Labour politician Lord Healey coined the expression ‘being savaged by a dead sheep’ to disparage criticism of him by the mild-mannered Conservative Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe back in 1978.
More recently, however, the phrase has stuck to comical depictions of Britain’s Press Complaints Commission, lampooned as a self-funded, self-interested and self-regulated body, wholly ineffective at holding the press to account.
Now the PCC is no more, replaced last month by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
Yet the simile shows few signs of disappearing, at least from the mouths of the new regulator’s detractors.
Take the comments of Hacked Off, the campaign for a free and accountable press formed in 2011.
Following the 2012 publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, Hacked Off has been campaigning for the Royal Charter on press self-regulation to be fully adopted by Britain’s newspaper industry.
Hacked Off is highly critical of IPSO, which it claims has been launched by the newspaper industry ‘in defiance of the Royal Charter and against the wishes of the public’.
IPSO, it says, is a ‘son-of-PCC’ organisation that does not meet 20 of the 38 recommendations made in the Leveson Report.
Hacked Off campaigners have held demonstrations with placards proclaiming ‘IPSO is a sham,’ and derided IPSO’s claim that it is committed to rigorous, independent, fair and transparent regulation.
Hacked Off’s website claims IPSO is already being ‘starved of funds’ by the newspaper trade bodies that control it through the Regulatory Funding Company.
Noting that few of the newspapers that have signed up to IPSO promote it through their columns, Hacked Off states that the so-called ‘new era regulator’ opened the same offices as the ‘failed PCC’ and has the same company number and many of the same staff.
It continues: ‘It opened without having a sufficient budget, without a chief executive in post and with a board member who was the chief defender of one of the most egregious press abuses in history – The Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.
‘[It] opened a service purportedly for the public without consulting the public, without a plan for monitoring the outcome of complaints in a transparent way and without any decisions on provision for low-cost arbitration, despite promises that this was a priority.
‘Perhaps most shameful of all, IPSO opened with a two-fingered salute to the public and to victims of press abuse, completely ignoring the public support for Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations and the clear express will of a democratically-elected parliament.’
So how should communicators view Britain’s new media regulation landscape? Will it make it easier to hold the press to account or to challenge inaccuracies, injudicious reporting and questionable attacks on their organisations?
Or is Hacked Off correct in asserting that IPSO is simply the PCC in new clothing: another voluntary industry-led regulator that will only look after its founders’ own interests?
Chris Scott, a partner at law firm Schillings, says: ‘The Editors’Code that IPSO enforces is the same as the Press Complaints Commission’s code so the rules have not actually changed.
‘The change is instead around the organisation, such as how claims are adjudicated and the power and independence of the organisation.
‘One of the issues is its independence; the other is that the threat of penalties under the new system is stronger. Potentially, levies of up to £1 million can be made against infringements.’
Scott believes that one of the most useful of IPSO’s rules is around harassment by the press, a part of the code that it uses on a regular basis.
That might affect a company when a negative story breaks and sections of the press take a personal approach and try to ‘doorstep’ key executives or employees or gather on their driveway.
The code lays down the right of individuals to ask who such people are and which organisation they are from and to request them to desist.
If they do not comply, individuals can ask their newspapers not to use the material that they gain.
The new regulatory system is voluntary, however. The Guardian, The Independent, London Evening Standard and The Financial Times have not signed up to it, with the FT preferring to trust in its own internal process.
There are nuances, however, that might make a difference, to the handling of complaints against the newspapers, including The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Daily Mail, which have signed up.
‘One of the differences is that complainants have got to go to the relevant newspaper and try to resolve their disputes first,’ says Tim Pinto, senior counsel at law firm Taylor Wessing.
‘The newspaper has to have its own internal complaints procedure, so it might be more inclined to try to resolve matters before IPSO starts to be involved. If a complaint cannot be resolved internally with a newspaper then IPSO starts its role as a mediator. ‘If mediation doesn’t succeed, IPSO will make a ruling on whether the Editors’ Code has been breached.’
