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March 3, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:04am

IPSO v Impress: Ten years after Leveson, how are the press ‘watchmen’ faring?

By Bron Maher

“Who watches the watchmen?”

This was the question Brian Leveson sought to answer with his massive 2012 investigation and report into press standards.

Ten years on, Press Gazette has taken a closer look at the two press regulators inspired by Leveson.

In November Impress, the younger of Britain’s press regulators, turned five. Its older cousin, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), celebrated its seventh birthday in September.

Both were intended to better hold journalism to account, with sharper teeth, than the Press Complaints Commission – the beleaguered regulator on whose watch widespread phone-hacking occurred.

IPSO has powers to launch standards investigations of whole newspapers, issuing fines of up to £1m, while Impress can take that a step further, indicting publishers for hate speech.

Each promised they would offer a low-cost “arbitration” alternative to libel trials.

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The births were painful. The Guardian, Evening Standard, Independent and the Financial Times declined to sign up to IPSO (or any regulator), with The Guardian saying it “does not enjoy support from either the main political leaders or the victims of press intrusion”.

And Impress came under legal attack, accused by the News Media Association of being “a state-sponsored regulator”.

UK press regulators by numbers

IPSO, having retained most of the publishers previously signed up to the PCC, is by far the larger regulator by number of titles overseen, with some 2,600 publications under its watch.

Among its members are some of the biggest names in English language journalism, including The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Mirror and The Times. Press Gazette is itself IPSO-regulated.

Impress oversees 190 publications - none of them the big brands from the PCC’s line-up. But beneath that magnitude of difference, there’s more going on: the most recently available figures have IPSO at 89 member publishers versus 110 for Impress.

Unlike IPSO, with its large multi-title publishers like Reach and News UK, most Impress members are small, independent publications. Among them are many niche new media outlets, including Bellingcat, gal-dem, and The Canary.

Impress investigates and upholds a higher proportion of complaints against its members than IPSO, which receives many more complaints. In its 2020-21 annual report, Impress recorded 40 complaints: of those, seven (17.5%) were investigated, one of which was upheld and six dismissed. Across its five years, it has investigated 15% of all complaints made to it and, of those, upheld 37%.

In IPSO’s 2020 annual report, by comparison, it recorded 30,126 complaints - of which 496 (1.7%) were investigated. Most, it says, were dismissed for being outside its remit.

Of the investigated complaints, approximately 16% were upheld, 20% not upheld, and 54% resolved with or without IPSO’s involvement. The rest were not pursued by the complainant.

Across its existence, IPSO says it has received almost 115,000 complaints.

The regulators by elevator pitch

The gulf between the two regulators’ complaints figures may be accounted for by the differing fame (or notoriety) of their members. But it’s that gulf, said IPSO chief executive Charlotte Dewar, that defines the difference between them.

“I have a lot of respect for them and what they're doing, and I think their work with the publishers they're working with is fantastic," Dewar told Press Gazette.

“But I think something that is significantly important is they had under 50 complaints last year in their annual report, and we had 33,000 complaints in the same time.” (The two regulators’ annual reports cover different time spans.)

“I don't say that to do them down, but they're just engaged in a very different enterprise than we are.”

For Impress chief executive Ed Procter, however, the two regulators are working to different sets of standards. He said that, unlike IPSO, Impress  lets groups as well as individuals complain about discriminatory content and that it moves faster.

“I think the whole philosophy behind our standards code is very different in feel. And I think it just reflects differences between Impress and IPSO. IPSO is obviously an industry complaints handling body, and Impress is an approved public interest regulator.”

In saying “approved”, Procter was referring to Impress’ recognition by the Press Recognition Panel - the regulators’ regulator set up by the government to verify that any aspiring press oversight body is compliant with the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry. IPSO has declined to submit itself for consideration by the PRP.

Under Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, any publisher not signed up to a Leveson-compliant regulator would have to pay both sides costs in privacy and libel cases win or lose. Section 40 is yet to be activated.

'A long way short'

The chair of the PRP, David Wolfe, said that IPSO was an improvement on the PCC - but not enough.

“Clearly IPSO has improved on the PCC. And it's also fairly clear that the existence and operation of the [Royal Charter on self-regulation of the press] and the PRP have encouraged, or cajoled, IPSO to up its game and move ever closer to the kinds of things that the inquiry had in mind, but still a long way short.”

