IPSO’s Rebuke And The Sun’s Setting Standards

The so-called “Hijab-gate” row regarding the on-screen appearance of C4 newsreader Fatima Manji at the time of the Nice truck terror incident continues.

As Press Gazette has reported, press regulator IPSO has upheld a complaint that an article in The Sun (a member of IPSO) had inaccurately reported the numbers of refugees in Calais lying about their ages as part of an application to enter the UK. The newspaper was obliged to print a correction in print and on-line versions, and had failed to do the latter. Careless would be one, kind, description of this, er, oversight.

But twinned with this was a public criticism for IPSO Board Member Trevor Kavanagh – a senior Sun journalist – for criticising Ms Manji whilst she was pursuing a complaint against the Sun.

It’s worth citing the ruling on this from IPSO in full. After noting that Mr Kavanagh has no role in considering individual complaints, it said:

“IPSO is committed to ensuring that individuals who believe that they have been wronged by the press are able to seek proper redress without fear of retribution or victimisation. In this instance, public comments by an IPSO board member brought the strength of this commitment into question. This should not have happened.”

Mr Kavanagh has apologised and IPSO-sceptics Hacked Off has demanded his removal.  No surprises anywhere there.

But the Sun has form for being somewhat cavalier when it comes to the standards IPSO promote and that, through their membership, they have signed up to.  The ‘paper seemed to “declare war” on IPSO in a row over reports of the Queen’s position on Brexit. Its mealy-mouthed apology to Jeremy Corbyn  also attracted criticism.

So the question is fairly asked: How many “strikes” before you are “out” – out in this case meaning the involvement of IPSO’s still evolving Standards arm.

Hacked Off and others traduced the PCC and, I think, unfairly berate and under-rate IPSO.  On the plus side, there is now at least an acknowledgement and some focus on Standards issues. Last week saw new work on an arbitration scheme, a form of alternative dispute resolution that many thought would not be possible.  And IPSO Chairman Alan Moses has done wonders in securing finance from tight-pursed newspaper groups on a more ambitious scale than the PCC could achieve.

And yet it would be foolish and complacent to believe that this is sufficient. The phobic and often contradictory stance of many IPSO-supporting newspapers is frightening and cannot be conducive to a healthy, inclusive, confident, politics and society.  The New York Times “truth” campaign  in response to President Trump’s attitude to news media also talks to our experience in the UK.

That Mr Kavanagh was rebuked and called out for it  is right and important. The fact it happened on a Friday afternoon is unfortunate. The fact he can still sit on IPSO’s board rightly raises eyebrows.  But the real problem is that he and his Sun colleagues thought what they did was entirely ok.

Self-regulation depends on high levels of buy-in, self-awareness and self-restraint from those regulated. I need say no more.


Full disclosure: I was a Press Complaints Commissioner from 2008 to 2014

MacKenzie hijab row: Does Regulator’s Ruling Miss Wood for Trees?

(Kelvin MacKenzie, left with former Sun editor Stuart Higgins. Mr Higgins does not feature in this article)

The media storm over Kelvin MacKenzie’s piece on Fatima Manji presenting the Channel 4 news wearing a hijab on the day of the Nice terrorist attacks has been predictable, justified and important.  It should be read. It raises issues of freedom of speech, Islamophobia, intolerance and editorial standards.

The day after the press’s self-regulatory body IPSO publishing their ruling, the Guardian’s “panel of experts” deftly showed the spectrum of the debate. The ruling “puts out the bunting for any old racist with a laptop” said Giles Fraser. “IPSO defends journalism that panders to bigotry” was Homa Khaleeli’s view.  But  Dominic Ponsford asserted MacKenzie’s  right to free speech, and doyen Roy Greenslade thought IPSO was  correct.

But given UK press regulation judges complaints against Code of Conduct (drawn up by editors with some input from lay members), did IPSO’s Complaints Committee get it right?  As I’ve said before on these pages, there is a world of difference between  feeling offended  and  being threatened.  And there is a world of difference between a pejorative, personal and misleading attack on someone’s faith and making a passing reference to a person to facilitate an opinionated debate or polemic.

Essentially, IPSO noted the offence caused by MacKenzie’s article, but determined it came down on the latter side of this line. There were no “personalised terms” in what he wrote. His condemnation of Islam was “clearly comment” and his reference to the complainant (Ms Manji) “triggered a discussion”.

