Winning public confidence in IPSO’s independence and effectiveness remains an uphill task, according to its latest external review. While the newspaper regulator is generally well managed, its performance in dealing with complaints could be more efficient and timely, and it should be more transparent about its funding.
IPSO stands for Independent Press Standards Organisation. It was set up in 2014, after the Leveson Inquiry report of 2012, with the intention of being a more credible regulator than the old Press Complaints Commission. The members it regulates (and who contribute to its funding) include major national newspapers such as The Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Mirror; magazines like Hello! and The Lady; and local papers that reach up and down the country. Although there are some major titles that don’t belong, the chances are that if you have a complaint about a story in a newspaper, you need to take it to IPSO.
Sir Bill Jeffrey, a former civil servant who is currently chair of trustees of the Police Foundation think tank, was asked to carry out an independent review of its structure and effectiveness. The terms of reference cover three broad areas.
First, on independence and governance: “How and to what extent IPSO has established itself as an independent, credible, and well-managed organisation?”
Second, on its general effectiveness, including “The timeliness and quality of its systems for assessing and responding to complaints, the judgements reached on investigated and non investigated complaints, the appropriateness of the remedies required, and the effectiveness of the independent review function…”
Finally, on the future: “How well has IPSO adapted to change in its strategic context and what should it do to prepare itself for the future?”
This post sets out some of the key findings, but you can read full Jeffrey report here: Independent External Review of IPSO
This is not the first time IPSO has been externally reviewed. In 2016 there was a review by Sir Joseph Pilling, commissioned by IPSO, into its performance over the previous two years: The External IPSO Review. And in 2019 there was also a critical report by the Media Standards Trust , which we commented on here: IPSO continues to fail most Leveson recommendations, finds Media Standards Trust. The Media Standards Trust is a charity that formed in 2006 and began Hacked Off! in 2011 to call for a public inquiry into phone hacking. Hacked Off! separated from the Trust in order to undertake political campaigns which would not be allowed by a charity. Although Hacked Off! continue to informally scrutinise IPSO unrelentingly, the Trust no longer seems active.
The Transparency Project has commented on IPSO’s failings in the past, after attempting to pursue a complaint ourselves: Press regulation: why we are unimpressed by IPSO. However, we have not had cause to raise a complaint with IPSO for some time so have no recent experience of its operation or effectiveness.
There was also an consultation by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (as it was then known) on the Leveson Inquiry and its aftermath, which reported in 2018: Government Response to the Consultation on the Leveson Inquiry and its Implementation.
The Jeffrey Report
Sir Bill Jeffrey is broadly positive in his report, which IPSO has welcomed in a press release: The second independent external review of IPSO has found the regulator has “influenced the industry for the better”.
In respect of IPSO’s governance and structure, the report notes that although IPSO does not conform to the recommendations in the Leveson Report for recognition by an independent panel, it does follow Leveson’s recommendations in most other significant respects.
Its primary function is to deal with complaints of breaches, by member publishers, of the Editors’ Code, which is administered by an Editors’ Code Committee.
The current chair, Lord Faulks, is a barrister, former junior justice minister, and now cross-bench peer who, the report says, “is widely regarded as fair-minded and impartial”. The board of directors contains a mix of those with relevant industry experience and independent members drawn from other walks of life. The report recommends picking candidates with recent knowledge of the digital world and AI, given its increasing importance to the industry.
Funding and independence
Funding continues to be a matter of concern, because it raises questions about IPSO’s genuine independence. Funding for both IPSO and the Editors’ Code Committee comes from a Regulatory Funding Company (RFC), which in turn raises a levy on each member publication, under its contract with IPSO, the amount of which is based on a formula involving readership and financial turnover. The overall funding level is agreed by reference to a five-year budget, the latest of which began in 2019, but that is not a formal requirement under the company’s constitution. A recommendation in the Pilling report (see above) for the five-year funding model to be embedded in the articles of association has not been implemented. The report suggests that
“ the argument about how independent of the industry IPSO really is persists, and focuses on the financial arrangements. A firm contractual commitment on both sides to quinquennial funding would counter this and strengthen IPSO’s and the industry’s hand in arguing that the arrangements are truly independent. I would therefore encourage IPSO and the RFC to reconsider the Pilling recommendation.”
The report notes that the “complicated” way IPSO’s governance is set up was largely a consequence of the industry’s desire “to demonstrate an arm’s-length relationship between the regulator and those who fund it”. But it urges IPSO to be more transparent about its funding, noting how little information there is about it in its annual report, which currently makes no mention of the source of its funding. Moreover,
“The decisive say which the industry has in defining the scheme and setting the regulations, taken together with its ownership of the Editors’ Code, are significant constraints on IPSO’s independence.”
