The head of Britain’s press regulator has lamented the nastiness of newspapers and urged editors to be more responsible when covering inflammatory issues such as immigration and race.
Sir Alan Moses, who chairs the Independent Press Standards Organisation and is a retired court of appeal judge, said he was “personally frustrated” with the “nasty” tone of some newspapers, most recently on display during the acrimonious build-up to the vote for Brexit in June.
But he said it was not the role of Ipso to intervene on questions of tone and taste, even though its own editors’ code instructs the press to “avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference” to an individual’s race, colour or religion.
“Of course one would like to ask the press to be more responsible,” Sir Alan said. “But I have held back from making remarks like that. I don’t think a regulator can address it.
“Brexit has been really interesting. What people didn’t like about it . . . is the tone and that really nasty edge that is fed upon. It is frustrating to me as a person with my political views.”
Ipso’s handling of the sensitive question of race will shortly come under renewed scrutiny when it rules on a complaint against Kelvin MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, for comments he made about Fatima Manji, a Channel 4 News reporter.
In a column for the Sun in July, Mr Mackenzie said it was wrong that Channel 4 had allowed Ms Manji, a Muslim, to report on the Nice terrorist attacks wearing a hijab.
The article prompted 1,800 complaints — the second highest in Ipso’s two-year history — and led the editor of Channel 4 News, Ben de Pear, to respond that Ms Manji had been the victim of “religious discrimination”.
Last week Ipso ruled that the Daily Mail had breached its code with a front-page story published a week before the EU referendum headlined: “We’re from Europe — Let us in!” The story claimed that Britain’s borders with Europe had broken down after police in east London had intercepted a truck containing illegal immigrants who had arrived from the continent.
Ipso found that while it was not misleading to connect the incident to EU free movement, it was inaccurate to portray the immigrants as coming from Europe when they were in fact from Iraq and Kuwait.
But Ipso did not ask the Mail to print a correction since the paper had published a pre-emptive clarification.
That case, and an earlier ruling against the Sun after it had claimed in a front-page story last year that one in five British Muslims had sympathy for jihadis, has fuelled criticism that Ipso lacks teeth.
Hugh Tomlinson QC, chair of the campaign group Hacked Off, said: “Everyone realises and understands the popular press had a distortive effect on the Brexit debate by publishing erroneous stories. If there had been systematic regulation then it could have stepped in.”
Ipso was set up in 2014 by some UK national newspapers in response to calls for a tougher system of self-regulation following Lord Justice Leveson’s 2012 inquiry into phone hacking.
An external review of Ipso published on Wednesday by Sir Joseph Pilling, a former senior civil servant, concludes that there is no evidence of Ipso’s decision-making being improperly influenced by the industry.
It adds that Ipso has demonstrated “promise” and “early achievement” in its first two years, but in a rare note of criticism adds that it should issue new guidelines on the prominence editors give to clarifications and apologies when they fall foul of the watchdog.
Sir Alan conceded that it would be difficult for Ipso, a body established by the newspapers it is regulating, to establish public trust.
He also said it would help if all the UK’s big newspapers joined Ipso. At present some newspapers, including the Guardian and the Financial Times, prefer their own internal regulatory systems.
Sir Alan was particularly critical of the Guardian, saying the group was refusing to come on board because of commercial interests.
“My view is they are far too pious to join us,” he said. “It makes no sense if they really believe in improving press standards. Why aren’t they nominating directors here? Why aren’t they participating in our work and why don’t they have someone on the editors’ code committee.
“It is up to them. I care because from the public’s point of view, it makes sense to have one organisation but they must exercise their commercial judgment as they see fit.”
The Guardian said: “Guardian News & Media continues to apply editorial standards through our longstanding readers’ editor system, which has been further strengthened by providing complainants with the opportunity to have decisions referred to a review panel. In parallel, we maintain an ongoing dialogue with industry regulators and other relevant parties.”
The UK government faces difficult questions on press regulation in the coming months. Labour MPs are already calling for “Leveson 2” — a second public inquiry into the relationship between the media and the police.
Ministers must also decide whether to change the law to give alleged victims of libel and intrusion of privacy the right to claim costs against newspaper groups, regardless of the outcome.
On Tuesday night the House of Lords voted for a legal amendment that will allow phone hacking victims to claim costs against media organisations.
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