IPSO's first year report card: It has been a tougher complaints handler than the PCC, but is failing as a regulator

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A year on from the launch of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, I would give it full marks for its job as a complaints handler.

But as a regulator which was supposed to clear out the Augean stables after the debacle of the hacking scandal, I would have to give it a fail.

If IPSO has been engaging with its wider purpose of raising standards across the industry, I have not seen much evidence of it. That said, it is in the process of appointing a head of standatds and it deserves credit for cracking on with the creation of an arbitration scheme for settling libel and privacy cases, which was a major plank of Leveson’s package of recommendations.

Looking at complaints-handling, which is the major part of IPSO’s work, I can find little fault.

You are never going to agree with every decision a regulator makes, but in two significant ways it has been considerably tougher than its predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission.

Firstly, it has shown a much greater willingness to handle complaints brought by interested parties who are not directly affected by a story. These complaints mainly involve politics, gender issues and climate change.

The second way IPSO improves on the PCC (if you favour tougher press regulation) is that it has compelled editors to place corrections in a particular place.

Thus The Times was ordered to republish a correction explaining why it got a story wrong about how Labour’s tax plans would cost families £1,000 and to flag it up on the front page.

Similarly, when the Telegraph was censured for wrongly reporting that Nicola Sturgeon would rather see David Cameron become prime minister than Ed Miliband, it was ordered to publish the adjudication on page two and flag it up on the front.

But IPSO’s predecessor, the PCC, was not scrapped because of its complaints-handing service. It was axed because of the way it failed to deal with the hacking scandal.

The PCC stuck its head in the sand when it came to hacking and so far IPSO has adopted a similar approach when it comes to broader issues affecting the journalism industry.

Over the last year dozens of journalists and their sources have appeared in court charged with illegally paying public officials for stories.

So far, only two journalists have been convicted. But the others have been suspended and faced trial for doing what they were told to do by their employer.

Some 26 sources have been convicted, most of them sent to prison, after confidential emails were sent to the Met Police by News UK. This would appear to be a clear breach of the Editors’ Code in itself.

I would have thought that a body calling itself the Independent Press Standards Organisation would have wanted to engage with the issue of payments to public officials to ensure that journalists are given better guidance by their employers in future about what is allowable.

When I asked IPSO about this, a spokesman said:

It is clear that payments to public officials are a criminal matter and as such, not within the remit of IPSO. It is not the regulator’s job to ensure journalists are aware of the law – that sits very clearly with their editors and publishers.

Which is roughly what the PCC said when you asked them about phone-hacking.

Oher issues for IPSO:

  • We are approaching three years since the Editors’ Code Committee launched a consultation on how the code should change in the wake of the Leveson report. Since then we have not heard a dicky bird from them about it. What has happened to all the hundreds of responses to the consultation? Will they ever be published? The code committee is not part of IPSO, but comes under the umbrella of the Regulatory Funding Company (the industry body which funds IPSO)
  • The promised Whistleblowers’ Hotline seems like a rather half-hearted after-thought. It was set up in February and basically suggests that whistleblowers call the main IPSO switchboard (presumably during office hours) or email chief executive Matt Tee. It has not been promoted at all as far as I can see. It should appear in red ink at the top of every copy of the Editors’ Code of Practice
  • The allegation from Peter Oborne in February that the Telegraph censored its coverage of the HSBC scandal because the bank is a big advertiser was a huge issue for the industry. Any senior former Telegraph journalist Press Gazette called backed up the fact there were concerns about commercial influencing editorial at the paper. The first line of the Editors’ Code states: “All members of the press have a duty to maintain the highest professional standards.” IPSO made some noise about this and discussed it at its board meeting but has again done nothing. It again makes me wonder whether IPSO is serious about engaging with the industry to raise standards
  • IPSO chair Sir Alan Moses told the House of Lords in January that the regulator’s rules allow publishers to “obfuscate and resist” any investigations. He said: “Many of the rules – this awful collection of rules and regulations – are opaque, sometimes self-contradictory, difficult to understand and sometimes difficult to find.” But since then, some seven months on, we have heard nothing more about these rules being changed (discussions are said to be ongoing). If publishers continue to resist Sir Alan’s entirely reasonable requests to simplify IPSO’s rules it would be difficult not to conclude that the first word of its name is a lie.

As I said, IPSO’s main job is to provide ordinary people with independent redress when they are unable to settle complaints directly with publishers. And as far as this goes it is doing a great job (and is infinitely better than the interim approach of handling complaints themselves which has been adopted by the Lebedev titles, Guardian Media Group and the FT).

But as far as being a regulator goes, its first-year report card for me reads F for fail.

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