After nearly a decade in operation, press regulator IPSO has yet to hold a standards investigation and the chance of launching one looks “remote”, an external review has found.
The regulator has also yet to award a libel payout via its low-cost arbitration system.
The ability to levy fines of up to £1m on publishers after a standards investigation and the introduction of a low-cost arbitration service for libel and privacy claimants were two of the big changes for IPSO upon its launch in 2014 as compared to the Press Complaints Commission.
The review of IPSO, carried out by retired civil servant Sir Bill Jeffrey, said that after IPSO chose not to investigate the Jewish Chronicle it seemed unlikely that the regulator would press the “nuclear button” in any other case.
Jeffrey wrote: “Although the case of the Jewish Chronicle can be argued either way, the fact that it did not lead to a standards investigation, and IPSO’s success, over a period, in improving the publication’s standards through guidance and training, suggests that the likelihood of such an investigation being mounted in future is remote.
“This is not to imply that IPSO should have mounted an investigation for the sake of having one. They should not.”
For IPSO to launch a standards investigation, it must believe a publisher has committed “serious and systemic breaches” of the Editors’ Code of Practice or have other significant causes for concern.
Critics of the Jewish Chronicle called for a standards investigation following a number of upheld complaints and libel payouts between 2018 and 2021. Jeffrey also highlighted that there had been concerns about the newspaper’s complaints handling processes, including delays in replying to complainants and IPSO itself.
IPSO gave training to Jewish Chronicle staff in July and October 2021 and considered the case for launching a standards investigation in December of that year but decided it would not be proportionate until it could see any impact the training had made.
By June 2022 there had been a “marked reduction” in accuracy complaints and no reported libel cases, with the newspaper’s new editor Jake Wallis Simons seemingly bringing a “greater focus on compliance with the Editors’ Code”. The IPSO board did, however, still have “significant concerns” about its complaints handling and delayed the final decision for a further six months.
At IPSO’s board meeting in February this year, it was deemed that “sufficient improvements had occurred in both complaints handling and editorial standards to allow the cessation of active monitoring of standards”.
Jeffrey said: “For IPSO’s critics, the JC case was proof that the ‘nuclear’ option of a standards investigation was one which IPSO were never likely to use.”
He added of IPSO’s long-term engagement with the publication: “That kind of supportive, but challenging, engagement to improve standards is, in my view, exactly what an effective regulator should be doing. But it does undoubtedly reduce the likelihood of a standards investigation being an appropriate response, unless the malpractice is egregious and comes out of the blue, or IPSO conclude that their engagement is getting nowhere and a stronger response is needed – neither of which was the case with the JC.”
The review was the second such examination of IPSO’s workings following Sir Joseph Pilling’s 2016 findings. At the time Pilling similarly concluded: “It would be a serious mistake to launch a standards investigation on relatively flimsy grounds. It ought to be exceptional.”
Pilling added that at that time publishers were “very concerned about the threat of a standards investigation and take it extremely seriously. They see it as inevitable that one will be launched shortly and each publication was very keen for it not to be them under investigation.”
Jeffrey’s review noted that there is nothing in IPSO’s powers between finding a single breach of the Editors’ Code and launching a full standards investigation.
He suggested that this could be impacting confidence in the regulator, saying that “winning public confidence in IPSO’s independence and effectiveness remains an uphill task”.
He therefore recommended that IPSO should consider introducing the concept of a “serious breach” of the Editors’ Code that could lead to more severe penalties, including fines.
Jeffrey separately recommended that the next review of IPSO’s remit look at whether it should have the power to order an apology to be published. Often complainants would be satisfied by the publication of an apology “more than anything else”, he said, adding that rival press regulator Impress has the ability to do so.
IPSO’s arbitration service allowing people to refer a potential legal claim to arbitration by the regulator instead of instigating court proceedings is now “available and well-designed”, Jeffrey said, but take-up has been “disappointingly low”.
It had a “significant number of enquiries” between its launch in 2019 and 2021 but “very few progressed” with some resolved before reaching the arbitration and others deemed unsuitable at a preliminary stage. The lower number of enquiries in 2022 has resulted in several still under consideration.
And Jeffrey said the move to digital has “diminished the ‘reach’ of IPSO sanctions” particularly with news aggregators and social media platforms widely amplifying inaccurate headlines and with stories accessible for a longer period than print newspapers which likely hit the recycling bin sooner. IPSO is already producing guidance on “due prominence” for adjudications in the digital age and Jeffrey said this should be an issue of priority.
Overall there is “no sign of improper influence by the industry on complaints decisions,” Jeffrey found.
IPSO chief executive Charlotte Dewar said: “Improving standards is a core part of the work IPSO does and, as the Jeffrey Review notes, is key to our work as an effective regulator.
“We agree with Sir Bill that a standards investigation should be a last resort, and not conducted for the sake of having one.
“We have found in the eight years since we were established that working with publishers to improve standards is the most effective approach but if a standards investigation is required, we will conduct one.”
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