MacKenzie and Sun Equally Culpable For Horrendous Barkley Own-Goal

Ross Barkley celebrates Everton’s second goal against Burnley on Saturday

In my six years of adjudicating on complaints against the press,1 I am struggling to think of a case as bad as Kelvin MacKenzie’s assault on footballer Ross Barkley last Friday.

This has nothing to do with the ability of journalists to be offensive or controversial. Both are the price of our relatively free press. But from a regulatory point of view, MacKenzie’s article scrapped well below the bottom of the barrel.

I’m not going to reprise his rant – why recirculate and give fresh impetus to such bile?  But the piece was inaccurate, and so misleading.  It failed to differentiate opinion from fact.  And it used a “protected characteristic” in way that was pejorative and gratuitous.  All these things cross the red lines of the self-regulatory Editors’ Code.

But there are two things in addition  that take us to a new level. First,  the timing.  The article was published on the eve of the anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, when 96 supporters from Liverpool lost their lives at the afore-mentioned stadum.  Either MacKenzie was aware of the date and ploughed on regardless.  Or he wasn’t which given his own personal involvement in mis-reporting the event in question is a profound act of self-serving amnesia.  Irrespective of the explanation, it is spectacularly insensitive.

And second, how did the article get from MacKenzie’s keyboard into the Sun?  Who proofed it? Who subbed it?  Who found the images and who laid out the page?  Again, two possible explanations:  Either MacKenzie, as a former editor and long-established figure, was given “carte blanche” to do as he pleased.  Or the editorial control was utterly lacking.  Either way, the failure of effective editorial oversight is truly shocking.  That is surely a question of standards that must be addressed.

The failure of editorial oversight is not just about the specific article, it is about the Sun’s standing and sales.  Other commentators have already speculated that commercially this episode could prove counter-productive in an almost existential sense. I am not so sure, but I do know that writing-off a whole region of the UK is a curious way to try to increase influence and revenue.

What was going on in the editor’s office of the Sun last Thursday night?  Was it some inexperienced southerner who has no idea of what this means on Merseyside and the North West generally? Was it someone who had the experience and knowledge but thought the notoriety would be somehow worth it?

I was at Goodison Park on Saturday and I have to say how wrong you can be. You could feel the resilience and unity of the capacity crowd over Hillsborough and Barkley. (And just by the way, referee Clattenberg was also wrong to book Barkley for his post-goal celebrations.  After the week he had been through, greater humanity should have been shown.)

However, there are two positives than we can take from this sorry mess.  The first is that People Power can and does work.  The public and business boycott of the Sun on Merseyside, now more widespread than ever, hits the company harder than can be quantified.  And second, that the ‘paper themselves suspended McKenzie shows that the reconfiguration of   how press complaints are investigated –so that they have a primary hard-wired responsibility to own and act on complaints – is having some effect.

But what we surely need is a proactive culture rather than a reactive remedy.  This was serious error of both judgement and procedure by the Sun.  With freedom comes responsibility. They need to stop up the bottle and leave the last-chance saloon, dispense with Kelvin MacKenzie – and to programme their IT systems to delete any copy containing the words “Football” and “Merseyside”



1 I was a Press Complaints Commissioner 2008-2014

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

The Immigration Debate – A Lightning Rod for Discontent

The immigration debate has been hijacked by those who claim to want a dispassionate treatment of the issue, but in reality have a distinct, fixed view.

That’s why my heart sinks with each new Migration Watch report. Like the Taxpayers’ Alliance it seems like an organisation which uses a legitimate issue of concern as a Trojan Horse for a particular political view.

The latest instalment is a report asserting the UK’s population will rise by around 1 million every four years if we stay within the EU. The report was immediately contradicted by immigration minister James Brokenshire who essentially said “it’s more complicated than that.”

The recognition that immigration is indeed a complex issue was a rare and welcome admission by the Government. But there was, of course, nothing innocuous about the timing of the MW report, playing as it does to the defining issue of the EU referendum debate.

Migration into the UK is part of our past, present and future. In a global economy and with an imperial past how can it be any different? Richard Bean’s 2009 play “England People Very Nice” showed (controversially ) how successive waves of immigration have been assimilated into society, changing it along the way.

But as the Financial Times’s George Parker observed in an excellent article: “Immigration has become a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the country. A stick to beat politicians who break their promises, rather than necessarily a big factor in their daily lives”.

Those “big factors” are the things that are making our country so ill-at-ease with itself. As I said recently, 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,  well established industries changed  beyond recognition (from  privatization of Royal Mail  to  the  strangulation  of the UK fishing  sector),  the uncertainty brought about  by changes (either real or anticipated) in population.

It is entirely  understandable that this instability  generates fear – the fear of limited resources and opportunities being  even  more thinly spread,  which  then  gets  transformed  into  a fear and hostility  of strangers.  It is wrong to dismiss these as unimportant or imagined, but equally flawed to dress it up as something that it is not.

It is an old trick – turn immigration into the lightning rod of discontent. It plays on deep–seated anxieties and always ends badly.  And that’s the problem with the Migration Watch report and newspaper coverage like the Sun’s 27 May front page showing a Britain over-run with “migrants”.  These are not neutral acts (as perhaps Andrew Green would claim), and cannot honestly be held to encourage sensible debates on delicate issues.

The events of the last week have been truly shocking. The Sun’s head of PR, Dylan Sharpe made a point of tweeting a well-written emollient editorial, but some doubt its sincerity (and with that ‘paper’s track record, you can see why.)

Time will tell if we have really entered a new era. I hope we have. But until I see Parker’s article reprinted or reflected in the Mail or Express and Boris Johnson calling out the toxic and xenophobic of his  co-Brexiters, judgement is necessarily reserved.

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

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

IPSO’s other “page 1” adjudication was against the Daily Express and can be found at

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