This is difficult, tricky and emotive territory. The IPSO’s predecessor,   the PCC, dealt with similar issues. The consideration of cases was incredibly detailed. Sometimes, as in the case of Jan Moir’s report of Stephen Gately’s death, we could not find a breach of the Code. But on other occasions – AA Gill’s attack on Clare Balding, Rod Liddle’s character assassination of young black men – we did, and did so on a firm basis.

So do I think my successors have got this one right in terms of the Code, never mind morals or ethics? The short but cautious answer is No.

I say this with careful and due respect, but the “wood” seems to have been missed for the “trees” here.  The article clearly suggests that any and all Muslims would have been inappropriate to appear in that role on that day – simply by virtue of their faith.    Do we say the same about Christians ? – well, actually, if it is Christians visibly wearing a crucifix, then yes, we have done as MacKenzie rightly pointed out in the original and subsequent column.  So the argument isn’t straight forward although I bet you will see many more women wearing headscarves than crosses.  But a numerical argument doesn’t necessarily make something right or wrong in terms of ethics.

No, my concern with the IPSO ruling is that in my view, MacKenzie’s remarks were inevitably personal, inevitably pejorative and fundamentally misleading .

Take Ms Manji out of the article and what have you got?  Not very much.  The whole structure is unnecessarily built around her appearance, and what she was wearing.  And the argument is vicious, xenophobic, generalised. You can’t have people – and in this case “people”   means Ms Manji – who identify as Muslims reading the news because “Islam is a violent religion”.  That’s your lot!

I get the point about intolerance and racism in society.  These are real issues and strong and enforced anti-discrimination  legislation  is part of our response to that. But this ruling does not mean “bigotry is now officially  sanctioned.”  It is already and sadly well embedded. This is just embroidery.

There is a real debate to be continued about displaying religious affiliation in public life.  I used to think this was always problematic.  Now I’m not so sure.  But given the way our society is, to use one young Muslim woman as a battering ram for an argument that is as much about privatising Channel 4 as anything else  is crass, unhelpful and in terms of the Editor’s Code should be actionable.

But irrespective of debates about regulation, the way MacKenzie makes his point represents something very unpleasant and corrosive in our society.  I was reassured to see Manji teaming up with Gary Lineker (who also had a busy day on Thursday) under the umbrella of the admirable Hope Not Hate campaign group.  I hope you will visit their pages and support their work.

Full disclosure:  I was a Press Complaints Commissioner 2008-2014


Has The Sun Declared War on IPSO?


It sounds extra-ordinary, but it looks like the Sun has declared war on IPSO – the self –regulatory body for the press.  And in doing so has possibly cast doubt on the future of self-regulation itself.

Firstly, though, let’s note a significant moment. For the first time IPSO have exercised their new powers to deal with misleading headlines.  The Sun claimed, in a front page splash, that Her Majesty was in favour of a Brexit from the EU.  Buckingham Palace complained.  The newspaper refused to apologise so IPSO’s Complaints Committee ruled. The ‘paper had to print their adjudication in full and publicise that on their front page.

Being able to act on misleading headlines is long overdue. The willingness of IPSO to do so is positive. And the organisation’s work on building high standards into the everyday culture of newspapers is welcome. But it is only two cheers because IPSO also has the power to direct how its decisions are presented.  A banner at the bottom of the front page is  a clear improvement on the miniscule content  the last time  The Sun  got “done”  for a  front page  error.  But it still has nothing like the impact of the original story.  My view is clear:  If something was so important to warrant a front page splash and it turns out to be wrong – then the correction should have just as much prominence.

In fairness to IPSO, the decision was leading on most broadcast media this morning ahead of the eclipse caused by the Queen’s Speech (and perhaps the timing of the announcement could have been better for that reason). But take it from me, nothing and I mean nothing, acts as a reality- check for newspaper editors than having their front page taken away from them. That is why for the most serious breaches of the Editor’s Code, it is an absolutely appropriate sanction.

