Six weeks after its stealth launch, the new press ‘regulator’ IPSO finally had something to announce. A press release appeared on its website, in response to a complaint about The Sun newspaper by a Conservative MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston. Dr Wollaston complained to the old PCC about a front-page splash at the end of July 2014, which claimed that a four-year-old boy had something it described as a mark of the ‘devil’ on his torso.
Dr Wollaston was not alone in thinking that the story was not in the interests of the child, and that other people might be encouraged to offer similar stories to the paper in the hope of receiving payment.
At the time, Hacked Off posted a blog about this scandalous exploitation of a vulnerable child, which not only identified him and his school but included details of a serious medical condition. As well as the front-page story and photograph on 29 July 2014, the paper devoted most of an inside page to this egregious nonsense and returned to the story the following day. The story was an unequivocal breach of Clause 6 (iv) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, which says that parents or guardians should not be paid for stories about their children, unless it is clearly in the child’s interests.
Following Dr Wollaston’s complaint, The Sun admitted that it paid the child’s parents. So what did IPSO, which took over from the PCC last September, do about this flagrant breach of both journalistic ethics and the Editors’ code? It was not involved at all in resolving the complaint, which was settled through an agreement between Dr Wollaston andThe Sun. IPSO’s involvement was limited to publishing a ‘resolution statement’ on its website.
It is striking that the words ‘code breach’ do not appear anywhere in the statement, which signally failed to address any of the issues raised by the paper’s appalling behaviour. Instead of acknowledging that it broke the Code and promising not to do it again, The Sun simply said that ‘payments involving children would be signed off by the legal and managing editors’ office’ in future.
Most significant of all, perhaps, was the total failure to deal with the issue of prominence. Critics of press abuse have always argued that newspapers should not be allowed to bury corrections and apologies to front-page stories inside the paper, and IPSO has boasted about its willingness to take on editors on this point. So how did The Sun acknowledge its admitted wrong-doing in this landmark case?
In four sentences. On page two. And just to give a flavour of its non-apology, the statement began with this sentence: ‘The Sun is proud of our record of standing up for children and we believe we make a real difference’. Anyone who wants to know what the paper actually did wrong will have to follow a link to the ‘resolution statement’ on IPSO’s website.
Are errant editors quaking in their boots at the first evidence of how the new regime of self-regulation works? I very much doubt it.