1 June 2014 – ‘Give newspapers more time to put their houses in order.’ Sounds familiar? That was the plea of Labour’s Lord MacGregor, the then Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, in January 1992. He was responding to the announcement that the Tory Government had appointed lawyer Sir David Calcutt to review the efficacy of press self-regulation.
“If we could have two years in which editors have got accustomed to following the Code of Practice then we shall have an entirely new situation in the Press,” the noble Lord told the UK Press Gazette. “It’s a hard test for a very short time because we are in a world where it takes time to change attitudes. But if we can have two years, attitudes will have changed. Self-regulation will become instinctual.”
That was a 22 years ago. Similar pleas for time and patience were to be made by MacGregor’s successors Lord Wakeham, Sir Christopher Meyer, Baroness Buscombe, and Lord Hunt. Now, the industry tells us, it will be 18 months after Lord Justice Leveson published his initial findings into their failings, before the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) will be functioning.
That in itself is evidence of how far from ‘instinctual’ self-regulation has become.
Newspapers are quick to criticise politicians for being out of touch with the public, but they have shown themselves to be similarly lacking in sensitivity by appointing Bill Newman, former Ombudsman at Murdoch’s Sun, to the Board of IPSO. In addition to defending his paper’s disgracefully inaccurate coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, it was Newman who responded to evidence that the infamous ‘Swan Bake’ front page was false with ‘We stand by our story’. It took the paper six months to publish a correction on page 41. And it was Newman who caused European editors to guffaw in disbelief when he told a meeting of the International Press Institute in Vienna that decisions about the Sun’s Page Three were made on editorial rather than marketing grounds.
Six of the 12-strong IPSO board have close media industry links, and among the other newspapermen are Charles McGhee, a former member of the PCC, and Charles Wilson who served on the PCC’s Charter Complaints panel.
And if that were not enough to undermine the credibility of IPSO before it opens for business in the autumn, funded by the industry just like the PCC and using the same Editors’ Code of Practice, it cannot provide a comprehensive service to the public. It cannot adjudicate on publications that have not signed up to IPSO and paid their dues. That includes, at present, The Guardian and Observer, The Independent, i and London Evening Standard as well as the Financial Times, which, like these others will run their own in-house complaints scheme. Many other titles will remain outside IPSO’s remit.
An ‘alternative’ regulator IMPRESS hopes to win enough support and funding to register under the Royal Charter approved by Parliament, but for the most part the public will be in a worse position than before the Leveson Inquiry in terms of seeking redress for inaccurate or intrusive or otherwise unethical practice. How will members of the public find their way through all the different codes and complaints systems there could be?
Don’t look to politicians for help. They have already wiped their hands of the whole wretched business. They must now concentrate on making friends with the press if they are to influence people in advance of the General Election. It’s another fine mess they have left us with.
Unfortunately, with no funding and about lose our base at the University of the West of England, MediaWise may not be in a position to offer the level of support and advice we have given to complainants over the last 21 years. We would love to hear from those who feel there is still a need for an independent advice service for those seeking redress when the print and broadcast media get it wrong.