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October 3, 2014

Sir Alan Moses’ comments over Mirror sexting sting suggest IPSO could be the Independent Press Sanitisation Organisation

By Mick Hume

Who needs Hacked Off, Lord Justice Leveson and the Royal Charter when the tabloid-haters have got Sir Alan Moses and IPSO to help tame the popular press?

Anybody who still imagines that the new press regulator is a newspaper industry stooge should look at what IPSO chairman Moses said about the Sunday Mirror’s Brooks Newmark “sexting” sting this week. And anybody with an ounce of feeling for the freedom of the press should fear for the future under the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

IPSO might be independent of the press but clearly not of the conformist spirit of the age. Perhaps the Independent Press Sanitisation Outfit would be more like it.

Conservative MP Newmark resigned as a government minister after sending a picture of his privates to a Sunday Mirror reporter posing as a young Tory woman. The demise of a married politician of whom nobody had ever heard before has sparked quite a row; not, as would once have been the case, over the moral hypocrisy of MPs but instead – you’ve guessed it – over the ethics of the press.

Newmark and fellow Tory MPs protest that the story amounts to entrapment. The Sunday Mirror insists that publication was clearly in the public interest. Others among us might fully support the paper’s right to run the story, whilst wondering at the pathetic state of affairs where moral turpitude by government ministers now involves sexting a “selfie” of the Member for Braintree in paisley pyjamas rather than any actual sex.

But let’s leave aside for the moment the story itself, and look instead at what Moses of IPSO had to say about it when he spoke at the Conservative Party conference, as reported at length by the indispensable Press Gazette. His quoted words seem to drip with the sort of anti-tabloid prejudice that one might expect elsewhere at that gathering.

Moses announced that IPSO was likely to investigate the case, even though Newmark had not yet made an official complaint to the regulator (another Tory MP, Mark Pritchard, had complained to IPSO after he was reportedly also targeted). What questions would IPSO be putting to the Sunday Mirror? Well, Sir Alan made clear, “we will certainly be discussing with the complainant the sort of questions that, in order to justify what happened, the Mirror will have to answer". The luvvies may not have got the full Leveson package, but it appears that they have effectively got the “complainants’ charter” which he proposed.

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Sir Alan insisted several times that he didn’t want to “prejudge” the case. Yet his remarks suggested that he doth protest too much. The Sunday Mirror, he seemed sure, would find it hard “to justify what they did”, since the editors’ code makes it “absolutely clear” that subterfuge in reporting can only be used as a “last resort” (which would rule out much of the investigative journalism of the past 200 years). And there seemed little doubt that the paper’s story did not meet his exacting standards. "It's simply no answer to go public and say 'we stand by our story', when accuracy is not the accusation after all. It is breach of privacy and the use of subterfuge in circumstances where it is forbidden by the code."

Moses further spelt out just how open-minded IPSO was about cases such as this. “If the newspaper continues to deny that it acted in breach of the code then IPSO will adjudicate, make a decision, set out its reasons, give the newspaper an opportunity to say how it proposes to make a redress.” Note that the possibility of IPSO accepting the Sunday Mirror’s denial does not appear to have entered his head. 

What’s more, Moses made clear: “IPSO has the right, under the rules, to make a decision as to the terms in which the redress and correction and apology is made in the newspaper, and as to where that should appear."

Even before the MP has complained, then, it appears that the chairman of IPSO has already found the paper guilty, and is getting ready to pass sentence. It all seems strangely reminiscent of the Leveson show trial of the tabloids. But, we must understand, Sir Alan doesn’t want to prejudge the thing.

However this sordid little affair finally plays out, these words of wisdom from Moses should set all the warning lights flashing for those of us who believe in real press freedom. They confirm that the idea of “independent self-regulation” is an oxymoronic nonsense. If a regulator is “independent” of the press, it follows that it is an external policeman of press freedom, with or without state backing.

The big news groups have signed up to the tough regime laid down by IPSO in an effort to improve their public standing after the phone-hacking and other scandals. The danger is that they will pay far too high a price if the Independent Press Sanitisation Outfit gets its way. Meanwhile the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times are outside IPSO and regulating themselves – with the apparent blessing of the authorities and even Hacked Off, who consider that such nice, well-brought up newspapers can be trusted to behave, unlike those vulgar tabloids and other Murdoch papers at the back of the classroom.

These trends can only have a chilling effect on investigative reporting by every section of the news media. As Sir Alan put it, one of the most important things about the toughened rules and regulations “is that newspapers think beforehand about whether they should be doing what they set about doing”. And then, the implied message seems to be, they should probably decide not to do whatever they set about doing.

The debate about IPSO to date encapsulates the problem with the entire issue of press regulation in the UK. By far the loudest complaints are that the new regulator is not independent enough of the industry, echoing the wider pro-Leveson prejudice that the British press has somehow been too free to run wild and cause trouble. The reality is that the UK press is nowhere near free enough, and the very last thing we need is the dead hand of another regulator.

Mick Hume is editor at large of Spiked. 

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