage complaints; this is due to the lack of a suitable clause in the Editors’ Code. This means that it is nearly impossible to make a formal complaint about the reporting of domestic abuse. In 2018 an anti-domestic violence campaigner group “Level Up” created a set of guidelines that would help “journalists to accurately and sensitively cover fatal domestic abuse” which The Independent Press Standards Organisation agreed to publish on their website, but failed to put them in the Editors’ Code of Practice.
Some Journalists have either purposefully or accidently spread misinformation on social media, possibly due to the lack of IPSO regulations over it. For example Laura Kuennsberg’s coverage of the fascists coup in the Capitol building, Washington, which she claimed to be “scuffles at the Capitol” as a police officer was killed with a fire extinguisher. Admittedly, this is a mistake however it demonstrates that IPSO has a lack of regulations when it comes to journalism and social media. This is evident if you compare another story released by Laura Kuennsberg on twitter. She claimed that Matt Hancock’s adviser had been punched by a labour activist outside Leeds General Hospital, describing it as “turned nasty,” however it was later revealed by videos posted by Twitter users that the adviser had clearly walked into a labour activist’s outstretched arm. After Laura posted a video of the event she still described it as a “pretty grim encounter.” This demonstrates the IPSO does not regulate properly if it allows senior journalists to spread misinformation. The two different reactions to two vastly different stories encapsulates the issue at hand, IPSO needs regulation that covers social media. It is concerning that one of the most senior members of the BBC – who must uphold the values of journalism – can act like this without any repercussions from the nation’s independent regulators, IPSO.
Some could argue that the mere fact the Independent Press Standards Organisation has to receive a complaint before acting demonstrates a crucial flaw in its system – it isn’t proactive. In other words it waits for complaints to come to it rather than looking for them. In a post made by IPSO on their website in 2019, they allude to the concept of anticipatory regulations however no changes were made. An effective regulatory should be proactive not only out of necessity but out of good practice. This would ensure that issues not bought up by the public are dealt with. Waiting for a complaint to come in could harm vulnerable people who are unable to come forward, for instance victims of domestic abuse or those who suffer with anxiety.
According to Hacked Off’s report “Five Years of Failure” in 2016 IPSO had more than 50,000 complaints brought to them in the last five years. IPSO was found to have presided over zero investigations, zero fines, and zero arbitration claims. This begs the question: what exactly are they regulating? As IPSO says: “the code must be honoured not only to the letter but in the full spirit.” As is clear from the abundance of IPSO failings listed above it is an inadequate press regulator and fails to supply checks and balances to UK written media. This isn’t a series of unfortunate events, it’s a systemic issue that demonstrates IPSO is not what Leveson recommended, and that’s what will be explored below.
As Lord Leveson famously said the phrase “the industry checking its own homework.” The name IPSO alludes to independent scrutiny when in fact the IPSO board includes ex-major news publishers for instance Charles Garside who was editor in chief at The European and news edited for both the Evening Standard and the London Evening News, and according to the IPSO website has held many roles at the Sun, Times, Daily Mirror, Sunday Express and assistant editor for the Daily Mail. It is understandable to have ex-journalists for expertise and knowledge however it demonstrates the lack of independence from the industry. For a large chunk of its existence, from the creation of its Foundation Group up until 2017 IPSO board included Trevor Kavanagh, who at the time was associated editor for the Sun. He left the board in 2017 just two years into a three-year contract after writing a column in the Sun where he questioned what actions British society should take to answer “The Muslim Problem.” IPSO ruled that Trevor Kavanagh’s column was “capable of causing serious offence” but did not breach the Editor’s Code and was thus was dismissed.
All things considered the Independent Press Standards Organisation is leaps and bounds ahead of what the Press Complaints Commission was and we should be thankful for the regulations we have, but that does not stop the pursuit for better, more effective press regulation. IPSO is not an effective regulator: from its inability to effectively carry out its clauses, to its idleness during prominent suicide publishing, IPSO has demonstrated that what we got as a result of the Leveson Inquiry is not what was recommended. Theresa May’s decision to cancel a second part of the Leveson inquiry puts UK regulations years behind.
- Hacked Off Campaign, About page, https://hackinginquiry.org/about/.
- House of Commons, News International and Phone-hacking (2012). P. 12.
- Magrath, Paul, Transparency Project, http://www.transparencyproject.org.uk/press-regulation-why-we-are-unimpressed-by-ipso/ (2016).
- IPSO, Standards Investigation page, https://www.ipso.co.uk/monitoring/standards-investigations/
- Media Standards Trust, The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) An assessment (2013).
- INFORRM, https://inforrm.org/2014/02/02/hacked-off-leveson-and-the-pcc-ten-criticisms-from-the-report/ (2014).
- Hacked Off, The Failure of IPSO (2015). P. 8.
- Samaritans, Guidance for reporting on celebrity suicides and suicide attempts (2020). P. 1-2.
- Hacked Off, The Failure of IPSO (2015). P. 14.
- Charlotte Tobitt, PressGazette, https://pressgazette.co.uk/sun-not-our-intention-to-glorify-domestic-abuse-with-jk-rowling-splash/ (2020).
- Level up, http://www.welevelip.org
- Hacked Off, https://hackinginquiry.org/fatal-domestic-abuse-reporting/ (2020).
- Fenechm, Hanno, IPSO, https://www.ipso.co.uk/news-press-releases/blog/ipso-blog-anticipatory-regulation/ (2019).
- Hacked Off, https://hackinginquiry.org/five-years-of-failure/#:~:text=Based%20on%20the%20number%20of,fines%2C%20and%20zero%20arbitration%20claims (2019).
- Davis, Nick, Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoc (London: Penguin, 2014). P. 388-390.
- BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-42102361 (2017).