Hacked Off’s new executive director believes The Guardian and Independent are currently better off with no regulator than signing up for the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
Set to replace the Press Complaints Commission next month, IPSO says that more than 90 per cent of the UK’s national press – minus the Financial Times, which is to set up its own regulator, Guardian and Evegeny Lebedev titles – and the majority of regional press and major magazine publishers have elected to be subject to its regulation.
IPSO includes a whistleblowing hotline for journalists, protection for journalists from being sacked if they refuse to breach the Editors’ Code of Practice and a requirement that publishers improve their own compliance processes.
But Joan Smith (pictured right, Reuters), a Guardian and Independent journalist who took up her Hacked Off post in June, believes IPSO is in some ways worse than the PCC because complaints from the public have to go through newspapers first.
One of Hacked Off’s plans for the near-future is to start targeting companies that have “corporate social responsibility” statements and advertise in newspapers that are not compliant with Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals.
Smith told Press Gazette: “It’s not about influencing editorial policy, but it is about asking advertisers whether advertising in newspapers that don’t actually sign up to a recognised regulator and offer low-cost arbitration and things like that, whether that sits with their corporate social responsibility statements.”
Asked if this would include The Guardian, Independent titles and Evening Standard, and the FT, she said: “I think for the moment we’d be focusing on the papers that have signed up for IPSO when it launches. But we don’t know what The Guardian or The Independent are going to do.”
Smith described IPSO as a “fake regulator”, and asked if in the current situation – with no Leveson-compliant regulator set up – these titles are better off without a regulator than with IPSO, she said: “Yes,” adding: “In an ideal world we’d like them to join a recognised regulator, obviously.”
On these titles, Smith said: “If you look at PCC complaints, it’s clear that the FT, and The Guardian and The Indy are not the papers that generate masses of complaints. And that generally the papers that generate the most complaints, like the Daily Mail, are the ones that are signing up to IPSO.”
Asked whether in a situation where IPSO sets up and politicians do not insist on a Leveson-compliant regulator she would support The Guardian and Independent titles setting up their own regulation systems, like the FT, Smith said: “I think if that happens, and not a single national newspaper joins a recognised regulator when one comes into existence, then I think that from our point of view we would then expect that to trigger a failure report to the government saying the Royal Charter has been set up and the newspaper industry has basically stuck two fingers up against it.”
At the end of April, Court of Appeal judge Sir Alan Moses was unveiled as the new chair of IPSO. Asked what she made of his appointment, Smith said: “I think the problem… is first of all that he’s agreed to chair a regulator which has said it’s not going to apply for recognition – so that’s a problem no matter who he is.
“I think also there’s a problem with a very distinguished judge, i.e. Lord Justice Leveson, holding an inquiry and writing a huge report, and then another judge coming in to it who actually doesn’t know anything about the press and doesn’t have that experience and saying to victims of press abuse you’ll just have to wait now until I come up to speed and then I’ll come up with my idea of what should be done.
“And when I met Moses a few weeks ago right at the beginning it was clear to me that he knows very little about journalism, and he hasn’t met many journalists. Now, he may have done something about that in the intervening period, but I think it is a problem for victims if [they] expected there to be something coming out of the Leveson Inquiry which would give them redress and avoid some of the abuse we had in the past.
"So then for another judge to come along and say, 'I don’t know anything about this but I’m now going to decide what I think should be done', is actually not very satisfying for the victims.”
On Hacked Off’s plans for the future, Smith said it is important for the organisation to make the public aware that it is not just about phone-hacking following the trial. As well as targeting advertisers, the group is also looking into attempting to introduce guidance on reporting rape in the Editors’ Code of Practice.
Hacked Off is planning to attend the Conservative and Labour conferences ahead of next year’s General Election, “but probably not the Lib Dem one”.
Asked why this was, Smith said: “Simply a matter of resources and all the other things we’re doing… With the Lib Dems, I think, it looks to us as though they might – in fact probably will – have a manifesto commitment about this.
“The Tories, I think, are more inclined to say we passed a Royal Charter and we can now stand back – so it’s quite important to talk to them. And also to talk to Labour. Because I think Labour are sympathetic, but we’d like more of a commitment about what’s actually going to go in the manifesto.”
Hacked Off, she said, wants in these manifestos to see "that they remain committed to a regulator set up under the terms of the Royal Charter, which applies for recognition”.
In terms of public relations, Smith said the press can make it difficult for Hacked Off to portray itself as a voice for non-celebrity victims – because of journalists' interest in people like Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant.
She accused sections of the press of “double standards” by asking to speak to celebrities and then describing Hacked Off as a “campaign about whingeing celebrities”.
She said: “We are actually very grateful for the support of celebrities. And I think without them it would have been hard to get this campaign off the ground.
“But it’s not as if I have Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan on the phone every two minutes saying 'we want to do interviews, we want to be on Newsnight' – it’s the opposite. We’re actually saying to those programmes we’d love you to talk to ordinary people who’ve gone through the most horrendous experiences… there is this tendency to say: 'No, no, we want the celebrities.'”
Asked if this had anything to do with the media wishing to portray Hacked Off as a celebrity campaign, she said: “I think there’s an element of that. It’s easier to present celebrities as people who are actually quite fortunate and that that might produce less public sympathy.
“On the other hand, I think sometimes what it does it actually makes people think again about celebrities and think isn’t it quite impressive that people who are very famous and have got really interesting careers are willing to give up so much time to be involved in a campaign like this.”
Smith suggested that the state of press regulation “might be in a very different position” in a year and a half, after the election.
Asked how long Hacked Off will be around, she said: “If you reflect that the purpose of Hacked Off is to get a better press in this country then it’s hard to see Hacked Off winding itself up in the near future – because a lot of the things that people complained about at the Leveson Inquiry are still going on.
"So for the foreseeable future I think Hacked Off is necessary and we’ll keep going until we see quite dramatic improvements in sections of the press.”