To date, there have been 7 inquiries into the British press in the last 70 years. And each time, the press has utterly failed to clean up its act. Leveson, the author of the latest report into press standards and ethics, has called it a “pattern of cosmetic reform”: a scandal breaks; reforms are recommended; and the press announces a new regulator, which is different to its predecessor only in name.
It is little surprise that the latest cycle of cosmetic changes seems like history repeating itself.
Leveson’s primary recommendations could not have been clearer. The press was to have one more chance to develop its own regulator, without media executives pulling the strings behind closed doors and without newspaper editors doctoring the rulebook. And an independent body should verify any future regulator, in order for that regulation to be free from press and political influence.
In 2013, an independent verification body was established called the Press Recognition Panel, and the verification process was labelled ‘recognition’.
But fast forward three years and the so-called ‘regulator’, IPSO, has still not put itself forward for recognition – not that it is either sufficiently independent or effective to achieve recognition status. In the two years since its inception, IPSO has held zero investigations and issued zero fines. It continues to be controlled by the Regulatory Funding Company – a secretive committee of newspaper executives who set IPSO’s rules – and it regulates according to a code controlled by a committee of newspaper editors.
IPSO it would appear has no intention of being ‘recognised’ and has taken a stand against Leveson and his proposals.
IPSO’s own board includes the likes of The Sun’s Assistant Editor, Trevor Kavanagh – a loyal Murdoch lieutenant who contributed to The Sun’s ‘The Truth’ story, which unleashed misery on Liverpudlians after it defamed the victims of Hillsborough.
IPSO is a like-for-like replacement for its predecessor, the discredited Press Complaints Commission, and the public has now suffered another year without access to meaningful redress for unethical practices. Newspapers have continued to publish profit-generating untruths and personal attacks about innocent, ordinary people without repercussions. And stories rife with inaccuracies have been released as headlines, unperturbed by IPSO’s request that a tiny adjudication be published three months later.
Anticipating this, Leveson recommended ‘section 40’: a costs-shifting system which would incentivise the press to sign up. Under section 40, a recognised regulator would offer mandatory arbitration for claims against the media, thereby avoiding the need to go to court, and newspapers which offer arbitration would be protected from paying claimants’ legal costs. It works out cheaper for the press and for claimants. Those newspapers which aren’t signed up to a recognised regulator must meet the legal costs of any claim brought against them by the public.
To put it simply, section 40 would guarantee free speech protections for independently regulated newspapers, whilst simultaneously enabling the public to access justice.
Ten months have passed since the Government was supposed to commence section 40. Unencumbered by cross-party demands from Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, the Tories are now withholding the implementation of section 40. Indeed, the previous Culture Secretary announced he was ‘not minded’ to commence section 40, to the delight of newspaper editors, while the current Culture Secretary recently refused to answer mine and colleague’s questions about Leveson 2 and section 40.
The Government continues to prevaricate, against the will of the public, victims of press abuse, and the NUJ. Meanwhile, IPSO continues to fail dramatically in its regulatory duties.
IMPRESS, an alternative regulator to IPSO, must now try to attract publishers to sign up for membership. But without the guarantee of section 40’s costs protections, this is a formidable task. Should it fail, and IPSO continue to work at the behest of media moguls, the blame will fall squarely on the shoulders of the Government for its failure to commence section 40.