As for IPSO’s efficiency in dealing with complaints, the report notes that the vast majority of these turn out to be outside IPSO’s remit, which need to be sifted out quickly, but this consumes a lot of staff time. The report suggests that
“The process as followed may be over-elaborate, particularly in third-party cases, and, provided its essential fairness is protected, I would encourage IPSO to continue to explore ways of simplifying it.”
Third-party complaints are those made by someone not directly affected by the breach, either in a personal or representative capacity, and the breach does not relate to accuracy. The report cites as an example the article by Jeremy Clarkson in The Sun in December which prompted 25,000 complaints. Of these, IPSO has decided to investigate two complaints by representative groups claiming to be directly affected by the article (as explained here).
If the complaint is within IPSO’s remit and alleges a breach of the Editors’ Code, it must then be referred to the relevant publication for consideration under its internal procedures, and only if not resolved within 28 days will IPSO itself proceed to investigate. Though the 28-day period can be curtailed in some circumstances, the report finds that IPSO could be clearer about when this can happen.
Once the matter reaches the Complaints Committee, the report finds the process to be fair; and while there might be some cases that “could or should have been decided differently”, none were “counterintuitive or unreasonable”. However, the report suggests there could be better use of previous similar cases, not necessarily as precedents, but simply to promote consistency in decision-making.
The report expresses concern over the timeliness with which complaints are dealt with, noting feedback from complainants that “what appear to them to be long gaps are combined with short deadlines for their response”. IPSO could do more to explain the issue, and should adopt published targets for the time taken to resolve investigations. A sluggish process was one of the areas of concern we have previously flagged.
As well as dealing with individual complaints, IPSO can mount a “standards investigation” against a particular title, where there appear to have been serious and systematic breaches of the Code; but no such investigation has ever been conducted and the report concludes it is unlikely it ever will. This is explained by Professor Paul Wragg here.
There is also an arbitration service, as was recommended by Leveson, which is “well-designed for its purpose” but under-used. Indeed, “take-up has been disappointingly low” and the report suggests IPSO could do more to market it as an alternative to litigation. It suggests approaching the Civil Procedure Rule Committee and the Media and Communications List User Group about the possibility of judicial guidance, court guides (such as the King’s Bench Guide) or practice directions highlighting the availability of the service.
The continuing transition from print to online publication has, the report notes, rendered some of the sanctions for breaches of the Editors’ Code less effective. Where a printed correction might be required to occupy a certain prominence in a traditional newspaper layout, it can be much harder to achieve a similar prominence to readers online. IPSO’s plans for guidance on this should be given priority, the report says. It should also address issues around dealing with complaints about online comments by readers, and work more closely with other regulators in the online landscape, such as Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office.
IPSO should also engage with other regulators and the industry in developing industry standards on the use of artificial intelligence (AI), e.g. in compiling and editing news stories. It could also make better use of technology to improve its internal processes.
More generally, in terms of its future direction, IPSO needs to do more to raise public awareness and build up its profile as a “trusted champion of high editorial and journalistic standards”. Winning public confidence in IPSO’s independence and effectiveness remains an uphill task, the report concludes, and it needs to be “more proactively transparent and informative” about its work.
Who regulates the regulator? In the case of legal regulators, there is an overall or “uber” regulator, in the Legal Services Board, which oversees the various individual legal profession regulators such as the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The media regulators basically operate in their own silos. Ofcom deals with broadcasting and communications, including the internet; the ICO deals with information and data protection. But news media now operate in a hybrid world of print and online and there is no single regulator that covers every aspect of their activities. Should there be?
Even in relation to what might loosely still be called the press, there are multiple regulatory systems. There is IPSO, which is basically a post-Leveson modification of the old Press Complaints Commission, with slightly more teeth, but not fully Leveson-compliant. Then there is IMPRESS, which is fully Leveson-compliant, in that it is recognised by the Press Recognition Panel. However, its funding is not entirely unproblematic either. And then there are some publishers, notably The Guardian and the Financial Times, who belong to neither regulator and effectively regulate themselves.
The Jeffrey report’s suggestion that IPSO should collaborate more with Ofcom and the ICO seems sensible. But with the lines between media, social media and broadcasting being ever more blurred, and with AI models making increasing use of online information to generate new content, there must be a case for some kind of regulatory convergence, or at least oversight. The occasional review of individual regulators, such as this report, is all very well, but it can’t address the wider strategic and long term issues that affect the media industry as a whole.
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