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Law Column: Standards committee calls for change

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It’s not often that the Committee on Standards in Public Life features on these pages, but last week’s review, titled “Intimidation in Public Life”, raises some interesting issues for both the press and IPSO.

The Committee’s report shows that they are deeply concerned about intimidation of those in public life, especially via social media. The problems faced by MPs and candidates at general elections were particularly highlighted.

The report received a good deal of coverage, almost exclusively because of its eye-catching recommendation that the law should be changed so that social media companies themselves become liable for illegal online content. This radical proposal received a good deal of coverage and comment, including from yours truly, and it will be interesting to see how the Government and the social media companies react.

But buried deep in the Review were two recommendations which directly relate to the press, both national and regional, and to IPSO, both of which are worth thinking about.

 

With regards to the press, the Committee recognised the fundamental importance of freedom of expression: “freedom of the press is essential and must be protected”.  But at the same time, its underlying premise was that “the print media has a responsibility to help tackle the intimidatory tone of public life”.

And continuing this theme of responsibility, the Committee said: “While continuing their important scrutiny of those in public office, journalists and editors must also be careful they are not unduly or unfairly undermining trust in the political system, especially through portraying stories about disagreements as breaches of ethical standards”

and

The media must take active steps to prevent intimidation by ensuring that they do not encourage or incentivise obtaining stories through intimidation or harassment”.

So it came as no surprise that the Committee recommended that the press needs to put these principles into practice:

“News organisations should only consider stories from freelance journalists that meet the standards of IPSO’s Editors Code …. and ensure that freelance journalists are aware of this policy”.

And when should this recommendation begin to operate? Immediately.

At the same time, the Committee had equally firm views on IPSO and the Editors Code.

The report reveals that in his evidence to the Committee, IPSO’s Chief Executive, Matt Tee, said that IPSO considers press self-regulation has had a positive effect on journalistic culture following the Leveson Report because of IPSO’s measures to prevent and curtail intimidation or harassment.

However, Mr. Tee also told the Committee that whilst freelance journalists acting on behalf of regulated publishers fall within its remit, freelances who are working for non-regulated publishers are outside IPSO’s jurisdiction.

Mr. Tee’s evidence was not surprising or unexpected. Obviously, a self-regulator can only regulate those who agree to be supervised by it.

But the Committee sees this as “a gap in the current press standards regime” which does not “sufficiently deter persistent offenders”.  Consequently, the Committee made this recommendation:

Press regulation bodies should extend their codes of conduct to prohibit unacceptable language that incites intimidation.  

As to timing, they said that they want the Code to be amended by no later than December 2018.

In commending the report to the Prime Minister, the Chairman of the Committee, Lord Bew, said that it is clear that there is no single, easy, solution to the problem. But nevertheless, at what he described as “a watershed moment in our political history”, he said it is time for a new and concerted response to be taken to protect our political culture.

The ball has been firmly put in the court of the industry and IPSO.  It will be interesting to see whether they agree with Lord Bew and his colleagues, and whether any of the Committee’s recommendations will be implemented.

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