The UK’s press regulator is simply not up to standard.
It’s to my great annoyance over the past few weeks and months that I can vividly recall examples in which contingents of the UK press have pushed the very boundaries of what can be considered decent and proper. In other cases, they have told flat-out lies.
— IPSO (@IpsoNews) March 26, 2016
The press has its origins in the 17th century and has long championed a proud tradition of being able to say what they want. Whilst I agree with the consensus that press freedom is a crucial part of a functioning democracy, I don’t believe this freedom should extend to spreading falsehoods and the wilful misinterpretation of events.
In theory, the press regulator – The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) – should go some way to ensure the press don’t cross over the line into prevarication telling distorted truths, but the reality is more sombre than that. IPSO doesn’t have the teeth required to keep up to the task of regulating the press.
The core issue with IPSO is that membership is voluntary. By comparison, it would be considered fanciful if one were to suggest making adherence to the rules of the Food Standards Agency a voluntary measure. Catering establishments would be under no obligation to ensure that food was of a certain acceptable quality; that the necessary preparation procedures were in place, or that the hygiene standards were up to scratch. This would be a public health disaster.
Yet, in the media sector there is no such obligation to ensure quality and accuracy in reporting. We cannot and should not underestimate the influence wielded by the most powerful press organisations in this country. To say simply that they have no obligation to adhere to the code is akin to giving them free reign to say what they wish.
There’s a crucial difference between an opinion and a falsehood. I defend the right of the press to hold whatever opinions they may, but not to spread a message that is contrary to the facts.
Furthermore, IPSO policy allows for a tremendous amount of breathing space even when a news outlet is undeniably in the wrong. Section 1, sub-section 2, states: “A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published”.
There’s no mention of proportionality in the code. For instance, if a paper runs a front-page story on you that turns out to be a fabrication, an apology to correct that doesn’t have to be on the front page. The apology can be a few lines in a small section on page 10 of the paper. Failure to police inaccurate information effectively promotes a culture of irresponsibility and a lack of accountability.
Here’s a reasoned piece of journalism (not): pic.twitter.com/Td2dZ3Yz8S
— James Turner QC (@JamesTurner37) November 3, 2016
This is getting completely out of hand. If The Daily Mail speaks of Judges as enemies of the people, democracy is being undermined. Shame!
— Nigel Pascoe QC (@nigel_pascoe) November 3, 2016
If the worst they can say about you is you’re an OPENLY GAY EX-OLYMPIC FENCER TOP JUDGE, you’ve basically won life. pic.twitter.com/j8tUTjODuP
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) November 3, 2016
I do sympathise with the argument of the editors. They argue they don’t want third parties dictating to them what appears on the front-page of their paper. But to have one’s name dragged through the mud on the front-page and a subsequent apology to be three lines long is a failure of the regulatory regime.
Some parties may argue that the courts are an effective method of holding the press to account, but not everyone has the means and resources to pursue this path. Thus, there must be a degree of responsibility taken by the press to take more due diligence on what they are printing.
Indeed, the lack of real consequence holds no one to account. As mentioned before, the press has the power to twist and free-form opinions. Those opinions can then go on to justify real life actions, sometimes to the detriment of an individual or group.
To wield that kind of power and not keep it in check is wildly irresponsible and shouldn’t be allowed to continue.