The Times, a lawyer, some weasel words and a non-existent spectre

Under the headline ‘IPSO: the line between media freedom and intrusion’, the Times has published an article by Katie Edwards, a media specialist at solicitors Hamlins LLP. No doubt Rupert Murdoch was pleased to read it, but as the opinion of a lawyer it is, to say the least, strange.

The article addressed two questions, of which the first was:

‘How can IPSO tread the line between press freedom and providing redress to victims of press intrusion?’

The answer should be obvious to anyone who has followed these matters. The Leveson Report showed in detail how to draw a line between press freedom and providing redress to victims of press abuse (not just intrusion). That was the work of a senior judge after a formal, year-long public inquiry in which every relevant voice was heard – the best our democratic society can do when it comes to addressing difficult problems.

It is clear, therefore, that the proper way for IPSO to tread that line is to satisfy the criteria laid down by Leveson for independent and effective press self-regulation and endorsed by all parties in Parliament – criteria that punctiliously protect freedom of expression. Trustworthy mechanisms for testing whether IPSO passes the test are being created under the Royal Charter.

The second question was this:

‘How much does IPSO uphold the principles of the Leveson report?’

Note the reference to ‘tprinciples’. Elsewhere Edwards also refers to the report’s ‘key recommendations’ and to its ‘the fundamental elements’. Leveson did not lay down ‘principles’, nor did he say that some of his recommendations were ‘key’ or ‘fundamental’. He made 38 recommendations in relation to press self-regulation and they are a coherent package, not a smorgasbord to be picked from.

‘Key’, ‘fundamental’ and ‘principles’ are terms used by the newspaper proprietors and editors, those whom Leveson condemned for ‘wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people’. They have always been determined to pick and choose among the recommendations, applying only those recommendations that will not inconvenience them or make them accountable to the public.

The honest and straightforward question Edwards failed to ask was this:

How far does IPSO satisfy the Leveson recommendations?

And the honest and straightforward answer has been provided by the Media Standards Trust [pdf] (MST), which after methodical examination of the IPSO paperwork found that it satisfied only 12 of the 38 recommendations. That finding was published almost a year ago and since then no one has been able to rebut it. When the bosses of the old PCC were directly challenged by MPs to fault the MST’s assessment, they could not.

Edwards failed to mention this, and surprisingly she relied instead upon IPSO’s own claims. She may not know that the Advertising Standards Authority has condemned as misleading IPSO advertisements published in a number of papers including the Times, precisely because they claimed that IPSO delivered ‘all the key elements‘ of Leveson.

The article ended with a rhetorical flourish. Acknowledging that it remains to be seen whether IPSO will convince the public, it said:

‘But if it does, then the spectre of state regulation of the press will have been seen off — and that must be a prize worth fighting for.’

If Edwards believed that the only alternative to IPSO was state regulation she should have made that case, but she did not, and for the very good reason that it can’t be done. As Leveson himself rightly said of what he recommended: ‘This is not, and cannot be characterised as, state regulation of the press.’ Hundreds of prominent people in the world of free expression agree, and they have signed Hacked Off’s Leveson Declaration.

The spectre, like all spectres, is an illusion. Of all the hundreds of submissions and witness testimonies to the Leveson Inquiry, not one called for state regulation. There is no demand for it. Only the press proprietors and those they employ talk about it, because they want to frighten us into accepting the con trick that is IPSO.