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

Did Legal Loop-hole Win it for Leave?

The “Vote Leave” battle-bus, Photo credit PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Brexit pledge of more money for the NHS was a key argument in the EU referendum. Indeed, it could well have been the deciding factor in a narrow win following a bruising campaign.

The £350m per week in question was blasted on the side of the Leave battlebus, and cited by Brexiters-in-chief remorselessly. Highly controversial but seemingly widely believed, it has now been thoroughly disowned and all traces purged from the campaign website.

Spin – arguably bending truth up to but not beyond breaking point – has always been part of the process.  And “over-spinning” can often be justified on the basis that it is just someone’s opinion, rather than a clear statement of fact (a crucial distinction, as every newspaper journalist knows well). But how could something so unsupported have been allowed to surface in the first place?

You see, large parts of the Representation of the People Act (RPA) were incorporated into the regulations governing the Euro-referendum, as a clear set of rules to ensure everyone behaved themselves.

Large parts but not, apparently, the bit that says you can’t bend the truth beyond breaking point: Section 106  in particular makes it an offence to publish a statement about a rival candidate that you know to be false.

It was this clause – or rather the failure to abide by it – that ended the parliamentary career of the MP for Oldham, and former minister for immigration,  Phil Woolas.  In the 2010 General election,  he narrowly defeated his Lib-Dem  rival  Elwyn Watkins. In doing so  had made some specific statements about him  that were subsequently shown to be in breach of the Act.  The election was declared invalid, Woolas was barred from being a candidate for three years, and Debbie Abrahams won the rerun contest for Labour with a comfortable majority.

So despite the cross-referencing of these two pieces of legislation, why did unedifying untruths still unfold?

To my lay-person’s eye, there seems to me to be one obvious reason – Section 106 refers to candidates, not campaigns.  And I  can hear the argument that  a campaign,  especially  such  a broad  one  as  Leave (or Remain),  cannot realistically be expected to adhere to the same standards  as one individual candidate.

But such arguments surely misunderstand the issue.  The whole point is that elections must be fair and seen to be fair.  That fairness is vital because if the result of a poll is not credible,   the consequences of that in terms of social unrest, economic uncertainly, and political instability can be very great indeed.  As we are seeing in this extra-ordinary post-referendum period.

Therefore, from the perspective of practicality as well as ethics,   the same standards must apply to referenda as to all other elections covered by the RPA.

“But hang on,” my hypothetical critics retort -” who speaks for a campaign?”  Why  should leading figures  be trapped  by  what some low-level  barrack-room  loudmouth  may sound off about?  Campaigns are just too big to be held to the same standards.

This seems a thin argument:  Parliamentary candidates also have significant teams of support staff working on their campaigns. This is recognised by the Act.  And in any event Leave and Remain were officially endorsed groups.  There is a clear chain of command.  So I see no reason why a Section 106 (or equivalent) proviso should not apply in these circumstances, albeit with an additional built-in opportunity  for repudiation. A suitable  acknowledgement that  there has  been a problem,  a  disavowal  of the offending statements and an undertaking  to fix whatever has gone wrong would seem to be an appropriate and effective  sanction  in the  context  of a referendum.

It is time to take a further step to remove lies from our political process.  The mess they create smears those who voted Leave with honourable intentions – and does damage to us all.

This article also appears in the Huffington Post

Why I’m Voting Remain

Just  so  you know, I’m voting Remain in the EU  referendum. But I recognise the sincerity and the views of many who want a Brexit.

Let’s face it, many – very many – people in our country have urgent pressing issues that need sorting out immediately if not sooner.  Few decent jobs,  even  less  social or affordable housing,  industries changed  beyond recognition from  privatisation of Royal Mail  to  the  strangulation  of the UK fishing  sector, (although the suggestion that Michael Gove’s family business was wrecked by the EU  has been shown to be “codswallop“),  the uncertainty brought about  by changes in population.  It is wrong to dismiss these as unimportant or imagined, and blaming EU membership for failings mostly in domestic politics is worryingly attractive.

I’m voting Remain on the basis that progressive voices are louder as part of the EU than outside it,  that the social dimension to economic and industrial  policies remains stronger on the continent than here in the UK, that unrestrained by  the EU  the Tories will be even more destructive than they  are at present.

There is also that the EU will still be there if we leave and we can exert more influence from inside than out. And finally,  something  not spoken of enough – it is a much better  way  to  regulate international affairs than  the military carnage mainland Europe suffered in the  hundred years  that preceded the original Treaties of Rome.

I get that decent people with sincere beliefs will sway towards voting Brexit. But just look at the company that you would be in – some Conservatives have already switched sides because of the fantasists and xenophobes who dominate the Leave campaign.