Nathan Sparkes, chief executive of press reform campaign Hacked Off - long a group critical of IPSO - told Press Gazette it came up short in failing to carry out standards investigations into its members.

“Impress have now done two investigations. One of them was quite recently: there was a report that said there might be anti-Semitism at a couple of publications [The Canary and The Skwawkbox] and Impress proactively, despite that not actually meeting the threshold for an investigation, went and carried one out anyway.”

Impress also previously investigated 5Pillars, a Muslim news site, and rapped it over what it deemed to be a hateful post on social media. The regulator ultimately declared following the other investigation that The Canary and Skwawkbox did not promote hatred.

“IPSO, on the other hand… failed to launch any investigations in seven years.”

IPSO carried out a pre-investigation of the Jewish Chronicle last year, but ultimately announced it would not be opening a full inquiry.

‘We did exactly what you would hope a regulator would do’

Dewar said IPSO’s handling of a possible Jewish Chronicle investigation testified to its strength as a regulator, not weakness.

“We had had concerns about editorial standards issues related to the Jewish Chronicle going back some time… and had actually engaged with the Jewish Chronicle quite strongly and required them to do editorial training.

“Like all regulators, we need to act proportionately. If we can just address an issue in a very direct way and solve it, our number one aim is always going to be to try to improve the editorial standards or address the issue that we spot.”

She also pointed out that IPSO’s board hadn’t taken a final decision on carrying out an investigation, and would revisit the matter in late spring.

Dewar bristled at the suggestion IPSO was a “complaints handler” rather than a regulator, citing the Jewish Chronicle case as evidence.

“We were directly engaged with them about a pattern of concerning behaviour, and then we did exactly what you would hope a regulator would do, which is make an intervention that we believed would improve the situation.”

She added that IPSO's guidance - for example on reporting trans issues - and training shows it is a meaningful regulator.

“We spend a lot of time and energy doing things that are very clearly not complaints handling.”

Asked if she felt IPSO had succeeded as an improvement over the PCC, Dewar cited the organisation’s Covid-19 report as a way in which it had evolved.

But, she said: “One of my aims as chief executive is to be fully engaged with the industry as it is now, as opposed to the industry as it was, or was imagined, in 2014.”

IPSO power user, Miqdaad Versi

One man who’s seen his way around an adjudication or two is Miqdaad Versi, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain and perhaps the person best known for making use of IPSO. Versi has lodged dozens of complaints with the regulator, most often about the misrepresentation of Muslims.

How does he feel about IPSO?

“On the ability to process a complaint and to deal with it, they are quite good at that,” he told Press Gazette.

“I think they follow the process well, and generally that's quite a good process… but the challenges with IPSO aren’t really process related. They are rule related.”

Versi expressed frustration that IPSO “don’t really look at group-based discrimination”, and that the Editors’ Code had no way to deal with bad-faith misrepresentations of someone’s remarks.

He added: “The one thing that [IPSO] was supposed to be very different on was it was supposed to be able to issue fines if there was a standard breach… IPSO was not supposed to be just a complaints dealer.

“They have said that the Jewish Chronicle has breached IPSO regulations on a number of occasions. Its standards have been woeful. IPSO have written about this, about the fundamental breaches - what are they saying at the end of all of this? There shall be some nice training done at the end.”

Skwawkbox accounts for most upheld Impress complaints

There is an Impress version of Versi: Graham Hindson, a complainant responsible for a fifth of the regulator’s rulings. Press Gazette was unable to track Hindson down, but did speak with the publisher who was the subject of all but one of those complaints: Steve Walker, founder and editor of controversial left-wing news site The Skwawkbox.

The Skwawkbox has not had a cosy relationship with Impress. It joined the regulator in October 2017, only to consider leaving it months later when the Daily Mail unearthed a racist political pamphlet published in the sixties by Impress’ indirect funder, Max Mosley.

In the time since, it has become the most ruled against publisher within Impress’ remit, accounting for eight of the 13 breaches recorded.

Walker has not been afraid to make his feelings on some of those rulings known. He introduced one December 2018 Impress-mandated correction by describing it as “put frankly, deeply perverse”.

Below a second mandated correction, made in May 2021, Walker commented: “Another bizarre ruling by Impress.”

So what did he think of his regulator?

“I wouldn't say they're perfect, but they are the only option if you want a Leveson compliant, actual regulator, as opposed to the club run by the members for itself…

“They're not going to keep me happy all the time. It's not their job.”

