IPSO faces its biggest test yet

25 May 2016  |  Raymond Snoddy 
IPSO faces its biggest test yet

The press regulator has its work cut out if it's to announce rulings on much complained against EU coverage before the referendum

The Independent Press Standards Organisation, IPSO, has played a blinder on the Royals - clear, precise and correct findings against The Sun, and the other in favour of the Daily Mail.

The rulings are further evidence that the "unofficial" press industry regulator is working on high profile cases, alongside bread and butter matters, without the need for government interference or Royal Charters.

IPSO is, however, about to face its greatest challenge, not on matters of fact but on process. Can it change up through the gears fast enough to deal with 11 serious complaints of inaccuracy against two national newspapers and a national newspaper website on their EU referendum coverage before 23 June?

To come out with its rulings any time from 24 June onwards will make IPSO look faintly ridiculous and more than a little irrelevant.

The complaints must be properly heard and duly considered. But they were submitted on 19 May by InFacts, a journalistic fact-checking website sifting the myths from the reality in Euro referendum coverage, set up by distinguished former FT journalist Hugo Dixon.

That's a tight schedule for IPSO, but one of the biggest choices that the UK electorate face in a generation is involved and that calls for special measures.

Five weeks is not exactly the speed of light and if IPSO has to put some of its more mundane cases aside for a short time to fast track the Euro complaints, so be it. If they can't do 11 at such a pace then how about one from each of the news organisations involved.

This is neither the time nor the issue on which to stick to bureaucratic timings and procedures. For IPSO this is a test of its flexibility and timeliness and failure could cause reputational damage.

The Sun's headline: "Queen Backs Brexit" could not have been a more serious matter as it called into question in a constitutional monarchy the political neutrality of the Queen, something, as Buckingham Palace observed, she has maintained for 63 years.

Any GCSE student could have concluded rapidly that the headline in The Sun was not justified by the words that appeared underneath.

Never mind that one of the supposed unnamed sources who attended the private lunch for privy counsellors Nick Clegg denounced the story as "nonsense."

The point is that even if every word in the story was indeed true, it would have made the Queen at most a closet Eurosceptic rather than a supporter of Brexit.

As IPSO said, the article itself did not breach the code. The headline did because it was "a factual assertion that the Queen had expressed a position in the referendum debate, and there was nothing in the headline, or the manner in which it was presented on the newspaper's front page to suggest that this was conjecture, hyperbole, or was not to be read literally."

The riposte from Sun editor-in-chief Tony Gallagher that all was well because the subheading said "bombshell claim over Europe votes" is pure sophistry.

Nobody claimed such a thing in the story and the overwhelming impact of "Queen Backs Brexit" is rather unambiguous.

It was also egregious for Gallagher to print the IPSO ruling and then going on the Today programme to deny its import. The nudge-nudge approach - we know more than we can publicly say really doesn't work here.

The Sun has signed up to the IPSO process and should accept its rulings, even through gritted teeth, and Gallagher's intransigent comments threaten to undermine independent self-regulation of the press.

By way of contrast, IPSO did not uphold a complaint by "Prince Henry of Wales" against the Daily Mail. The paper repeated claims in a US magazine that the Prince was in "a budding romance" with Pippa Middleton.

Prince Harry said the story was completely untrue and that the newspaper had failed to corroborate the facts before publication.

The press regulator took the perfectly sensible view that the story was already firmly in the public domain in a magazine with 4.4 million readers and that the tone of the Daily Mail article gave the impression that the claims were not to be believed.

Both the Sun and the Daily Mail unsurprisingly get walk-on parts in new research demonstrating systematically the blindingly obvious - that national press coverage of the EU referendum campaign has been "heavily skewed in favour of Brexit."

The study based on a sample of stories on two days a week for the first two months of the campaign showed that 45 per cent of 928 referendum articles were in favour of leaving while 27 per cent backed the remain case. The rest were either mixed, undecided or adopted no position.

The most pro-leave articles appeared in the Daily Mail followed by the Daily Express, the Daily Star, The Sun and the Daily Telegraph. The most pro-remain pieces came in the Daily Mirror, Guardian and the Financial Times in that order, with The Times being relatively evenly balanced.

As for complaints made by InFacts, let's have a look at a few.

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this month that the "real" figure for EU migrants to the UK between 2011 and 2015 was 2.4 million rather than the previous official figure of 900,000.

According to InFacts, the Telegraph added together the 900,000 - actually 1 million - to short term migrants staying less than a year and then wrote about the pressure the 2.4 million would put on schools, housing and maternity wards.

In March the Daily Express splashed on a story claiming that Brussels chiefs had unveiled plans to end Britain's control over asylum seekers. InFacts says the story was a reaction to an FT piece that said that Brussels planned to overhaul asylum rules but that the UK had an opt-out on matters of justice and home affairs and would not be forced to adopt any new system.

The Mail Online reported in March that Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister, said the UK could "stop 10 times more terror suspects" if it left the EU. InFacts argues that what Raab said was that since 2010 the UK has refused entry at its borders to 67,000 non EU-citizens compared with 6,000 EU citizens.

InFacts argues that such stories, and there are no shortage of them, could mislead voters in the run-up to the referendum.

But redress and rebuttal from IPSO, if this is judged necessary, should come before 23 June if such rulings are going to have any impact.

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