IPSO chief: Jo Brand right about media reporting of mental health, but wrong about 'sham' press regulator

Comedian Jo Brand used the annual Hacked Off Leveson Lecture to condemn media reporting of mental health and told The Guardian that new press regulator IPSO has achieved the "square root of FA" in tackling this.

She also said (in comments reported by The Guardian) that reporting around suicide can be misleading and simplistic and said that the IPSO system of press regulation is a "sham".

Here IPSO chief executive Matt Tee responds:

Last week, Jo Brand gave a lecture for the Hacked Off group, focussing on press coverage of mental health issues and restating Hacked Off’s critique of the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

I have a great deal of respect for Jo Brand. Apart from being a very funny comedian, Jo has a long and distinguished record of speaking out on issues, especially related to mental health. I also agree with the general thrust of her Hacked Off lecture (‘newspapers reinforce ignorance over mental health’), that there are occasions when newspapers use perjorative language and cover issues ignorantly or insensitively.

Jo has contributed to an ongoing discussion about the language we (and newspapers) use to discuss these issues, including a thoughtful piece about reclaiming use of the word ‘mad’.

What is clear from this is that it’s not straightforward and attitudes develop and change. The language we use about race and sexuality have evolved (for the better) over the years. When I went to school in south London in the early 70s the word ‘coon’ was heard less often than in previous years, but people from the South Asian sub-continent were routinely referred to as ‘pakis’ and people with disabilities were often referred to as ‘spastics’ and ‘mongs’, without any intention of causing offence or awareness that it might. My now school-age kids wouldn’t be shocked by this – they would simply refuse to believe such terms could have been in common use.

The shift in attitude is complex. At times the newspapers (and other media) lag behind the public, but I would suggest that there are also times when they lead. It may be over-stating the influence of media organisations on social attitudes to suggest that they set attitudes, but they can play a part in shifting social norms and reinforcing those shifts.

Where I disagree with Jo is about the current state of press regulation. I know that when Leveson reported Jo and Hacked Off believed that they’d got what they wanted. Parliament enacted this through a Royal Charter and a recognition body that might endorse a potential regulator. The Charter was, however, unacceptable to the press, including the then editor of the Guardian, and the newspapers and magazines established their own regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

I joined IPSO because I believe that press regulation is important and that IPSO (in the words of a former Guardian Editor) was the only game in town. Three years, almost to the month, since Leveson published, IPSO is the only established press regulator, covering 90 per cent of national newspapers by circulation, almost all local and regional papers and all the major magazine publishers.

The Editors’ Code that IPSO upholds is very clear about discrimination towards people with mental health issues. Clause 12 of the Code on Discrimination says:

“i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.“

Unlike predecessor press complaints organisations, IPSO can and does take complaints from representative groups as well as individuals, meaning that people who feel that they have been mistreated by the press have a choice of complaining themselves or asking an organisation to complain.

IPSO also has a standards function that is undertaking work in these sort of areas with representative and campaigning groups, publishers and others to develop best practice guidelines for editors and journalists.

While I understand that Jo Brand and others were disappointed at how things played out after Leveson and that they would prefer that there was a regulator recognised under the Charter, the fact is that there is not and there is no real prospect of one being recognised that regulates any significant part of the press.

Even if there was such a recognised regulator, there is no guarantee that Hacked Off would be content. They frequently call for corrections of equal prominence to the original article, while the Charter does not require this. The Charter only says that a regulator should have “…the power to direct the nature, extent and placement of corrections…”, exactly as IPSO already has.

We invite those that seek to influence how the press covers sensitive issues to engage with our work. A number of those that have at times expressed scepticism about the organisation have already done so. We are determined that IPSO will be part of the future evolution of press coverage of sensitive issues. The most effective way people who care about these issues can influence the way they are reported in the press is to work with us.

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