What about Impress’ reliance on money from Mosley, the late Formula 1 boss notorious among some journalists for his campaigns for privacy against press intrusion?

“In the end, I think proper regulation is important. And, you know, Impress, regardless of who funded it originally, seems to fulfil that job quite diligently.”

Mosley money, Mosley problems

The Mosley connection has been a repeated cause of grief for Impress. The News Media Association argued in 2017 that Impress’ dependence on his money, administered through the Independent Press Regulation Trust (IPRT) via Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust donations, meant it should not have been recognised as a regulator in the first place.

Impress chief Procter told Press Gazette that, while it was very grateful for the support, the organisation was weaning itself off Mosley’s money.

“Impress’ plan going forward is to become a sustainable organisation that has a diverse range of revenue streams, and we intend to be around for the next 20 or 30 years at least.”

The Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust's funding for the IPRT is only guaranteed through to this year. Procter said Impress is in negotiations to secure further investment it can use to help diversify its income.

Those diversifications include “significantly increasing the amount of revenue that we have from members’ subscription fees”, “securing funding from a broader range of trusts and foundations”, and “expanding our commercial services”.

Procter declined to explain what commercial services he had in mind, saying the information was commercially sensitive.

IPSO is funded entirely by its members, via the Regulatory Funding Company. IPSO critics say this arrangement means that publishers exercise control over he body and continue to effectively mark their own homework.

Customer satisfaction survey

The first job of a press regulator is to give people a means of redress when they're wronged by the press. So how have some of those people felt about the work of the bodies? In short, those whose complaints were upheld or resolved by a regulator were happy - and those whose complaints were rejected, weren't.

Councillor John G. Mitchell, who complained to IPSO about the Stornoway Gazette, said he was "fairly happy - less happy with the newspaper itself which published the personally nasty letter on the front page but their apology was deep within the newspaper".

Activist and True and Fair Party founder Gina Miller, who complained about an article on Unity News Network, said: “I welcomed Impress’ help in my case, as not everyone has the time, money or resilience to resort to lawyers.”

Jonny Gould, one of only two people to ever win damages through Impress’ low-cost arbitration system, said the same.

“This very sorry episode in my life was handled swiftly and fairly, especially as in my case the falsehoods about me were repeated by media outlets… The credit must go to my excellent lawyer, Mark Lewis.”

Although IPSO offers an arbitration scheme, which it has compelled its national newspaper members to sign up to, the scheme has never awarded damages to a claimant.

Eli Fessler, a linguistics student in Hawaii who secured amendments to Wired's reporting of Tourette's syndrome, told Press Gazette: "IPSO was honestly really great to work with. Super professional (sometimes to a kind of amusing extent), courteous, and the woman who I worked and communicated with came across as genuinely kind and understanding...

"Considering how the publication initially treated me and my complaint, IPSO was absolutely essential, and made a world of difference."

Joanne Collins, a local councillor whose complaint to IPSO about the South Wales Argus was not upheld, said: “I am extremely unhappy with the IPSO process… unless a complainant has access to specialist legal advice then it is very difficult to successfully navigate the system.”

Collins said part of her complaint, which related to her child, was dismissed because she had submitted it under the wrong clause.

“The headline was false and misleading as it stated children when only one of my children was involved but because I didn't complain under section 1 [accuracy] it was not considered…

“As a senior local politician, the way I and my family have been treated, without recourse or justice, has led to my decision to permanently leave local government."

The final complainant Press Gazette spoke to was Dennis Rice, a former chief reporter at the Daily Express who holds the distinction of being both the first person to get a payout through Impress’ arbitration scheme and one of the first people to have a complaint upheld by IPSO (against Press Gazette).

“Each organisation is well intentioned, but in my personal opinion IPSO is the more effective of the pair… I would say that both organisations worry too much about how they are seen by others, most particularly their members, but IPSO benefits from doing that less so.

“I have also had the additional experience of bringing a second arbitration to Impress which was resolved by negotiation (with compensation again) earlier this year - but not before I had run up £30,000 making a failed High Court application to support my Impress complaint, and Byline [the subject of the complaint] ran up £160,000 costs (none of which were recoverable)."

Rice added: “Impress may - should it survive in future years - yet obtain the confidence and self-assuredness of IPSO.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said that, unlike Impress, IPSO cannot compel publishers to make corrections on social media. In fact, IPSO's remit includes everything over which a publisher has editorial control, including its social media channels, and IPSO has previously ordered such corrections. Press Gazette apologises for the error.

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