Press regulator says social distancing a matter for police after Cummings media scrum complaints

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The UK’s largest press regulator has pointed anyone concerned about journalists not following social distancing guidelines to the police, but backed their right to go out and do their jobs.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation has been contacted by people concerned over images and videos of a media scrum outside Dominic Cummings’ north London home since news broke on Friday night that he drove to Durham while lockdown restrictions were in place.

One video from the weekend that has been widely circulated online shows around 15 media workers in close proximity to each other, taking photos and shouting questions – with only some wearing face masks.

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Cummings has made his feelings about the press pack clear, on one occasion telling them “you should stick to the rules”.

On Sunday, sharing a Channel 4 News clip of its reporter questioning Cummings as he went to his car, Piers Morgan tweeted: “Journalists and photographers don’t do the media any favours when they so blatantly ignore social distancing rules to challenge Cummings on his avoidance of lockdown rules.”

But Sky News editor at large Adam Boulton defended journalists, saying that doorstepping was “perfectly standard practice” and that “social distancing should be observed where possible, but Government concedes it isn’t always”.

IPSO has received numerous inquiries from the public on the issue, alleging journalists have not always been complying with the guidance, but said today that unless breaches of the Editors’ Code of Practice take place it is not its place to step in.

Lauren Sloan, joint head of complaints at IPSO, said: “While we all have an important responsibility as individuals to follow the guidance to safeguard public health and contribute to controlling the pandemic, these concerns relate to alleged breaches of the Government’s social distancing guidelines, not the Editors’ Code.

“Therefore, it is the police, rather than IPSO, who are responsible for enforcing the government guidelines.”

The College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council have told officers the two metre social distancing guidance is “not enforceable”.

Sloan pointed out that “now more than ever, there are critical matters of public interest to be reported on both locally and nationally” and that journalists reporting on issues relating to coronavirus have been designated as key workers by the Government.

Many journalists are now working permanently from home but some, especially broadcasters and photographers, still have to go out to do their jobs.

“Approaching people who are part of a story is an important part of newsgathering. It helps to ensure that what is being reported is accurate and gives the subject (and sometimes others affected) an opportunity to comment or respond,” Sloan said.

“In the current circumstances, editors will be thinking hard about how to ensure the safety of their staff and indeed the public, balancing this with the need to ensure that effective newsgathering is still happening.”

Sloan did point out that some related activities, such as doorstepping, could become a breach of Clause 3 (harassment) of the Editors’ Code if journalists continue their pursuit after being asked to stop.

She also revealed IPSO, which regulates the vast majority of the UK written press but not the Guardian, Financial Times or Independent, will take these issues into consideration when planning its future work.

“Even where we are not able to take forward a complaint under the Editors’ Code, IPSO has a wider role in monitoring press standards,” she said.

“The current Covid-19 pandemic and the behaviour of journalists is a priority area for our standards team and concerns will feed into our ongoing work, helping us to understand areas of concern and address potential press standards issues.”

The Metropolitan Police has been approached for comment.

Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

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