But the Sun’s response may come to be regarded as near-suicidal. I think it is possibly unprecedented – certainly in the post-Leveson era – for an editorial attacking the sanction to be published in the same edition! “We respect IPSO…but they got it wrong” is a reasonable paraphrasing.  This reassertion of faith in a headline that has been found to be unsupported by the story that follows it is surely the journalistic equivalent of sticking two fingers up. (Incidentally, in the same editorial they also claim to know what the Queen thinks)

“We don’t care what you say..ain’t no regulator gonna shut us up” seems to be the line.  But decry IPSO in this particular way and you invite attacks on the self-regulatory system.  For those that value a free presses, that is a very dangerous road to go down.

Full disclosure: I was a member of The Press Complaints Commission 2008-2014

Whittingdale Saga Proves Nothing About Press Self-regulation



Have you ever seen such a tawdry display?  The outpouring of indignation, vilification, justification, obfuscation that the now open story of the personal life of  John Whittingdale (above)  life has generated.

Let’s look at the arguments.

“This shows self-regulation works” say sections of the newspaper industry.  “There was no story here so we didn’t print it.”

Really?  So how come it feels like we have no end of stories exposing things that are private (private mind, not secret) on what seem too many very flimsy pretexts.   You would expect this story to make it into print 99 times out of a hundred. There may be nothing more newsworthy about it than the fact that sex sells papers. So why no coverage?

“There was no possible justification for intrusion into his private life” said a former senior editor of the News of the World. And we can ask “Really?”  a second time.  Because even though Mr Whittingdale was not a cabinet minister at the time, he was still a mighty influential figure as the chair of the Parliamentary select committee on Culture Media and Sport. Could this relationship cause his judgement to be questioned?

Morality seems often close to the lips (or letters) of this government’s members (of which Mr Whittingdale is of course one), from tax havens to welfare reforms. So might this matter raise ethical issues that could be considered newsworthy?

Is not the most likely reality  of the situation  that  this story was spiked when usually  it  would have gone to  press because  John Whittingdale, in political and  philosophical terms,  was perceived as a kindred spirit of  some newspaper proprietors or editors?  Whether it was an act of solidarity or because they feared the prospect of losing him, this issue was cursed with silence.

But even if certain newspapers have done the possibly right thing for almost certainly wrong reasons, critics of self-regulation need to be wary.

In timing that could  not have been more perfect,  self-regulatory body IPSO  hosted a “Reality Regulation”  review of their progress over the last two years  the evening  before  the Whittingdale story finally broke cover.  Many of the things critics said would not be possible have come to pass.  IPSO boss Alan Moses has had a notable success in ensuring reliable funding for the next three years.  The Editors’ Code – supervised by the Code Committee (which is distinct form IPSO)   has toughened the rules which newspapers have to live by in some important respects – especially relating to the role of headlines.  IPSOs standards work is, in my view, under-developed, but newspapers are now building compliance into their structures and having to have that scrutinised. If you  measure the progress  against  Martin Moore’s checklist, drawn  up  two years ago,  you  can  see why  the title IPSO picked for their lecture  was apposite.

We are a long way from perfection, or even satisfaction on press standards and press regulation. What distinguishes the non-appearance of the Whittingdale story is that many feel it is the exception and not the rule. That is the challenge for IPSO and the industry. Whether the current Secretary of State will be around to pass judgement on them is another matter.

Full disclosure: I was a member of the  Press Complaints Commission, IPSO’s predecessor, from 2008-2014

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post (UK) at http://huff.to/1WtTQ9k

The Sun, Corbyn and Page 1 apologies

First off, there should be credit where it is due. IPSO’s Complaints Committee has now twice in two weeks ordered newspapers to print a front page correction/apology in response to a page 1 inaccuracy.  It is good that the Committee is developing a taste for this approach.

But establishing a principle is not the same as sorting out the issue of prominence. The Editors’ Code is quite clear that “The headline, the placement on the page, and prominence including font size, ……must be agreed in advance. “ It seems that IPSO is not yet ready to move on from accepting the trade-off of a miniscule reference on the front page with a full adjudication on page 2.

When I recently gave two cheers for the newly revised editors’ Code, I called for more action on page 1 errors.  The Sun’s “apology” to Jeremy Corbyn (see image, bottom left corner) is so mealy-mouthed it is no apology at all in any meaningful sense.  It has been rightly and widely criticised and could prove to be something of an own-goal.


In my experience, newspaper editors hate not being in control. And the thing they hate more than anything else is not being in control of their own front page.  That is why a page 1 response, in the form of coverage of the same sort that contained the original error,   is absolutely appropriate.  If you think something is so important to splash it all over your front page, then if you’ve got it wrong, it should be just as big a deal.

