Anthony Longden Column: New press standards body is now a reality

Anthony Longden

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is becoming a reality.

What sets it apart from its predecessors, the Press Complaints Commission and the Press Council, is teeth. Its sanctions include fines of up to £1m, and it has the power to formally investigate complaints, something the PCC was not able to do.

It is outside the clutches of politicians, which is where every self-respecting, self-regulating newspaper ought to be. Publishers are locked into the mechanism by means of a six-year civil contract.

Perhaps one indication of tangible progress is the increased level of attacks against the new organisation from the Media Standards Trust (MST) and its ever-willing sidekick, Hacked Off.

The MST is always quick to point out Hacked Off is ‘independent’ of it, and has been since the summer of 2012. When it comes to campaigning, however, the two organisations still appear to be joined at the hip.

Last month, the MST published a report on what it sees as the fatal flaws in IPSO, a clear attempt to strangle the new organisation at birth.

The report’s introduction said: ‘The Media Standards Trust today publishes the first external assessment of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the self-regulatory system put forward by sections of the newspaper industry.’

‘First external assessment?’ I don’t think so. ‘External assessment’ implies independence, but the MST and Hacked Off are in the self-regulation row up to their necks.

They are quick to point to how IPSO and the recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson diverge, but this argument cuts both ways.

The government’s Royal Charter plan (approved and championed by Hacked Off) also departs from the Leveson recommendations – the learned judge told the culture, media and sport select committee he had never dreamed of using such a device to set up a regulator.

The MST also likes to give the impression IPSO was knocked together by a few publishers, and does not represent anything like the majority view of the industry. This doesn’t wash.

The industry’s steering group published the plans, and it represents the significant voices of the Newspaper Society, the Newspaper Publishers’ Association, the Scottish Newspaper Society and the Professional Publishers’ Association, as well as publishers not aligned to a trade body.

Taken together, that’s virtually all of the UK’s newspapers and magazines.

While lobby groups like the MST and Hacked Off continue to dance on the head of their pin, the newspaper industry has rejected an outrageous attempt at political interference with a free press, addressed the questions about ethical standards that needed to be addressed, and got on with setting up its new regulator.

Existing law deals with the rest. No other sanctions are needed. Many factors mitigate against a clear-cut solution to of all this. I fear MST/Hacked Off are cynical; I suspect we will find they can never be satisified.

Then, other outspoken critics of the industry have a visceral hatred of the Murdoch press. Debate over media ownership may well be valid, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the battle currently raging over press freedom.

Conflation of the two issues in pursuit of an agenda to control and rein in the press was always destined to fail.

Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry recommendations were just that – recommendations, not Holy Writ. Some of them were sensible and reasoned.

Others were not, and the acceptance of the report in its entirety would have been wrong.

It will get no thanks for it, but the industry has been assiduous in drawing up the structure and powers of IPSO. The new regime will be the most powerful self-regulatory press system in the world – not exactly something to be proud of, but nevertheless probably the only route now available to win back public confidence.

Part of the process of achieving this is openness to proper scrutiny.

For example, that probably means its officers being prepared to go before the Culture, Media and Sport select committee from time to time to publicly report on progress and answer questions. IPSO must be given a chance to work, and be seen to work.

It will quickly become apparent whether it is fit for purpose, and can live up to the exceptionally high expectations that have been set for it.

And finally…

“A newspaper should have no friends.”

Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911)
Father of the techniques of ‘new journalism’.

* Anthony Longden advises News Associates on journalism ethics and has been a journalist for 30 years, 20 of them spent as an editor and senior editorial executive in various regional companies in the UK, including Newsquest, Trinity Mirror, Southnews, Argus and Westminster Press. 

He has been a member of the Society of Editors’ Parliamentary and Legal Committee since 1999, lobbying on behalf of the media industry across a wide range of issues. Most recently he helped draft several of the Society’s modules of evidence for the Leveson inquiry.

He completed a three-year term as an editorial member of the Press Complaints Commission in September 2012, and sat on its reform sub-committee. Now a consultant and journalist, he advises the SoE, the PCC during its transition phase, and Alder Media, a London-based crisis PR firm. He is also a judge for the annual UK Regional Newspaper Awards.