Press regulation in the UK


Can you imagine someone referring to immigrants as ‘cockroaches’, unchallenged, on the TV? What about Nazi-era language targeted at Muslims? Abuse directed against entire groups of people – to this extent at least – may be rare in broadcast media. But it’s all too common in the press.

Why? Because unlike broadcast media, most national newspapers are effectively unregulated. Instead, they’re members of “IPSO” – a complaints-handler controlled by the big newspapers it’s supposed to regulate. Admittedly, it’s not exclusively controlled by newspaper representatives. Some conservative politicians are involved too.

The system is a stitch-up. It gives newspapers the perception of accountability; but in reality, the rules are fixed to limit the body’s capacity to hold its members to account. Under IPSO, the press can get away with all manner of transgressions.

So how did we get here?

The UK has been through seven inquiries into press ethics in 70 years. The most recent of these was Part One of the Leveson Inquiry, which reported in late 2012 (Part Two was cancelled by the Conservative government in 2018).

The Inquiry followed three scandals in the British press. These were the phone hacking scandal, the data theft scandal, and the unethical conduct scandal. Leveson Part Two should have dealt with the first and second of these. Part One touched on all three but focused on the third: the collapse in ethical standards across much of the industry.

At the time of Leveson Part One, it was clear that the former complaints-handler – the Press Complaints Commission – had failed. The guardians had been left unguarded.

Designing a new system

Lord Justice Leveson’s challenge in devising a new regulatory system was to find a balance between political and industry control; to ensure the new system was effective while limiting the risk of political interference. In fact, he rejected this dichotomy. He found a solution to ensure the protection of the public while maintaining a radical commitment to freedom of expression.

The system he proposed involved the creation of an independent auditing body, later established as the “Press Recognition Panel”. Free of politicians and newspaper representatives, the body’s constitution can only be changed with a 2/3 vote in both Houses of Parliament. The panel audits press regulators for independence and effectiveness, according to a schedule of criteria again protected by parliamentary super-majority requirements. These water-tight protections on amendments to the auditor and auditing system help to ensure that governments of the future cannot manipulate the rules to suit them.

The Press Recognition Panel examines press regulators against the settled criteria (spelled out in Leveson’s report). Regulators that pass the test become “recognised”: they are judged to be independent, effective, and capable of protecting the public.

So what requirements must regulators meet?

There are 29 in total. They include, for example, the requirement that the regulator control its own ethical standards code. The regulator must never appoint to its board a recently party-political politician. It must also be capable of ordering investigations where there has been serious or systemic misconduct.

The national press wasn’t happy, though. And many of these outlets continue to reject this system. Instead they are persisting with IPSO, which is currently in breach of all three of the criteria cited, alongside more than a dozen others. Their arguments for non-compliance are largely based on claims that the system, and specifically the Royal Charter mechanism which pulls it all together, are a threat to freedom of expression and introduce the risk of political interference in press regulation.

These claims are somewhat undermined by three details.

Three key details

Firstly, newspapers themselves proposed their own Royal Charter in 2013, which watered down the Leveson requirements. This (unceremoniously rejected) attempt to establish their own weakened charter, to suit their own interests, detracts from the credibility of their arguments that charters are an inherent threat to press freedom.

Secondly, these newspapers (which claimed commitment to press regulation free of political interference) have since installed former Tory peer and government member Lord Faulks, as IPSO chair. This appointment would be banned under the Royal Charter, Leveson-standard model.

To make any publisher accountable to a politician-run body exposes that outlet to political pressure and interference. That’s why outlets with integrity and a true commitment to the freedom of the press find this unacceptable.

Finally, the Leveson system is watertight. It was designed to bar all politicians, except for peers who are not only non-political but have been so for over five years. There is simply no means of significant political interference in the system; it is immune to political pressure by design.

Indeed, there is one independent regulator, which meets the tests of the Press Recognition Panel. That’s IMPRESS. Most of its members are local or investigative outlets, and other titles with an ethical identity. Phoenix Media Co-op is accountable to IMPRESS.

Independent regulation enhances press freedom

Unlike under IPSO, IMPRESS can require an apology to be prominently published if a title abuses a marginalised group. If serious or systemic code breaching occurs, IMPRESS can initiate an investigation. If an article is inaccurate, IMPRESS will handle the complaint fairly and award a reasonable adjudication.

This brings significant new protections to the public from press misconduct. And because the groups of people most likely to be affected by misreporting in the press are groups which are otherwise marginalised or disenfranchised in society, a competently-regulated newspaper industry would help to promote social justice and inclusion.

Independent regulation would enhance press freedom. It would also protect individual members of the public from instances of press abuse, and marginalised groups from press inaccuracy and discrimination. And it would restrict the lawlessness of the largest publishers; their ability to bully and to dictate the way the general public, groups of people, and major issues are debated and talked about. That’s something the largest publishers don’t want to give up.

Ordinary people can help to change the media environment, though. Because we can actively read and support credible, public-interest-focused media outlets that have signed up to IMPRESS. And we can avoid outlets that haven’t. By doing so, we can show that journalistic integrity and ethics matters.

Main article image via (Mick Baker)rooster