Debate: Is self-regulation failing in the UK newspaper industry?


Government and Institutions
The issue of how to regulate the press has been fiercely debated since the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry in 2011, days after the News of the World newspaper closed amid the phone-hacking scandal. The conclusion of Part I of the inquiry in 2012 confirmed widespread wrongdoing within the sector, and resulted in criminal convictions and a new Royal Charter on press regulation, following which independent regulators IPSO and IMPRESS were set up.

Yet many critics argue that these bodies are toothless, lacking statutory underpinning, and have already failed to clamp down on obvious wrongdoing. Opponents of further regulation, meanwhile, highlight the law of unintended consequences. They argue that allowing further government intrusion could impede press freedom and independent journalism.

Today’s debate blog examines the question: Is self-regulation failing in the UK newspaper industry?

Regulatory consultant, Simon Carne, says YES.

Self-regulation is a very effective mechanism when it is deployed well. But it can also be little more than a sham, designed to create the impression that a trade or profession is under control, when the opposite is the case. In the four years since the mainstream press created its self-regulator, IPSO, we have seen the following:

  • The Kerslake Report into Manchester Arena Terrorist Attack was “shocked and dismayed by the accounts of the families [who] spoke of being ‘hounded’ … and of ‘sneaky’ attempts to take photos when families were receiving bad news”.

  • A young man was falsely accused by the papers of murder. IPSO did nothing. After winning a libel case his family secured only a tiny apology.

  • A Mail on Sunday journalist duped a grieving mother into giving an exclusive interview after infiltrating the wake at her family home and posing as a well-wisher. IPSO didn’t even investigate.

  • A traveller was wrongly blamed for two deaths. A complaint to IPSO resulted in a tiny correction printed months after the original story.

  • The Daily Mail reported: “Migration ‘has created 900 no-go areas in EU’: Devastating reports shows order breaking down – including in London”. In fact, no such report existed and IPSO did nothing to get this corrected.

I could go on, but space here is limited. For more examples – and more details of the above examples – see Thrown to the Wolves, Front Page Failures, and No More Excuses.

So, how did we get here?

There have been seven investigations into the UK press industry over the past seventy years. The seventh – the Leveson Inquiry – concluded in 2012. The previous investigation had led to the industry creating the Press Complaints Commission to regulate its activity under the Editors Code. But Leveson found that the Editors Code had “simply been ignored”. Something else was needed.

Returning to a reliance on law enforcement would be no good, Leveson concluded, because the press’s law-breaking is typically hidden, with victims themselves unaware of it. He recommended the creation of a new regulator that is truly independent of the press. But, recognising the press’s crucial role in speaking truth to power, he said that any press regulator needed to be independent of the State. And so there was much talk of that apparent oxymoron, “independent self-regulation”. Far from being a contradiction in terms, it is shorthand for “self-imposed, but independently managed, regulation”.

Leveson set out a number of criteria to be met before a press regulator should be accepted as satisfactory – criteria which (with some additions and amendments) were enshrined in documents creating the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), which assesses press regulators to see if they are fit to be “recognised” under the post-Leveson settlement.

And so we saw the creation of two press regulators, IMPRESS and IPSO.

IMPRESS is the only the only regulator to have achieved recognition. Over 100 publishers have chosen to submit to IMPRESS’s regime, including Salisbury nerve agent investigator, Bellingcat, ‘new left media’ outlet, The SkwawkBox, and But these are not the newspapers you can buy in your local newsagent or supermarket. The traditional tabloid newspapers and several upmarket titles, including the Times and the Telegraph, chose to be regulated by IPSO.

IPSO hasn’t sought recognition by the PRP. It would be pointless for them to do so, because IPSO fails to satisfy several key criteria for recognition. It is too tightly controlled by the press to satisfy the PRP and, more crucially for members of the public, IPSO has an overly-complex investigatory regime and doesn’t require its members to agree to low-cost arbitration to resolve libel claims and other grievances. IPSO doesn’t even require its own judgments to be enforced.

