IPSO: the Inconvenient Truth, Part One – Jonathan Coad

29 04 2015

IPSOOf making enemies Winston Churchill said; “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Of making criticism Abraham Lincoln said; “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” Both of these nuggets of wisdom are apposite to my newly acquired foe for whom I had a heart to help; IPSO.

Events leading up to my meeting with Sir Alan Moses

The invitation which led to my recent meeting with Sir Alan Moses and Matt Tee (Chairman and Chief Executive respectively of IPSO) came as something of a surprise. This is because the pre-cursors to the meeting had not augured well.

On reading of his appointment I had written a couple of times to Sir Alan at the IPSO offices asking for a meeting in my capacity as media lawyer who was frequently instructed on behalf of complainants to the press regulator. My first letter had also been to congratulate and wish him well in his appointment. That letter and the one that I sent gently chasing the first one were however ignored, which I thought somewhat rude. Thereafter I assumed that as a potential informed critic of IPSO I was not welcome at its premises. Little did I know how right I was.

I had also sent Sir Alan a substantial bundle of material some of which I had prepared when I was asked to be a witness to the Culture Media and Sport Committee during the course of its review into the law and regulation of the press which preceded Leveson; along with some media law articles which I hoped might assist him in the legal background to his new role because I knew that he had not practised in this field during his long and distinguished career at the bar. This too was ignored, which I also thought rude as a response to someone who had offered to try to make a contribution to the success of IPSO.

I had also explained to Sir Alan in my correspondence that I had dealt with IPSO’s predecessor for all the twenty three years of its existence, and had also acted on both the Complainant and Respondent side. I suggested that this might enable me to provide a reasonably well informed insight into the task that he had taken on. None of his was apparently sufficient incentive to him to invite me to a meeting.

Apart from the discourtesy of these rebuffs I thought that since Sir Alan in particular had not practised in the media field when a barrister and not had dealt with such issues when he was on the bench, inviting input from a fellow lawyer (albeit very junior in rank to him) who had done so for over twenty five years might be a potentially informative exercise. I have undertaken many hundreds of complaints to media regulators (PCC and Ofcom) so I thought I might be able help him in a modest way better to perform his role; though I realised that this may have been presumptuous on my part.

When I read Sir Alan’s extraordinary speech to LSE Media Project which suggested that he had not remotely grasped the key issues in his role I felt compelled to make some contribution to the debate because all my attempts to meet him had been rebuffed. So I dictated the article kindly published by Inforrm (“Nought for your Comfort”) on the way home after a very busy day in the office. Imagine my surprise when shortly after its publication I was summoned to Sir Alan’s empire for an audience to meet with both him and the IPSO Chief Executive Matt Tee.

My meeting with Sir Alan Moses

My meeting with Sir Alan Moses and Matt Tee brought me together with two individuals who despite leading the work of IPSO have a combined experience of press regulation of approximately a year. Sir Alan had not practised as a media lawyer at the bar and had dealt with few media law issues on the bench. Matt Tee was a career civil servant who had previously been the chief operating officer at the NHS Confederation.

In advance of the meeting I sent Sir Alan a further media law article which set the important work of IPSO in its legal context and prepared some notes to try to ensure that I could make good use of Sir Alan’s time. The meeting began about half an hour after its due time because Sir Alan arrived late. I nonetheless began the meeting by making a point of thanking Sir Alan and Matt Tee for their making time to see me.

When I raised with them the discrepancy between the attitude taken by the press to the sale of prominence in the form of advertising and its attitude to prominence when correcting errors the atmosphere of the meeting darkened as this was plainly not welcome information. It nonetheless came as something of surprise then to be told by Mr Tee that the IPSO Committee was “not interested” in hearing my opinion. I thought that somewhat rude too, especially as I had understood that I had been invited to the IPSO offices for the very purpose of imparting that opinion. I also wondered whether it was either an appropriate rebuff for Mr Tee to deliver on behalf of the IPSO Committee of which he was not a member.

When I moderately suggested that this retort by Mr Tee appeared to indicate a lack of willingness on the part of IPSO to learn from the mistakes of its predecessor I was told by an angry Sir Alan that I was being rude to Mr Tee – Sir Alan obviously being something of an expert on the subject of manners. Sir Alan then summarily threw me out of his office and I was unceremoniously frog-marched off the IPSO premises by a fulminating Mr Tee.

In the pre-cursor to his dictat to me to quit his office Sir Alan complained that my observations to him concerning press regulation had been historic and related solely to the PCC. He also tartly rejected my suggestion that IPSO still fell a long way from the mark on the issue of prominence. I was not permitted to respond those comments as he then told me in no uncertain terms to depart his presence immediately. I am obliged therefore to do so by means of further Inforrm articles of which this is the first.

The adoption by IPSO of the character of the entity that it regulates apes the PCC

One of the defining characteristics of the British Press (with the honourable exception of some such as the Guardian) is its ugly hubris and its habit of attacking its critics in attempt to brow beat them into silence; particularly when those critics confront the press with inconvenient truth and/or make statements which contradict misleading assertions made by the press to a less well-informed public.  That was the tactic routinely adopted by the PCC to set about its informed critics, including me even though I was one with minimal significance as a mere jobbing practitioner in the field.

In my case I outraged the PCC in a number of ways and experienced its venom – though unlike another perceived threat to the PCC I was never obliged to sue its chairman (Baroness Buscombe) for libel. The first occasion was when I had the temerity to quote to its then Chairman (Sir Christopher Meyer) his own assertions to the Culture Media Sport Committee on the issue of prominence in a letter to the PCC Committee on the issue of prominence.

