Ipso should be ashamed

Volume 33, Number 1, March 2022

Steven Barnett

As a kid growing up in a close-knit north London Jewish family, I was part of a Friday night ritual that was replicated in thousands of Jewish homes across the country. We would go to my grandmother’s for supper (featuring the best chicken soup this side of the Atlantic), would listen to a couple of perfunctory prayers over wine and bread, disagree violently over the chopped liver about the political controversy of the day, and then settle down to discuss that day’s required reading: the newly delivered Jewish Chronicle.

Top of the reading agenda was invariably the “Hatch, Match and Dispatch” pages which would prompt sighs from my grandparents at the loss of another distant relative, then shrieks from my parents at some long-forgotten awkward school friend who had surfaced with a partner and/or child.

But that was the lighter side of the paper. Its more serious side was a digest of reliable news and information about the Jewish community and issues that mattered to British Jews. It was not a propaganda sheet, nor a mindless cheerleader for Israel: while, of course, supporting the relatively young Jewish state, its opinion pages would encourage earnest debate and disagreement about difficult foreign policy decisions. Importantly, the news pages were a haven for good, accurate journalism about the Jewish community and were insulated from the opinion pages. It was the Jewish paper of record.

No longer. Over the last few years, for whatever reason, the JC appears to have suffered a catastrophic failure of journalistic standards which has short-changed its readers, damaged the victims of its serial inaccuracies, and left its reputation in tatters. Shamefully, despite multiple transgressions, the so-called press “regulator” IPSO – which, remember, was touted as “the toughest regulator in the western world” – has refused to intervene.

The JC’s charge sheet is long and depressing. Since 2018, it has been found by IPSO’s complaints committee – which is notoriously reluctant to find fault with member publications – to have breached the Editors’ Code 33 times. Even worse, over the same period it has admitted and paid damages for no fewer than four serious libels. In November 2019, following a series of complaints arising from four separate articles, IPSO concluded that its Clause 1 on accuracy had been breached on “multiple occasions” in relation to a single complaint. Its complaints committee “expressed significant concerns” over how the complaint had been handled by the paper, including failure to respond to IPSO’s questions, and concluded that “the publication’s conduct during IPSO’s investigation was unacceptable”. Its concerns were “drawn to the attention” of IPSO’s standards department.

Any newspaper with a genuine commitment to editorial standards might have been eager to raise its game and even show some humility in the face of further complaints. Not the JC. A complainant the following year received a one-sentence reply which read: “Thank you for your email, which I have to say is one of the most ludicrous I have ever received.” Needless to say, the complaint was subsequently upheld by IPSO.

In August last year, nine of those who had suffered at the hands of the JC’s abandonment of basic journalistic integrity wrote to the chair of IPSO, former Conservative minister Lord (Edward) Faulks, asking him to invoke a power invested in the regulator which in seven years of operation had never been triggered: to launch a formal standards investigation. This, after all, was supposed to be the critical difference between IPSO as a credible regulator and the discredited Press Complaints Commission which it succeeded. IPSO said the chairman would respond “in due course”.

Four-and-a-half months later – on Christmas Eve – the complainants received their response: that it would “not be proportionate” to launch an investigation. Various excuses were advanced, none of which bear scrutiny. These included the JC’s “extensive specialist training” over the previous six months (staff training in code compliance was already a prerequisite of IPSO membership); the size of the publication (irrelevant to extensive rule-breaking); and changes of both editor and ownership, without any acknowledgement that the previous regime might have been deficient, or any assessment of whether the changes were likely to bring improvement.

We should not really be surprised, given IPSO’s track record for sitting on its hands. In June last year, my colleague and I published a report that demonstrated how IPSO’s structure was a watered-down version of a plan submitted to the Leveson Inquiry. That plan was comprehensively rejected by Lord Justice Leveson in his report because it was clearly designed to ensure that any regulatory powers would be dictated by the industry. As in previous decades, the press successfully lobbied a cowed government to ignore Leveson’s critique and allow them to create a body designed to favour publishers rather than complainants. IPSO is a creature of the industry.

IPSO’s failure has implications for journalism as well as the public. It is unfair to the vast majority of working journalists who care about standards and follow agreed professional codes, but see the poor practices of IPSO publishers ignored and misconduct go unpunished. And it undermines trust in a vital democratic institution at the very moment that disinformation spread through social media platforms places a premium on accurate reporting and professional standards.

It’s a matter of great personal sadness to see a journalistic institution of my youth brought so low. But we should all be concerned that IPSO has shown itself so incapable of holding defective journalism to account.

The writer is professor of communications at the University of Westminster and a member of the BJR editorial board.


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