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March 22, 2023

IPSO chief: ‘I would feel like a bit of a muppet’ saying I trust the whole media

Charlotte Dewar also fielded criticism about how IPSO deals with "discriminatory" coverage against groups.

By Bron Maher

The chief executive of press regulator IPSO has said she would “feel like a bit of a muppet” answering yes to the question “do you trust the media?” as publishers are not one “undifferentiated mass”.

Charlotte Dewar also fielded criticism from Rizwana Hamid, the director of the Muslim Council of Britain’s Centre for Media Monitoring (CMM), who said IPSO provided “no recourse” for minority groups that are targeted by discriminatory coverage. 

Dewar and Hamid were appearing on a panel titled “trust, transparency and truth” at the Society of Editors Media Freedom conference in London.

The session, moderated by 5 News presenter Claudia-Liza Vanderpuije, largely centred on the matter of low public trust in journalism, particularly among minority audiences. Numerous surveys in the past few years have suggested that trust in news media is low, albeit with some recent modest signs of improvement

Referencing a CMM report that found 60% of UK online news about Muslims is negative, Hamid said that if a media “that is supposed to be representing you is misrepresenting you and whole communities of people and minoritised people, then that trust is just not going to be there”.

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Hamid added: “When you then look at the levels of inaccuracy and misleading content and misrepresentative content – it’s also slipping through with regulation.” 

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She contrasted IPSO against Leveson-compliant regulator Impress, whose Standards Code allows complaints against a publisher for “encouraging hatred or abuse”.

[Read more: IPSO v Impress – Ten years after Leveson, how are the press ‘watchmen’ faring?]

IPSO’s Editors’ Code of Practice, in comparison, only prohibits discriminatory references to an individual, rather than an entire group. The Muslim Council of Britain’s executive director, Miqdaad Versi, has regularly complained to IPSO over stories misrepresenting Muslims and Islam.

Hamid said: “When you look at the reporting when it comes to Muslims, African-Caribbeans, trans people – it’s groups that are being targeted. But there’s no recourse there, legally or within the regulatory framework, to handle these things.”  

Dewar responded: “I just don’t think there’s any argument [over whether] the media generally is more accountable and is being held to account more continuously, today than has ever been the case before. And obviously, I would say IPSO regulation is a part of that.”

She added: “Day-to-day, even minute-to-minute, the role of the public holding editors to account is just omnipresent at the moment. It’s incredibly important… And it’s not just about individual inaccuracies, it’s the framing of the story, the approach, the headlines, the pictures used – every aspect of that work is being scrutinised.”

Challenged by Hamid over a 2020 survey finding that the British print press had the lowest trust of any newspaper industry in Europe, Dewar said: “I think trust is a really complicated word. I don’t actually think it’s very helpful to talk about trust in an entire media that includes enormously different types of publications, sizes of publications, [and] editorial position…

“You know, if somebody said to me: ‘Do you trust the media?’ I would feel like a bit of a muppet saying yes. What sort of idiot would express confidence in tens of thousands of people and outlets I’ve never read? 

“And this is where representation comes back in – people will have trust, and will engage with, sources they trust, individual publishers they trust, titles they trust, even individual journalists they trust. And there are lots of factors [involved] – whether they found that person to be trustworthy, whether they’re telling stories they’re interested in or seem relevant. 

“There will always be surveys and you can ask people the question [about trust], but it’s just actually not helpful to say ‘Oh, the media’ as if it’s one undifferentiated mass.”

The theme of representation and inclusion came up repeatedly throughout the panel discussion. Before Hamid and Dewar’s exchange, former Evening Standard reporter turned consultant Abbianca Makoni said: “I’m sure media platforms want the public to trust them… but what are you doing inside your newsroom to ensure that the women journalists or the minority journalists and so forth actually feel not like [they are] just a token or a placeholder…

“Because at the end of the day, they’re going to go home and, explaining their role in the newsroom for example, if they just felt like – ‘Well, I feel like I’m just a tick of a box, I don’t actually feel like I am contributing much in this newsroom’ – they’re sharing that with their family, their father’s going to share that with their friends, and so forth.

“Word of mouth travels really quickly.”

Later on at the conference, BBC News presenter Clive Myrie would say that while his employer was doing well “on the face of it” at getting people of colour into the newsroom, “get higher and higher in the BBC and they thin out”.

[Read more: Clive Myrie blasts ‘appalling’ Fox News lawsuit revelations in speech defending press freedom]

Myrie also criticised partisan journalism in his speech on Wednesday, arguing it led to “ruptured societies” without a common sense of reality.

During the panel session, Dewar offered a defence of opinionated news publishers – arguing they can instead be a platform for building trust: “If we agree with someone we tend to find them more remarkably trustworthy. And that’s always going to pose a difficulty because violent disagreement is probably correlated – not perfectly, but fairly correlated – with distrust.

“But that can be turned into a real strength in that there’s a freedom there, and you can build relationships with people that are more than just reading the news or giving them straight news – you can really have an angle, and that means that you have someone in Abbianca’s position of wanting to be able to tell a story in a way that brings something new and something personal. There are real opportunities there.”

During a question and answer session at the end of the panel, News Letter editor Ben Lowry said: “It is a surprise, the way the conversation has gone… The clear impression [was] that it became a seminar primarily about inclusion, which isn’t one of the words up there [on the projector screen above the panellists].

“And I think that’s a very interesting topic… but it seemed that there was really no defence of the UK media. And I’m just wondering if anyone’s going to defend it.”

Hamid said that “things have definitely changed since I first started out”, but that as far as coverage of Islam went “the kind of tropes that now exist in mainstream media, you used to find them a decade ago in the far corners of the dark web, and far-right platforms”.

And Makoni said: “It’s not that there’s been no progression… changes have been put in place. 

“But we have to understand that issues with the media stem decades, centuries [back], there are just so many issues and so many layers that while yes, there is progression, there are changes being implemented – it’s going to take a while.”

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