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IPSO – Is Press Regulation Tough Enough?

IPSO – Is Press Regulation Tough Enough?

Fiona McAllister

The conclusion to Andy Coulson's trial last week saw him being sentenced to 18 months in prison for plotting to hack phones while he was in charge of the News of the World. This has brought the accountability of the press back into the limelight.

It is not surprising that in the aftermath of the trial, which also saw Rebekah Brooks cleared of all charges, the newly established self-regulatory body, known as the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), is facing great scrutiny and uncertainty.

IPSO was due to launch on 1 May this year but that has now been pushed back to September. It was set up on the back of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations in an attempt to achieve effective regulation of the press.

Its aims are to set, police and enforce standards of conduct.  Replacing the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), IPSO has described itself as the “toughest regulator in the Western world”.  However, opponents of this new body have been quick to regard it as merely the PCC with a fresh coat of paint and the PCC with extra bells and whistles, even before its launch.   

The media storm caused by the phone hacking scandal leads, rightly or wrongly, to criticisms of the press at large.  It is no secret that there has been a history of failure of all previous UK press regulators to hold the press to account.

The board and directors of PCC have been described by journalist Professor Roy Greenslade as “hostages to the industry they were supposed to be regulating”. But IPSO aims to avoid the repetition of the breakdown of the press, and monitor and address what is going on with the industry. 

We should keep in mind that the PCC was never actually a regulator at all. It only handled complaints relating to the press, despite describing itself as a regulator.

In contrast, IPSO has the means to call for documents and witnesses, examine systemic issues and impose substantial fines. It will provide guidance to publishers on the Editors’ Code and notify publishers on activities where there is concern about undue press intrusion.

In addition, IPSO provides a confidential whistle-blowing hotline for journalists, who will also be protected from disciplinary action if they refuse to breach the code of practice. It is also required to submit an annual statement providing information on current training practices, and it can impose substantial fines.

IPSO’s supporters highlight these aspects as vast improvements on the present system of self-regulation of the press.

The majority of concerns and criticisms of IPSO centre on the substantial role played by the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC). Subscribers to IPSO will automatically become members of the RFC. There is significant objection to its involvement.

One complaint is that it has a veto over critical decisions such as changes to IPSO’s regulations or to the Editors’ Code. But chairman Sir Alan Moses defends the RFC, asserting that no changes can be made to the Editors’ Code without the approval of IPSO, so no power of veto is given to the RFC.  

IPSO does not intend to be subject to a Royal Charter, giving rise to questions surrounding the scope of its independence.

The central principle underlying this intention is seemingly to avoid the danger of any political control or interference. But IPSO’s opponents are of the opinion that this only highlights that it does not fully meet the Charter criteria.

Further concerns arise from the fact that there is no guaranteed arbitration for individuals. The importance of access to justice for individuals through arbitration is enshrined in the Leveson Report, but IPSO has a few hurdles to jump before it will offer arbitration, and even then the publisher has the option to decline.

Putting the criticisms to one side, IPSO seems to be an improvement on the PCC and it has been developed with the aim of providing fair, effective and independent regulation of the press. Sir Alan Moses hopes to use his experience to drive this self-regulatory machine towards achieving this aim.

The board has been selected, and they are now tasked with appointing a chief executive and a complaints committee.  It will be interesting to see the practical differences in IPSO’s operations and whether it proves it has teeth.

There is no doubt that the debate will continue up to and beyond IPSO’s launch, but there will be a clearer picture of its performance after September.

Fiona McAllister
Senior Solicitor