However low our opinion of IPSO may be, we have to accept that some of those who have supported it, engaged with it and even worked for it have done so for sincere and honest reasons. The time has come to feel sorry for them, because they have been utterly humiliated.
The organisation’s impotence – its designed-in inability to restrain even the worst press behaviour – has been laid bare as never before, as has its crippling lack of independence from the industry it claims to regulate. And this has not happened accidentally but is the result of the deliberate actions of the Murdoch organisation – in particular the actions of Sun columnist Trevor Kavanagh.
The pivotal IPSO ruling came last week and concerned Kavanagh’s use in his column of the phrase ‘The Muslim Problem’, an obvious appropriation of Nazi anti-Semitic rhetoric. IPSO declared that this was not a breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
Many disagreed, but that can happen with regulatory adjudications. What made this case so damaging for IPSO was what it revealed – what it blared out to the world – about the Editors’ Code that IPSO supposedly upholds and about the role of Kavanagh.
A licence to abuse minorities
Only a couple of weeks ago Baroness Warsi pointed out in her Leveson Lecture that the code fails to protect minorities from discrimination at the hands of news publishers. Clause 12 permits only complaints relating to individuals, meaning that discriminatory language directed against groups can never be a breach.
Warsi quoted King’s College London research which concluded that on this basis ‘arguably the code gives licence to general discrimination by explicitly excluding it from its definition’. In other words there is nothing that Kavanagh or the Sun or any other IPSO-regulated newspaper could write about Muslims in general that would breach the code.
No one can claim that this is accidental. As recently as 2015 the Editors’ Code Committee revised the code (with Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail in the chair) and it was fully aware then of what the wording meant, and that minorities were deeply unhappy about it. By its choice to retain that wording the committee made clear its determination that newspapers should continue to have this licence to discriminate.
Now the licence is being exploited by the papers more ferociously than ever, most notably in their treatment of Muslims but also of others such as LGBT people, the disabled, Travellers, refugees from Syria and Iraq and migrants of all kinds.
The effect for IPSO, as we saw last week, is acutely damaging. It makes ‘the toughest press regulator in the Western world’ an accomplice in this abuse of minorities, since in every discrimination case that it adjudicates it must vindicate the abusers and then look on as they trumpet their delight at the ruling. For any civilised person associated with IPSO this must be mortifying.
Even worse for IPSO was the presence at the centre of this affair of Trevor Kavanagh.
Regulators can’t always make popular decisions but if they want the unpopular ones to be respected they must be able to show they are arrived at fairly and impartially. IPSO, self-evidently the creature of the corporate press, can never escape this problem, and there is no better advertisement for its lack of independence than the swaggering, thuggish Kavanagh.
In case you didn’t know, the columnist who uses Holocaust terminology when writing about his fellow-citizens is a member of IPSO’s board. No, he didn’t actually sit on the committee that dealt with the complaints against him, but he might as well have done.
Kavanagh was not Rupert Murdoch’s original representative on the IPSO board. That was William Newman, who as a Sun executive in 1989 led the paper’s defence of its notorious Hillsborough disaster coverage. It is a measure of the contempt in which Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks hold IPSO that when Newman resigned they chose Kavanagh in his place.
For one thing Kavanagh was even more deeply implicated in the Hillsborough outrage than Newman had been. It was he who told his editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, allegedly on the basis of unnamed political sources, that it was fine to publish a pack of grossly offensive lies about the victims of the disaster.
For another, Kavanagh ought by rights to have been excluded from consideration for the job because he had been a member of the committee that chose IPSO’s supposedly independent panel for appointing board members. He might be said to have appointed himself at one remove.
As if this was not bad enough, Kavanagh is also a very powerful figure in the industry, a man who not only has the ear of Murdoch and Brooks but also has considerable influence if not actual power over government ministers. Beside him the IPSO chair, Sir Alan Moses, is a very minor player in Fleet Street terms, and the idea of a confrontation between the two ending in favour of Moses is laughable.
Nor has Kavanagh been shy of throwing his weight around. When IPSO found in favour of the Sun last year in the case of the Channel 4 presenter Fatima Manji, he promptly weighed in with a column that mocked and belittled her. The message to the public from this member of IPSO’s board was clear: complain about the Sun and we will do our worst to you.
A perfect storm
Against this background, Kavanagh’s victory last week in the case of his ‘Muslim Problem’ article amounted to a perfect storm for IPSO.
Every member of every vulnerable minority could see, if they were not already aware, that IPSO will never protect them, even from the very cruellest press abuse.
And the entire country could see more clearly than ever that IPSO is the plaything of the big papers, notably of the Murdoch and Mail papers. Its rules are designed to accommodate whatever those papers want, and its structure is anything but independent of them.
IPSO was always a cynical sham. It has depended for its survival on creating the illusion that it is better than nothing – that it can at least make some difference. Three years of rampant press abuse and regulatory failure have done a lot to dispel that illusion, but nothing to date has done the job as spectacularly as Kavanagh and his ‘Muslim Problem’.