Trust in journalists has fallen below 30%. Self-regulation, as a concept, is not to blame. But IPSO is undoubtedly failing to deliver effective self-regulation of the mainstream press.

Julian Jessop, the IEA’s Chief Economist and author of a recent report into self-regulation of the Internet, says NO

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is a relatively new regulator and far from perfect. Could it do better in some areas? Yes. But is it failing overall? No.

The aim of regulation is to protect people from the bad behaviour of those with more power. In the case of the newspaper industry, the two biggest concerns are the dissemination of false or misleading information, and the harassment of people in the public eye. IPSO seeks to tackle these risks by monitoring performance against the Editors’ Code of Practice, investigating complaints, and operating anti-harassment and whistleblowing hotlines.

Despite a mostly favourable external review of IPSO’s structure and activities by Sir Joseph Pilling in 2016, many still argue that the organisation is fundamentally flawed. But I’m not convinced that any of the problems are fatal weaknesses.

One line of attack is a perceived lack of independence. It is true that IPSO is financed by the newspaper industry itself, which also sets the rules under which it operates. However, this is the nature of self-regulation. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is set up on similar lines and is still widely recognised as free of undue influence. The small number of national publications that have not signed up to any regulator, notably the Financial Times and the Guardian, operate their own codes and complaint schemes that are essentially the same as those run by IPSO.

It is also argued that IPSO does not have sufficient powers. But it seems pretty powerful to me. For example, the regulator can oblige newspapers and magazines to publish corrections and the results of adjudications. This power could perhaps be strengthened with an obligation to give them the same prominence as the original article. Nonetheless, most observers agree than the upholding of a complaint by IPSO is already taken seriously, especially by editors, even if some critics would like this to happen more often.

This makes sense in a highly competitive industry where reputation and peer pressure are important, and consumers can easily switch to other providers. People should be free to decide what to watch, hear and read, without having their choices limited by politicians.

What’s more, the most outrageous activities of some newspapers – including harassment, hacking phones, bribing public officials and inciting racial hatred – are already illegal. These should properly be matters for the police and the courts, rather than a regulator with relatively limited resources.

An effective regulator could still provide some simpler alternatives for those who want to pre-empt problems or avoid pursuing an expensive civil case. However, IPSO already has a warning system that allows vulnerable people to request privacy, and is developing a low-cost arbitration scheme. These arrangements could be improved, but something is being done.

Inevitably, this is not enough for some critics, especially supporters of the state-approved alternative, IMPRESS. The campaigning group Hacked Off has continued to highlight examples of behaviour that many would find unacceptable.

However, these are still the exceptions, rather than the norm. The weaknesses of self-regulation therefore need to be balanced against the potential costs of increased government intervention. Many of the points raised by critics of IPSO could equally be seen as attacks on press freedom, investigative journalism, and the right to say things that some people find offensive. Even the well-regarded ASA has surely gone too far in banning ‘gender stereotypes’. Given a choice between the existing system of self-regulation, or a further tightening of restrictions on the media, I’d take the former every time.

Simon Carne has worked with regulators and self-regulators for 30 years. He was a member of the Panel of Business and Economic Advisers at the UK’s first economic regulator, Oftel, and is currently a member of Ofwat’s Water 2020 Advisory Panel and Ofcom’s Academic Panel. For more than 15 years, he held a number of roles in the self-regulation of the actuarial profession. In 2014, he advised the project team creating IMPRESS. He has been a guest columnist for the Financial Times on regulation and a Visiting Lecturer on City University’s course in Economic Regulation and Competition.

Julian Jessop is an independent economist with over thirty years of experience gained in the public sector, City and consultancy, including senior positions at HM Treasury, HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank and Capital Economics. He was Chief Economist and Head of the Brexit Unit at the IEA until December 2018 and continues to support our work, especially schools outreach, on a pro bono basis.

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