The new press regulation system also needs to be seen in the context of other recent changes in legislation affecting the media, including reforms to Britain’s libel laws. This may create regulatory demarcation issues, while IPSO’s remit may also change.
Speaking on his first day as IPSO chairman last month, Sir Alan Moses said he would be putting a plan to the Regulatory Funding Company for the new regulator’s budget but feels it will need ‘substantially more’ than the £2.5 million cost of the PCC.
The former judge said he wants IPSO to offer an arbitration service for complainants and a full-time investigations unit but the £100,000 put aside for such work was ‘hopeless,’ while some of the rules under which IPSO will operate are ‘completely opaque and almost impossible to understand’.
He said he will also look at press standards and examine patterns of behaviour on issues such as intrusion into grief.
Dan Tench, partner at law firm Olswang, says: ‘Sir Alan Moses is a robust former Court of Appeal judge of absolutely impeccable credentials, both intellectually and in terms of his probity and independence.
‘The terms of reference and the codes he inherited seem reasonably satisfactory but over the summer he stated that he would revisit these. There is some skirmishing going on there between the press and Sir Alan regarding the codes and other issues such as funding. We shall see whether that in time secures the reputation of the body as being truly independent from the press. It certainly seems like a good start. There was a suggestion that IPSO would adjudicate legal complaints concerning the media, such as libel and privacy, rather than those types of cases going to Court. However, there is no sign of it undertaking that role yet. At present it seems to be adjudicating only complaints brought under its own code and also – at least in theory – enforcing press standards generally.’
Elsewhere, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recently published Data Protection and Journalism, a guide on the processing of personal data, in line with a Leveson Report recommendation.
The guide acknowledges that the ICO may receive an increased number of complaints about media activity under the
Data Protection Act, which applies to any organisation handling information, with no automatic blanket exemption for all journalism.
‘In issues of accuracy of information, proportionality and privacy of information, you could find people using the
Information Commissioner acting as an alternative tribunal to lower the cost of bringing complaints about the use of personal information,’ says Scott.
‘It comes down to confidence. That’s the challenge for IPSO. Because people haven’t felt that they were getting a truly independent organisation where press disputes could be resolved, they have felt they had to go to the courts.’
Until IPSO makes a significant number of adjudications, it is difficult to judge its effectiveness but Scott is hopeful.
‘The rules in principle are quite decent,’ he says. ‘The test will come in how they are applied. Applying them and demonstrating credibility in how complaints are handled are going to be the toughest parts of it.
‘That’s going to be when we really see how different IPSO is going to be from the PCC.’
Pinto feels that the new regulator will make a difference. ‘In the current climate, post-Leveson with a new regulator, people are going to try to get disputes resolved,’ he says.
‘The fact that the newspapers that have signed up are potentially agreeing to be fined and potentially being subject to an IPSO ‘standards investigation’ means they will probably try to do whatever they can to try to resolve disputes, rather than having adverse adjudications against them.
‘Once there is seen to have been a systemic failure with serious systemic breaches, IPSO can start a standards investigation. That’s the point where the fines can come in so newspapers will want to avoid that where possible. It’s a stick to try to sort things out and I think that will have an influence.’
Only time will tell whether IPSO makes a real difference to Britain’s media landscape. That may take more than simply a bigger rod, but the new regulator will at least want to avoid that sheep comparison.
CLAUSES FOR CONCERN:
WHAT’S COVERED UNDER IPSO’S EDITORS' CODE OF PRACTICE?
Clause 1 Accuracy
Clause 2 Opportunity to reply
Clause 3 Privacy
Clause 4 Harassment
Clause 5 Intrusion into grief or shock
Clause 6 Children
Clause 7 Children in sex cases
Clause 8 Hospitals
Clause 9 Reporting of crime
Clause 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge
Clause 11 Victims of sexual assault
Clause 12 Discrimination
Clause 13 Financial journalism
Clause 14 Confidential sources
Clause 15 Witness payments in criminal trials
Clause 16 Payment to criminals