I will name just two – Boris and Michael. Mr Johnson has been publically condemned for putting his Prime Ministerial ambitions ahead of any dignity or integrity.  And Mr Gove’s dog-whistle, fear –fuelled, deliberately disingenuous tactics belie the intelligence he reportedly has – and demeans the high offices of state he has occupied.

Yes, I know the Remain camp has a few characters of its own you might not want to spend time with – Michael O’Leary for one – but they do seem to be a minority.

But we don’t have to look very  far  to see where the isolationist, chauvinistic nationalism can lead us – Look at the rise of Donald Trump in the US and his response to the “Pulse” mass-murder which surely plumbs new depths.

But controversial and complex  as the EU debate undoubtedly is,  I think  there is a  another reason   why the debate has become some bitter and fraught. It is simply that our country is not at ease with itself.  The “haves” have too too much.  Too many survive rather than live. Politics seems remote, cut-off, insulated from too many. Politicians are seen as part of a self-serving establishment that includes mainstream media.  Political debate ping-pongs between the sterile and the toxic. The blame-game is everywhere and tribalism is rampant. Is it a surprise so many  are turned off?

Even if our politics is as grey and stormy as this month’s weather, this does not have to be a given. We can change things and there is an alternative. “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.”  For “kindness” read humanity, tenacity, integrity, cooperation-not-conflict, for-the-many-not-the-few.

Whilst all those around us may lose their decency, we must never use that as a justification for abandoning our own. I believe  the EU referendum  is a defining moment for us – but what  happens after the vote (whichever way it goes)  will be even more important.




Forcing Schools to Become Academies is No Solution


The purposeful advance briefing of an announcement, to be meshed into the budget that all schools must convert to academies  should cause hearts to sink. Not because of the partisan, blunt and blanket nature of the instruction – but on account of the contradictions and short-comings of the policy.

The key criterion –surely – is academic prowess. But academies do not automatically make successful schools. Ironically given that the first wave of academies was directly aimed at rescuing failing institutions, it seems increasing numbers of that academies are under-performing. But local authority schools rated by Ofsted as Outstanding are prevalent,   which is not bad for an organisational model allegedly so irreparably flawed.

What other advantages will mass conversion bring? Academies do not have to follow the national curriculum.  This is the same national curriculum introduced to raise basic standards. I readily acknowledge the  risk  of concentrating so much on data that teaching can suffer –  but surely  we need some measurement, some national yardstick  to  see  if the education system  is delivering against  key performance indicators –  how will we do that in an entirely  fragmented  system?

There is also a contradiction and perhaps deception here too.  What will happen to the government’s currently much–vaunted standards-raising talisman, the EBACC, which schools have been heavily encouraged to adopt as a standard suite of GCSCE subjects? Admittedly there would seem to be few tears to be shed if this is to be its demise – but will non-EBACC subjects be regarded as inferior qualifications?   If such a situation does arise, the government will be guiltily of willing the ends but not the means.

And mass conversion is reportedly to mean the end of national pay bargaining, and fairly universal terms and conditions. Really?  Has anyone costed the new reality – thousands of localised pay negotiations?  Resources of both employers and unions bogged down in the process instead of  focussing  on making schools better and  working collaboratively  to  meet the many other challenges they  have –  from Prevent to crumbling school estates.

This is a key practical argument in my view.  Money is tight.  Time is also at a premium according to teachers I talk to. But the conversion process will be ravenous in resource terms – from the national political row to the local tricky detailed negations.  Given the benefits – described above – are so much in doubt, how can this be justified?

The pre-budget briefing talks about  academies being free  to  join  the  “chains”  that  have already  been  formed (we are due to have three  institutions run by the same group  in my  borough alone).  You can see the logic in terms of providing common back-office functions like HR, finance and facilities management. Hmm, just like local authorities do at present.

But  I also  see  a  strong likelihood that  in the  near future,  compulsorily converted schools who are struggling  with their new  “independence”  will  be  forced  to seek  refuge and rescue  by being  joined  to  such  chains.

What the price autonomy then?  And some chains make it clear that they have a particular philosophical viewpoint – one that is not to everyone’s taste. So forced unions would be hugely problematic.

And here’s the problem.  The government’s plans are, in reality,  a  straight  transfer of resources and responsibility. These move away from  local authorities, and the democratic control  that  they are subject to, in favour, ultimately,  of private organisations  who  are not accountable in anything like the same way. And who must as a reason to  continue to exist,  turn in  a profit.

This is not in any way a straight-forward issue – but the budget announcement is audacious for all the wrong reasons.