It is clearly not just me that thinks in this way. The  stink  about what The Sun has  done this week  suggests that this  is an issue where  the IPSO Complaints  Committee, not to mention  the ‘paper itself, may  be tellingly out of step  with  public opinion (and by the way,  just because this  time it is The Sun doesn’t mean that  it is only this  ‘paper that has had a problem).

I do believe that as the  principle of  front page corrective  statements  becomes embedded in  the industry’s comfort zone,  an appropriate   view  on prominence   will surely  follow. If you will, a bit like the principle and practice of health warnings on cigarette packs. But, of course, if there were no page 1 errors to start with, this wouldn’t be a problem at all, would it?

The full text of IPSO’s ruling is at http://bit.ly/1YAYMXB

IPSO’s other “page 1” adjudication was against the Daily Express and can be found at http://bit.ly/1QX0TUT

Full disclosure: I was a Press Complaints Commissioner from 2008  to 2014. And I accept that some errors are inevitable.

Beefed up code for Editors-good news but more work needed

Three years after the Leveson enquiry , and 15 months after the demise of the Press Complaints Commission , today’s announcement of a revised Code of Practice for newspaper editors is both welcome and important.  The Code is the rules that most editors have to play by, whether in print or on line. It is determined by a committee (committee) by editors themselves and is separate to the body which deals with complaints and sets standards, which is IPSO (The Independent Press Standards Organisation Independent Press Standards Organisation).

Overshadowed by louder and more compelling news, this is nevertheless significant. Here’s why;

Headlines not supported by the text that follows them are not now allowed.  Before it was a requirement to take the headline and the text together as a whole.  This overlooks the key role played by headlines. They don’t just signpost us to what to read – they can convey a distinct message all on their own.  It is right and overdue that this is addressed.

Reporting of suicide gets a clause of the Code all of its own.  This highlights just what a tricky journalistic issue this is, as well as the sad fact that excessive detail has been linked to copycat activity.

Also being drawn out is gender identity which it will no longer be legitimate to make gratuitous prejudicial or pejorative reference to.  You could say that  the pre-existing reference to  gender in the same clause of the Code  mean that this is covered already  – but  given  really  bad behaviour by some  publications in respect  of  a systematically  discriminated against group,  this is a welcome development of  work  started by the PCC in 2013.( http://bit.ly/1NqQriL and reported  on at  http://bit.ly/1IqBoK )

In a crucial development, the new Code has an obligation to maintain internal procedures it resolves complaints swiftly. I think that this designed-in compliance is at the heart of an effective self-regulatory system. By making it clear that publicans themselves have an unavoidable responsibility   to maintain standards, self-awareness and resource necessarily increases.

But there are only  two cheers for the new Code. More could and I hope will soon be done. In particular I want to see:

  • Page 1 apology and corrections for page 1 errors – if publications are so happy to “splash” material on their front a page that then proves to be wrong, that seems an appropriate, proportionate sanction.
  • Lay members were introduced onto the Code committee last year – currently there are three, but 10 industry representatives. Three balance needs to change
  • IPSO must up its game on standards. What does an effective complaints handling process look like?  IPSO should be challenging, auditing, identifying and sharing best practice.

The current set-up, with the Code Committee and IPSO is not everyone’s cup of tea. There is a rival regulator, IMPRESS, but it is virtually irrelevant to all practical intents and purposes.  Not all publications   have signed up to IPSO – the Guardian, Independent and Evening Standard for example but a majority certainly have.

Critics decry the self-regulatory nature of the press, but the failing of Leveson was to leave too much ambiguity in key recommendations.  The realpolitik  is that IPSO  is  currently  the only substantial  show in town, and   over 1600 readers offended by the Sun’s now-infamous “1 in 5” headline have  put their faith in the organisation  to  deal  with their concerns.

Press regulation is important.  But it isn’t simple. Leveson was preceded by a long line of Royal Commissions and other enquiries over the past century. If the answer was straight-forward, we all would have seized upon it by now.  So we are where we are – but that is not a rationale for doing nothing. The Code revision has to be viewed in that context.


The new Code is operative from 1 January, The current code is at http://bit.ly/1Q27aQ3

Full disclosure: I was a Press Complaints Commissioner from 2008 – 14