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Publishers should be fined for editor’s code breaches, says report

KathrynCearns imageA new report is calling for publishers to be fined for breaches of the Editor’s Code after claiming that press watchdog IPSO is ‘no better than the PCC.’

The Press Recognition Panel, which was set up by Royal Charter in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, has highlighted a series of cases where it believes the regulator has failed to protect victims of press malpractice.

They include cases involving a weekly newspaper which IPSO found had failed to protect a source and a Scottish daily title which identified multiple sexual assault victims while covering their alleged attacker’s case.

In the report, the PRP described IPSO as a “complaints handler rather than a regulator” and called for tougher deterrents – including fines.

Although IPSO was given the power to levy fines where there are “serious and systemic” breaches of the Editors’ Code of Practice, it has never done so.

Responding to the report last night, IPSO suggested that in publishing the report, the PRP had exceeded its brief – which is simply to approve a press regulator.

The report states: “IPSO has never issued a fine against a publication, launched a standards investigation, or imposed significant sanctions on any publishers despite serious breaches of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

“In this report, we highlight some of the recent cases where IPSO’s failure to act properly or effectively has led to the public remaining unprotected and where the lack of a proper regulator means there is no serious deterrent to press intrusion or malpractice.”

The local press examples cited include a complaint against the Halifax Courier for failing to protect a whistleblower who later lost her job, originally covered on HTFP in January 2021 here.

In a separate case, covered by HTFP in June 2023, the Greenock Telegraph was found to have committed an “egregious” breach of the Code by effectively identifying victims of a sexual assault.

The report concludes: “These cases reinforce one of the key findings of our first report in January 2024, namely that IPSO’s failure to investigate or fine a publisher leaves the public and the right to privacy unprotected, as there is no effective deterrent against bad behaviour by the press.

“Lord Leveson’s strong criticisms of the Press Complaints Commission on precisely these grounds should, therefore, be applied equally to IPSO as its successor

Chair of the PRP Kathryn Cearns, pictured, said: “This latest research, which follows our report published in January, builds a picture showing that, as a result of IPSO’s regulatory capture by its publishers, the public remains almost completely unprotected from bad behaviour by the press.

“No matter how lamentably a newspaper has conducted itself, including during the complaints process, there is simply no method of adequate deterrent open to IPSO which would help prevent any repetition of the behaviour.”

An IPSO spokesperson said: “IPSO was not contacted for its comment on any claims made in this document. We always welcome external scrutiny but we are not clear how the publication of such a document contributes to the Press Recognition Panel’s purpose under the Royal Charter: to determine recognition of a regulatory body or bodies for the press.

“IPSO works with its regulated publishers to raise standards and ensure accountability in the public interest and will continue to do so.”

In October 2016, the PRP recognised IMPRESS as the official press regulator under the Royal Charter, but very few publishers signed up to it, opting instead for the system of self-regulation under IPSO.

The full report can be read here.

Extracts from the report featuring cases involving local and regional newspapers.

Case A3 – Greenock Telegraph

The Greenock Telegraph reported on a court hearing during which a defendant who was charged with sexually assaulting two people was granted bail. The article listed a number of sexual assaults against both of the alleged victims and gave the addresses and ranges of dates when the assaults were said to have taken place.

It also contained other details of the charges. The defendant was named in the article.

The complainant was one of the alleged victims who said that the article breached her right to privacy by revealing that she and another member of her family were victims of sexual assault. She also said it was in breach of her privacy because it reported on the family’s residential addresses, the dates in which they had lived there, and the other family member’s age.

The IPSO Complaints Committee did not accept the publication’s argument that it was not possible to identify the victims from the details included in the article. It considered that the inclusion of the dates and locations of the assaults, the nature of the charges, and other details of the circumstances of the alleged crimes revealed the identity of the alleged victims to a circle of people known to them.

IPSO found a breach of Clause 11 of the Editors’ Code (restrictions on reporting victims of sexual assault). The Committee said that Clause 11 at no point specified that identification could only be to an “average reader” with no knowledge of anyone involved in the case. It considered that this defence by the newspaper demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of how the Clause worked as well as the wider principle of “jigsaw identification”.

The Complaints Committee stated: “The combination of the failure to adhere with the Clause as well as the demonstrable lack of understanding as to how the Clause worked meant IPSO found an egregious breach of Clause 11.

The Committee also had strong concerns about the publication’s conduct during the investigation. In particular, IPSO was concerned that the publication had not recognised the seriousness of the concerns raised during the investigation.

Despite this “egregious breach” of the right to privacy of victims of sexual assault and the “strong concerns” over the behaviour of the newspaper during the complaints process, the Committee had no means of imposing an effective deterrent and was only able to order the publication of an adjudication.

Any punishment imposed by a press regulator will, by its nature, be after the event and, therefore, inevitably too late to help the original victims. This is why strong powers of deterrence, including fines, are so important so that they protect future victims of the press before the damage is done

Case A4 – Halifax Courier

The lack of any effective punishment also means that there is nothing IPSO can do to deter future misbehaviour or punish misconduct even in a case where a journalist reveals their source with serious consequences.

In March 2020, the complainant contacted the Halifax Courier to voice concerns about working conditions at the store at which she worked. She alleged that her employer had placed profit above the protection of staff against Covid.

The complainant stressed that she needed to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job. In May, she was dismissed by her employer, partly for making comments “to the media”. She accused the newspaper of revealing her identity to her employer.

The publication accepted that it had contacted the complainant’s employer and passed over the complainant’s concerns to them in a since-deleted email. However, it said that it had kept her anonymous.

IPSO found that the complainant was a confidential source of information. The key question was whether the newspaper failed to protect the confidential source, as required by Clause 14 of the Editors’ Code, by revealing her identity to her employer.

At her suspension hearing, the complainant’s employer presented her with part of an email from a media organisation. The email included the employer’s comments and mentioned the complainant by name. It contained the same concerns the complainant had raised and the same language she had used in her original email to the publication.

The publication was also unable to supply their original email to the employer; instead, the email had been deleted, despite the newspaper’s policy which required its retention for two years.

The IPSO Committee expressed its serious concern over the breach of the requirement in the Editors’ Code to protect sources, which had led to the complainant losing her job. Despite this and the paper’s apparent attempts to cover it up, there was no remedy available except publication of an adjudication.