As part of his efforts to convince the CMS Committee that the press should be permitted to continue to regulate itself via the PCC Sir Christopher Meyer had vigorously asserted twice to the committee members that press corrections should be “at least as prominent” as the offending article, and that where the offending article is on the front page there should at least be notification on the front page that the newspaper had published a correction on an inner page. He added for good measure that any other approach to the issue of prominence would be “ridiculous”. I wrote an account of this meeting at my previous law firm. This was very welcome news to me when I read it in Hansard as I had experienced a very different approach from both the PCC and the press on the issue of prominence.

Sir Christopher’s views on the issue of prominence also reflect those of the general public when their views on the prominence of corrections are canvassed as a number of polls have shown. The PCC did not however appear any more interested in the views of the general public on the prominence issue any more than it did those of others who confronted it with the demonstrable lack of justification for corrections being a fraction of the prominence of the original article.

When I was next instructed by a client to make a PCC complaint I sparked outrage on its part by suggesting that it should act in a way consistent with the recent representations of its Chairman, and then suggesting that for its Chairman to say one thing to the CMS Committee and make a contrary determination in the complaint that I was conducting was in some way inappropriate. The ire of the PCC was then expressed in the draft adjudication which included an angry attack on me which I was then sent. When I observed that this might not be an appropriate element to the adjudication when published the venomous elements were excised.

The second time that I upset the PCC was when I also had the temerity to suggest in correspondence written on behalf of a complainant that since the press measured prominence when selling that commodity by the square inch in the form of advertising, the same measure should be applied when the press was asked by the PCC to correct its errors.  Sir Christopher Meyer then gave a speech to the Society of Editors which ridiculed this suggestion; and while I was not named in the speech I could not miss the reference to my correspondence – as it presumably it will have been recognised by Sir Christopher’s committee and the paper. The then PCC Chief Executive (Tim Toulmin) kindly sent me a copy of the speech just in case I had not seen it.

This wonderfully enlightening insight into the true nature of the PCC (i.e. that it had no independence from the press and objected to any form of criticism) prompted me to write the first of a series of articles about the PCC; the first one asking in its title “Are we safe in its hands?” coming to the firm and reasoned conclusion that we were not at a time when that was not the prevailing view.

I am indebted to Sir Alan and Matt Tee for having been equally helpful both in divulging to me the same true nature of IPSO and inspiring this article, because I was curious then to learn both whether IPSO differed in character from its predecessor and how the latest incarnation of press self-regulation would deal with being confronted with inconvenient truth in the form of informed criticism. After my meeting with Sir Alan and Mr Tee I now know the answer to these questions. Two such truths are the contradiction between well established the editorial principles and commercial practices concerning prominence applied by the industry that IPSO regulates, and the contrasting manner in which IPSO approaches the issue of prominence for complainants who seek its assistance.

For anyone who dealt with the PCC over a long period of time (in my case throughout its existence) another strong impression that you gleaned when speaking on behalf of victims of press wrongdoing who then became victims of wrongdoing by its regulator is that the senior echelons of the PCC was not interested what you said – though they did not actually say that to your face; particularly when you presented them with inconvenient truths.  To its credit IPSO has exhibited the candour to confront at least one complainant representative with that enlightening truth.

Conclusion                                                                               

In my next article I will deal with Sir Alan’s angry rejection – before my unceremonious ejection from his office – of my observations to him about the failings of the PCC and suggestion that they also applied to IPSO. There is however no doubt that IPSO has already in its administering of the PCC Code elected not only to do so in the same utterly flawed was as did the PCC but has also adopted the PCC’s methodology for covering this is up.

In trying to shout down (or in my case throw out) its critics IPSO has also adopted its predecessor’s modus operandi with a vengeance. Its aping of its predecessor is however yet more comprehensive as Part Two of this article will show by analysing a recent ISPO adjudication about an a newspaper story about a matter of considerable public interest. The adjudication both proves IPSO’s complete failure to meet stated obligations as a regulator, and the manner in which IPSO seeks to conceal that failure which precisely replicates that of its predecessor the PCC.

Jonathan Coad is a partner in the Media Brands and Technology Group at Lewis Silkin LLP and acts for both Claimants and Defendants.


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3 responses

29 04 2015
Tim Gopsill

Clear lesson here: if you you want to lay a complaint with IPSO, do it yourself! What kind of fool would pay a fortune to a lawyer who just puts everyone’s back up with his smart-alec remarks? You’d want one who just puts your case simply and clearly, and avoids insulting the body you’re asking for fair treatment. For god’s sake keep lawyers out of this business – and Inforrm please spare us the threatened further installments of this Pooterish tripe.

30 04 2015
Gavin Phillipson

Tim, by ‘smart-alec’ remarks, do you mean reasoned criticism of IPSO (in contrast to your immediate descent into abuse)? You’re aware I assume that Jonathan wasn’t going to IPSO on behalf of a complainant but in response to an invitation? I thought the article a fascinating insight into the mindset at IPSO, in particular a bizarre defensiveness and inability to respond rationally to reasoned criticism – traits that Tim displays in his comment above.

30 04 2015
Julie Doughty

Hi Jonathan, thanks for this interesting post. I’m quite puzzled though because in my experience, one is either ignored (as you thought you were at first) or courteously invited to contribute one’s views. Or even cited somewhere as an influence. But you seem to have had an invitation to a discussion which never got started. I can’t see from your post what the agenda for the meeting was. Look forward to Part 2.

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