Ipso: the line between media freedom and intrusion

The Independent Press Standards Organisation’s job is to convince the public that its policies and procedures work

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) was launched last week — the body that replaces the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) as the UK’s newspaper regulator to oversee editorial standards for the majority of national and regional newspapers and magazines.

The launch has already been met with reproach and disapproval by victims of press intrusion, who argue that the new regulator fails to meet the criteria outlined in the Leveson report and is nothing but a sham. So how can Ipso tread the line between press freedom and providing redress to victims of press intrusion, and how much does it uphold the principles of the Leveson report?

Ipso is not only required to assist members of the public with complaints over breaches of the Editors’ Code of Practice (dealing with matters such as invasion of privacy and harassment); it must also be conscious of the need to protect the freedom of the press to report in the public interest — though some newspaper titles have already refused to recognise and engage with the regulator.

Much of the criticism levelled against Ipso relates to its alleged failure to meet the recommendations of the Leveson report. Leveson called for the press to create its own regulator backed by legislation to ensure certain standards of independence and effectiveness are at all times met.

A royal charter was subsequently introduced for press regulation, which included the establishment of a “recognition panel” to verify independently and keep an eye on any new regulator.

While the UK’s newspapers will not agree to Ipso being regulated under the charter, Leveson’s key recommendations are in fact supported by the press. Ipso claims to deliver the fundamental elements of the Leveson report, including independence and transparency. It has the power to impose fines of up to £1 million for serious or systemic wrongdoing and has also established a whistleblowers’ hotline for journalists who feel under pressure to act in an unethical way. Meanwhile the royal charter appears to be dead in the water; certainly Maria Miller, then culture secretary, indicated it might now be redundant, subject to the new regulator being set up properly.

Critics say it is not independent of the newspaper industry and is too similar to the PCC. Yet it is evident that there are facets of Ipso that improve on the PCC — in particular over implementation of effective and clear procedures for the reasonable and prompt handling of complaints and improved internal governance and complaints procedures within organisations.

The PCC was discredited during the Leveson inquiry and Ipso’s chairman, retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Alan Moses, will certainly be aware that to placate critics and encourage support following its launch, Ipso will need to be robust — while appropriately treading the line between the privacy of individuals and press freedom.

Efforts have clearly been made to rectify the failures of the PCC and Sir Alan Moses is adamant that Ipso will be a success, although the publishers of the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times have not signed up. Whether it will be able to convince the public, though, that its policies and procedures are effective remains to be seen. 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.

Written by Katie Edwards, Solicitor in the Media and Entertainment team.

This article first appeared in The Times, 18 September 2014.