If you are a regulator sworn to uphold standards in a given industry, it’s vital that you know about any possible breaches of those standards, right? In other words, you should be grateful to anyone who tells you about such breaches, whoever they are. 

That may seem to be straightforward regulatory logic, but it is not the way they think at IPSO, the press industry’s tame regulator. No matter how grave the matter you complain of, if you are not the right kind of person – in other words if you don’t meet their criteria for complainants – they don’t want to hear from you.

IPSO does not say how many complaints it has rejected on these grounds, but this is one of the many ways its rules and its modus operandi tilt the advantage away from the public and towards the press, enabling newspapers to defy their own code of practice with impunity.

The IPSO approach will be challenged next week (17 April) when the High Court hears a crowd-funded judicial review case brought by Jonathan Coulter, relating to the regulator’s handling of complaints that he and others made against the Times and the Sunday Times.

Coulter is disputing (among other things) IPSO’s refusal to deal with one aspect of his complaint on the grounds, it said, that he was not the person most closely involved. This, Coulter asserts, was either a breach of IPSO’s own policy or else it was unreasonable. The regulator, he says, had ‘no lawful basis to refuse to investigate’.

What happened was this. Coulter and 29 others made various complaints about coverage of a meeting about Palestine that they attended at the House of Lords, and one of these complaints concerned alleged inaccuracies in the reporting of the conduct of the chair, Baroness Tonge. IPSO formally refused to consider this on the grounds that Coulter et al were ‘third parties’ and that it had ‘considered the position of the party most closely involved’ – Baroness Tonge herself.

You might infer from this that the baroness did not support the complaint, but you would be wrong. Although she did not put her name to it, she wrote to IPSO to say that she gave her ‘full consent’ to Coulter et al ‘to represent my interests’.

IPSO thus declined to consider this complaint knowing that Baroness Tonge supported it – but claimed its decision was justified by concern for the interests of Baroness Tonge.

Whatever might be the finding of the High Court on the legalities of this matter, one thing is clear: IPSO ignored an alleged breach of the Editors’ Code on the grounds that the information came from the wrong person. This is no way to uphold standards.

And while this is the first time such a matter has come to court, it is nothing like the first time notice has been taken of the press industry’s self-awarded right to cherry-pick from the complaints made against it – a right that extends far beyond that preference for complaints directly from victims. This was one of the conspicuous flaws of the old Press Complaints Commission (PCC), as identified by numerous witnesses at the Leveson Inquiry.

The complaints filter

IPSO’s rules today are scarcely less restrictive than the PCC’s were. It ‘may, but is not obliged to’ consider complaints about alleged breaches of the Editors’ Code in three categories: 

• those from anyone ‘personally and directly affected’;
• those from representative groups, providing they are ‘affected’ by the alleged breaches and also providing the alleged breaches are ‘significant’ and that there is a ‘substantial public interest’;
• those from third parties seeking to correct a significant inaccuracy.

Rewind a moment and consider IPSO’s alleged mission: to uphold standards in news publishing by enforcing the code written for it by editors, and thus to protect the public from the effects of unethical conduct. Now consider the rules.

First, IPSO is never actually obliged, under any circumstances, to consider any complaint about a possible breach of the code. It ‘may, but is not obliged to’ deal with any of them, at its own discretion.

Second, IPSO gives priority to complaints from those who are both personally and directly affected, which in practice seems to mean that unless people meet those criteria and also engage with IPSO on the terms of its choosing, IPSO can simply ignore the alleged code breach.

(As the Leveson Report pointed out, this approach takes no account of the ability of news publishers to intimidate potential complainants who have been ‘directly affected’ by press coverage. Nor does it allow for the reluctance of people who have been harmed to confront their abusers. Where such conditions apply, it seems the code may be breached with impunity.)

Third, IPSO ‘may, but is not obliged to’ investigate complaints by representative groups who are affected, but only if the alleged breach passes two subjective tests, both measured by IPSO itself. (How, you might ask, can IPSO tell if a complaint is ‘significant’, or determine whether the public interest it engages is ‘substantial’, if it does not investigate it first?)

One indicator of the effectiveness of this provision for ‘representative groups’ may be found in matters of discrimination, where you would expect such groups to be most active. In one year IPSO received 8,148 complaints relating to discrimination and it upheld just one

Fourth and finally, IPSO may consider complaints from ‘third parties’ (the news publisher and the ‘person directly affected’ being the first and second parties) – but exclusively in matters of accuracy. So if you think you have spotted a breach of any of the 15 other clauses of the code but you are not ‘personally and directly affected’, forget it. 

Among the curious underlying assumptions of this ‘third party’ thinking is that a customer who pays money for a newspaper and finds evidence in its pages of a possible breach of the code is not considered to be ‘directly affected’. That would not be the case in other retail industries, where most people would surely accept that, if you have bought a product you suspect is flawed, you are entitled to complain.

A pattern

When the Leveson Inquiry looked at the record of the old Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in 2012 it found almost complete agreement that it was not a regulator but was in practice nothing more than a complaints processing body, and it concluded that even that limited job was done in unsatisfactory fashion. 

IPSO has powers of investigation that the PCC did not have, but it never uses them. In three years that have seen, among other things, two elections and a referendum, it has never detected any problem in the press worth investigating. And if IPSO acts as a regulator in any other way it is invisible, and there is no sign in press conduct that it has any effect. So once again we are left with a mere complaints-handling body.

As for its sanctions, IPSO has a power to impose fines that the PCC did not, but again it never does so, and even when it actually upholds complaints against news publishers its interpretation of ‘due prominence’ for corrections allows editors to bury their mistakes on inside pages. 

Add to this the problem that the Coulter judicial review case illustrates, which is that IPSO’s rules enable it to pick and choose which complaints it will actually look into, and you have the picture of a sham regulator. 

The Leveson Report, reviewing the history of press regulation over more than six decades, detected what it called a ‘pattern of cosmetic reform’ in the responses of the press industry to public dissatisfaction. In other words, whenever there was an outcry the make-up and the lipstick might change, but what lay behind never did. So it has proved, again, in the transition from the PCC to IPSO.