The other day I came across a surprising quotation from Sir Alan Moses (see below in paragraph 5).  He was the first head of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), the latest incarnation of what passes for a UK press regulator. Ipso came into being following the conclusion of the first part of the Leveson Inquiry, the judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press which followed the News International ‘phone hacking scandal. Leveson 2 was intended to examine relationships between journalists and the police. It was scrapped by the government in March 2018.

Set up in 2011 the inquiry held a series of public hearings during 2011 and 2012. Even Rupert Murdoch found time to attend, in April 2012 and you can read a very interesting account of his evidence reported by Nick Davies at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/apr/25/rupert-murdoch-planned-leveson-inquiry

Sir Alan headed up Ipso from 2014 leaving at the end of 2019.

I had come across Alan Moses (Mr. Justice Moses then) at the turn of the century when as a High Court judge he presided over the case of David Shayler, a former M15 officer who was tried under the Official Secrets Act for revealing allegations about MI5 and MI6 knowledge of a plot to use al-Qaeda terrorists to kill Colonel Gaddafi in 1996. The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (of which I was national organiser at the time) along with the NUJ strongly supported David, but to cut a long story short he was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison.  But this did not stop the judge turning up to farewell drinks marking John Wadham’s retirement as head of  Liberty (formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties), who had represented David throughout.  David who had recently been released from prison was there with his partner Annie Machon, which did not go unnoticed by Mr. Justice Moses. Perhaps for the judge this was an exercise in reputational damage limitation!

Fast forward some 18 years you will find him quoted in John Mair’s new book What’s the Point of Ofcom? Sir Alan (pictured) admits he struggled to convince people of the watchdog’s mission. “The great failure of IPSO, or to be honest, I fear, my failure, was a failure of persuasion. I never was able to convince those few who were interested in press regulation that self-regulation was anything other than self-interest.” He was frustrated at being unable to stop newspapers in their “cruelty or bullying” towards individuals. Perhaps another exercise in reputational damage limitation? See: https://inews.co.uk/opinion/comment/ofcom-watchdog-chair-teeth-not-one-foaming-mouth-971657   

One person who knows only too well the cruelty of newspapers and the failure of Ipso to protect the public is a long-standing friend of mine and NUJ member, Mandy Garner. She told her story of Ipso’s failure to her union’s magazine The Journalist earlier this year. I’ve set extracts from it  below.

“At 2.00 am on February 20 last year, two police officers knocked on our door. They had come to inform us that our 20-year-old daughter Anisha had been killed in a hit-and-run incident. By midday the next day, the Mail-on-line had published CCTV footage of the incident purchased from a local store under the headline ‘EXCLUSIVE: Shocking moment young woman is killed by speeding hit-and-run driver escaping police – as she is flung 20 feet into the air and lands in front of horrified onlookers at London bus stop’. The video played automatically if you clicked on the story. Two of my brothers saw that story. One of them rang the Mail to complain. The video was removed two days after it was posted, presumably after it had received all the clicks required…”

Mandy continues: “Despite our overwhelming shock and grief, I decided to file a complaint to Ipso because I felt this was clearly a breach of any kind of press standards. To me, it was fairly evident that the Mail was exploiting my daughter’s death for clickbait and that this was a clear case of intrusion into private grief. My children could have seen that video. Images stick in the mind much more than words. It was wrong and I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else. I thought the process would be fairly straightforward. Instead, I was subjected to months of exchanges with the Mail, who tried to justify their actions. Every exchange reduced me to tears. Apparently, the Mail’s motive was to bring forward witnesses. This was despite the fact that there were many witnesses and, of course, CCTV footage. The police were involved, and an independent police investigation is going on – but that headline is clearly not about bringing witnesses forward. Why publish so quickly? If witnesses were required, surely that is something we, Anisha’s family, would have supported. Why not ask us?

“The main thrust of the Mail’s defence, however, was to throw the blame onto someone else. They said they had given the police time to warn us the video was going up. In fact, the police had told them not to put it up and, when the Mail said they were going to anyway, the police had asked at least to be given time to let us know. The Mail gave the police one hour. I maintain that we were not warned. I would have remembered. The Mail says we were. This is despite the fact that, warning or no warning, they would have posted it anyway. They also claimed to have edited the video ‘sensitively’ so it stopped just before the actual impact.

“Although none of this had anything to do with my complaint about clickbait, it was enough for Ipso to dismiss the claim. Ipso added that the video was ‘grainy’ so you would not know who it was. My brothers all knew who it was. My children would know who it was.

“I checked how many cases had been successful in the last five years under ‘clause 4 – intrusion into grief’ of the Ipso editors’ code. I found one, again involving the Mail and again involving video. This time, however, the Mail did not attempt to justify it. I told Ipso several times that the whole process had been very distressing. When I first mentioned this, they asked if I wanted to drop the case. At the end, they asked if I might like to train them on how to improve the process. The only thing that would improve it is if they actually stood up for press standards. Instead, their ruling means the Mail – and perhaps others – will do the same thing again. Indeed, the Mail cited a previous ruling to back up their case. I doubt many other people would put in a complaint to Ipso under clause 4. It’s not what you want to do when you are grieving and Ipso told me few people had done this. But it’s because I am a journalist that I think it matters. We can and must do better…”

As Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ Ethics Council writes in the current edition of The Journalist  “Treating a young woman’s death as a public spectacle is not acceptable journalism and neither is failing to take it seriously as a regulator…” Chris concludes by saying that editors must “stop using people’s pain to sell newspapers.”

We owe it to people like Mandy and thousands of others who have been let down by Ipso to ‘do better’ by campaigning for a more effective press regulator. Ipso is not truly independent. It’s paid for by the publishers it regulates, through the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC), all of whose directors are industry insiders.

In May we can expect two new critical reports on the workings of Ipso. I will let you know what they say and what remedies they suggest. Meanwhile we do after all have a Leveson compliant press regulator, IMPRESS, which is ignored by all the mainstream press. Ipso, on the other hand, is not is fully compliant with Leveson’s recommendations and supported by them.

You can read the full story by Mandy Garner in The Journalist at: https://content.yudu.com/web/3pylg/0A3pylh/JournalistFebMar21/html/index.html?page=8&origin=reader

What’s the Point of Ofcom? Edited by John Mair is published by Bite-Sized Public Affairs Books.