Independent Press Standards Organisation is not independent, but it is probably the best solution we are going to get

It seems almost certain now that most major news publishers will end up being regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

This is the successor body to the PCC which has been formulated by publishers themselves to address some of the shortcomings identified in the old system by Lord Leveson.

The Independent, FT and Guardian all still have major concerns about the degree to which IPSO will be independent from the industry itself (it isn’t). But they are equally critical of the idea of signing up to a system of regulation underpinned by the cross-party Royal Charter signed by The Queen last month.

So it seems likely that despite their concerns IPSO will go ahead, and members will face the risk of exemplary damages in libel actions and the prospect of paying costs for both sides even if they win, under the terms of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which are designed to incentivise membership of a state-approved press regulator.

My view is that exemplary damages won't be a factor because they are so rare, and the costs side won't stack up because publishers can't be expected to join a regulator which doesn't exist (IPSO is almost certainly going to be the only game in town).

The Media Standards Trust (which has close links to Hacked Off) today published a 44-page account of why it thinks IPSO falls short of the recommendations put forward by Lord Leveson in his report of a year ago.

The MST praises IPSO for tackling some of the shortcomings of the Press Complaints Commission. There is a whistleblowing hotline for journalists in the new system, protection for journalists from being sacked if they refuse to breach the Code of Practice and a requirement that publishers improve their own compliance processes.

In cases of extreme wrongdoing IPSO will have the power to carry out investigations and fine members up to £1m.

But the MST believes that whereas the PCC was controlled by publishers via Pressbof, IPSO will be controlled by the Regulatory Funding Company (which is Pressbof by another name).

This was the complaint raised by Guardian Media Group when the IPSO documents were initially put to consultation in the summer.

They said the RFC had too much control over IPSO and that because publishers’ influence over the RFC was dependent on circulation – the new regulator would effectively be controlled by Associated Newspapers, News UK and Telegraph Media Group.

Last month the final version of IPSO was published with the role of the Regulatory Funding Company unchanged (as far as I can tell).

It would seem that as far as the majority of publishers are concerned, it is not self regulation of the press unless they have some control over it.

So under the proposed new system the “appointments panel” which recruits the board of the regulator will comprise three independents and two publishing industry representatives.

There must be “consensus” on this panel over appointments, meaning the industry representatives would appear to have the power of veto over the appointment of the IPSO chairman and other board members.

The Regulatory Funding Company consists of four elected directors from the national press publishers, three from the regional press, one from the Scottish press and one representing the magazine industry.

The RFC controls the budget for IPSO and it also:

  • Has a say over the five industry members of the 12-strong IPSO board. IPSO's articles of association say: "In nominating Industry Directors, the Appointment Panel shall take account of the views of the Regulatory Funding Committee as to the suitability of the candidates."
     
  • Has a say over who the five industry representatives on the 12-strong complaints committee are. The IPSO articles of association say: “In appointing the members of the Complaints Committee referred to in Regulation 33.3, the Regulator's Board shall take account of the views of the Regulatory Funding Company as to the suitability of the candidates."
     
  • Has some influence over the Editors’ Code of Practice committee. Its Articles of Association state that it will "convene an Editors’ Code of Practice committee, the function of which shall be to formulate and keep up to date a Code of Practice".

It has to be noted that the flipside of all this is that the Appointments Panel and the board of the regulator will have a majority of independent members under IPSO.

But it is also undeniable that publishers and owners will exert control over IPSO via the RFC. Some will question whether they can be trusted to always put ethics and standards above profits. 

Equally, forcing reluctant publishers into a statute-backed system would only lead to editors and journalists paying lip-service to it.

My view is that the change in attitudes which Leveson wanted to bring about has already happened to a large extent and it can only continue to do so on a voluntary basis. News UK, for instance, is unrecognisable today from the News International which was home to the hacking scandal.

As Robin Esser said this week – perhaps self regulation as proposed may be the "best worst" solution we have.

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