Ipso’s flaws should not be an excuse for state media regulation

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) does not yet meet all the requirements for an effective, voluntary self-regulator. But we should not let flaws in its current design be used as an excuse to turn to state regulation of the press – or to introduce a system that effectively makes press regulation compulsory, and which punishes the poorest.

Index on Censorship welcomes the establishment of the new press regulator Ipso, but calls for further work to be done to ensure it is both clearly accountable and genuinely independent in providing an effective means of dispute resolution. As we said in our submission to the Leveson Inquiry in 2012, the range of inappropriate, unethical and illegal behaviour by some journalists and media organisations that the inquiry exposed demonstrated a clear need for “a better and tougher approach to press regulation” and that a new and more effective approach to self-regulation of the press was vital if statutory regulation was to be avoided.

Index does not support the Royal Charter, an ill-conceived political fudge that indicates the beginnings of creeping state interference in an industry that must remain entirely free of political and governmental involvement, and does not believe that any regulator should seek recognition under the Royal Charter.

As we wrote in 2012: “A new regulatory body, set up on a self-regulating basis, must push for a high standard of corporate governance and accountability. And it must have a wide-ranging remit to monitor and address issues of journalistic standards including ethical standards. It must offer a straightforward, effective and fair approach for dealing with individual complaints [and]… must be able both to defend privacy and to be clear about where, when and why a public interest defence can override privacy.”

Though we believe the new regulator goes some of the way to meeting these demands, it is of concern that despite the length of time Ipso has had to consider the matter, the regulator launched today offers no effective means for swift, low-cost dispute resolution and complaint handling. Rapid, cheap arbitration will be a key element for any successful press regulator and comments from Sir Alan Moses this morning indicate that Ipso is still a long way from a decision on how such a scheme should be run. Ipso must institute an easy, fast and fair way of resolving defamation claims and other disputes as a matter of urgency.

We are also worried about the level of genuine accountability of the new regulator, and the potential for the wealthiest news organisations to exert undue influence over the workings of Ipso through its current funding mechanism, not least through a current proposed veto that the funding body would have over any changes to the regulator’s code of conduct. Sir Alan Moses will need to ensure there is clear separation between the workings of the regulator and the newspaper members that fund it. He will also have to do more to demonstrate how Ipso will be publicly accountable.

There is a risk that without a clear indication of how the independence and efficacy of Ipso’s work will be assessed and verified, other proposed press regulators may seek to gain public trust by seeking recognition under the Royal Charter. This could unleash exemplary damages and costs for Ipso members and any other publishers, including potentially individual bloggers and small websites, who choose – for whatever reason – not to be part of a recognised regulator. Such actions would undermine the very notion of a voluntary system of regulation, and therefore of a free press.