By Brian Cathcart
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) began, as it could only have begun, in disaster. Nothing less could have stirred the men who own and run Britain’s big national newspaper groups to alter in any way a system of ‘self-regulation‘ that had protected their interests so well for decades.
The disaster was the Guardian’s revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, which brought complete humiliation on the old Press Complaints Commission (PCC), prompted the Prime Minister to declare it a failure, caused Ed Miliband to brand it a ‘toothless poodle’, and forced its chair to resign.
PressBoF, the shadowy committee of industry bosses who pulled the PCC’s strings, had to do something in response, so they replaced the old chair, working Conservative peer Baroness Peta Buscombe, with another working Conservative peer, Lord David Hunt. The difference, the public was told, was that Hunt would oversee ‘wholesale renewal’.
Characteristically, no public consultation was involved in this process, which led in a few months to what became known as the Hunt/Black plan, named for Hunt and for Lord Guy Black, the PressBof chair (who, remarkably, is also a working Conservative peer).
This plan was unveiled before the Leveson Inquiry in 2012 and the judge’s verdict on it (pp1648-50) was polite but scathing. The proposal, he wrote, was ‘structured entirely around the interests and rights of the press, with no explicit recognition of the rights of individuals’.
It failed to deliver an independent process for setting fair and objective standards; its supposed compliance and investigations mechanisms would not be effective; its remedies for victims of press abuse were too weak; its chair would not be independent and the industry bosses would retain its whip hand through a successor body to PressBof. In fact, the judge wrote, the Hunt/Black plan failed on every point of reform that he considered important.
No one was surprised, for the objective of Hunt/Black had always been to change the window-dressing at the PCC without any surrender of press power. As Leveson put it (p1535): ‘A show of reform has been used as a substitute for the reality of it.’
It may have been omprehensively rejected in November 2012 by a properly-constituted, judge-led public inquiry set up to act in the interests of the public, but the Hunt/Black plan has now resurfaced, with only modest alterations, as IPSO.
This is a remarkable and brazen act of defiance by a small number of powerful men – notably Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, Lord Guy Black and Paul Vickers of the Trinity Mirror group – who hold democracy, the judiciary, honest journalism and the public in contempt.
No sooner had the judge reported in November 2012, making cautious recommendations for effective, independent press self-regulation that would safeguard freedom of expression and protect the public, than these men set about subverting his report.
In a flagrant abuse of the power of the press, they had long been denigrating the judge and his inquiry in their news pages. Now they stepped up that process while twisting the arms of politicians. The aim was to ensure that, like half a dozen previous reports on press standards before it over six decades, this report would be discredited, shelved and forgotten.
And as happened many times before, they sought a private, secret deal with politicians to achieve this. Leveson had reported that the connections between the press and politicians were too close: they now exploited that closeness to the maximum.
So it was that in February 2013 David Cameron announced a draft Royal Charter on press self-regulation that bore an uncanny resemblance, not to the Leveson recommendations, but to the Hunt/Black plan. It was, said Paul Vickers, ‘the fruit of two months of intensive talks’ – talks that had taken place behind closed doors, with Conservative ministers only, and which the public could not hear.
The manoeuvre failed. Labour and the Liberal Democrats opposed the draft, as did many Conservatives, and six weeks later every party in the House of Commons gave its backing to a Royal Charter much more closely based on the Leveson recommendations.
Defeated in front of a public inquiry and now defeated in Parliament, PressBof next threw a very large quantity of its members’ money into an attempt to wreck the new Royal Charter in the courts. This too, eventually, was ignominiously defeated.
All this time the discredited PCC continued to do the job designed for it by the industry: in 2013 it received 12,763 complaints and formally upheld just 15. As Leveson had said (p1579): ‘It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the self-regulatory system was run for the benefit of the press not of the public.’
But the PCC was doomed. Even PressBof accepted that, and Lord Hunt had been allowed to say that it would eventually be wound up. (The PressBof chair, Lord Black, had even admitted to the Leveson Inquiry: “The Press Complaints Commission ultimately failed.’)
But the proprietors and editors were determined to resist the will of the judge and of Parliament: they would not countenance the Leveson-based changes prescribed under the Royal Charter because that would make them genuinely answerable for the wrongdoings of their papers.
The PCC’s replacement would be to their design and no one else’s, they decided, and as always this would mean a show of reform without the reality. It was Hunt/Black again.
Lord Hunt’s ‘renewal’ was moribund so PressBof entrusted delivery to Paul Vickers (who had failed to fix the Charter in their favour) and a body called the Industry Implementation Group. Once again, no consultation with the public was involved: this was exclusively newspaper executives talking to newspaper executives about how best to protect each others’ interests.
The result, unveiled in autumn 2013, was IPSO. In a nutshell, it was the PCC’s discredited complaints procedure with the Hunt/Black window-dressing of contracted membership, pseudo-investigations, illusory £1m fines and fixed ‘independent’ appointments. The failings so witheringly condemned by Leveson were carefully incorporated.
Brazenly, the big newspaper groups told their millions of readers in advertisements that IPSO would ‘deliver all the key elements Leveson called for in his report’. This was an outright lie, as the Advertising Standards Authority subsequently ruled.
Close analysis of the IPSO paperwork by the Media Standards Trust has shown that IPSO only satisfies 12 of the 38 criteria set out by Leveson for effective, independent press self-regulation. This verdict has never been seriously challenged in the 10 months since it was published and sent to all newspapers.
The Guardian – the paper that exposed phone hacking and was notoriously damned by the PCC for doing so – rejected IPSO outright. It would not be independent, said the paper; it gave the big newspaper groups too much power; its investigations and fines system was flawed and it failed to deliver arbitration, which Leveson required.
Nothing, however, would stop Murdoch, Dacre and their friends, and so the process of appointing an IPSO chair and board was set in motion. To impress the public, the IPSO paperwork had included a commitment that the appointments panel would itself be appointed in an open and fair way, but when the moment came they lost their nerve and without any announcement those openness and fairness requirements were ditched.
An appointments committee was duly created in which a veto was given to two press representatives, one a senior Murdoch editor and both compromised by past association with – and advocacy for – the PCC. There was barely a pretence that the past was anything to be ashamed of.
The upshot of it all is that this body launched just over six months ago, conforms perfectly to what Leveson called (p1535) ‘a pattern of cosmetic reform’.
Right back to its origins in the Hunt/Black plan, IPSO has always been a device to avoid rather than deliver accountability.
The people who run the biggest national newspapers will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid being held to a code of practice, even to the one they wrote themselves. They have proved this again and again, for example in their coverage of the deaths of L’Wren Scott and Robin Williams, their persistently cruel reporting of transgender people and their scandalously inaccurate reporting on immigration.
IPSO is another toothless poodle, a deliberate and calculated fraud upon the public perpetrated by a tiny group of men responsible for wholesale wrongdoing and abuse of vulnerable people. If this was happening in any industry but their own, the national press would be exposing and denouncing it.
Brian Cathcart was a founder of Hacked Off and professor of journalism at Kingston University London.