Press regulation: debate evolves in the era of fake news

25 Oct 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Press regulation: debate evolves in the era of fake news

Sir Alan Moses

Raymond Snoddy reports from the IPSO Road Show, where editors and media experts discussed the future of independent self-regulation of the press

The Press Ombudsman for Ireland told a most revealing story about the potentially dangerous impact of Facebook at the latest IPSO - the independent regulator for the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK - Road Show in Belfast on Tuesday evening.

Peter Feeney’s job is to act as a first filter for complaints against the press in Ireland, before handing over those that appear to have merit to the Irish Press Council for adjudication.

Feeney told the story of how a perfectly respectable civil servant was wandering about looking at houses in a small town in the Irish Midlands - for the very good reason that he was house-hunting.

The civil servant was mis-identified on Facebook by locals as an alleged paedophile and a crowd quickly assembled through the power and immediacy of social media and effectively ran him out of town.

It never quite turned into a lynch-mob but the situation was tense and could have turned dangerous.

Feeney complained that there was no human being to talk to at Facebook and all you could do was send an email, which might be answered in US time many hours later.

For whatever reason Facebook took seven hours to take down the false and inflammatory information which could have had serious consequences.

At the Road Show, Sir Alan Moses, chairman of the Independent Press Standard Organisation attacked the social media for their “deeply divisive” impact on society and argued that they were publishers, rather mere technological conduits for information, and had to assume the responsibilities of publishers.

It is more than a little quixotic to believe that somehow the social media will submit to any system of regulation"

Somehow they had to be persuaded to accept some form of voluntary regulation.

For Sir Alan all media regulation has to be voluntary and his hope is that “commercial pressure and education will persuade the unregulated that they should be regulated.”

It is more than a little quixotic to believe that somehow the social media will submit to any system of regulation, however voluntary.

The IPSO chairman’s case is that education will slowly wean the public from fake or unverified news and that advertisers will start to realise they do not want their products to be associated with information that is false, nasty and sometimes even posing a violent threat to society.

As Gail Walker, editor of the Belfast Telegraph and one of the three Belfast editors on parade at the Road Show put it: “Some days social media is like putting your hands in a open sewer.”

Yet all three editors, Walker, Noel Doran, editor of the Irish News and Alistair Bushe, editor of the Newsletter said they were losing significant sums of advertising revenue to the social media.

The worries about the quality and impact of social media in Belfast came as another front opened up in the battle against fake news.

Damian Collins who chairs the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee has written to Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, to ask him to search for any evidence that Russia-linked Facebook accounts were used to interfere in the EU referendum and this year’s general election.

The letter has been sent because of suspicions that Russian interests may have used the platform to meddle in British politics.

Collins is seeking information about adverts purchased by Russian-linked accounts - and asking how much money was spent and how many views such adverts attracted.

A cynic might argue that Russian interference in at least the Brexit vote might turn out to be very low grade compared with the effect of the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and The Sun on the outcome.

But it would be interesting to know if the Russians tried all the same.

The Belfast IPSO Road Show, which follows similar events in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow is a small sign of growing IPSO confidence and willingness to engage in public on the arguments in favour of independent self-regulation of the press.

Regulation has to be voluntary and we can’t go back to a system of licensing of newspapers like something out of the 17th century, Sir Alan argued.

“The last three years have taught me that our work really matters and that the press takes us seriously,” the IPSO chairman insisted.

Two of the three editors on the Belfast panel have had IPSO findings against them and there was little doubt how painful they found the process and steps have been taken to learn lessons from the experience.

Bushe said IPSO had arrived at the right decision when his previous paper the Portadown Times was criticised for failing to reveal that a contentious opinion poll survey had failed to mention that it had been funded by one of the Province’s contentious Unionist parties. It is unlikely to happen again.

Walker’s Belfast Telegraph got in tangle because of copy-sharing with sister newspapers in the Irish Republic and the fact that regulatory codes of practice on both sides of the Irish border are different.

Both codes are now being taught to Belfast Telegraph journalists to ensure compliance.

Sir Alan revealed a personal cost of taking the IPSO job. He and his good friend Lord Justice Leveson no longer talk. Apparently the author of the Leveson report thinks Sir Alan should not have accepted the IPSO job, which comes with a contractual commitment not to sign up to any officially recognised regulator something recommended by Leveson.

“Our arbitration system is what Leveson recommended,” Sir Alan noted.

As the stature of IPSO, which is now handling more than 16,000 complaints a year is gradually rising - apart from those who will always be opposed whatever the organisation does - the status of the only officially recognised regulator, Impress, has been travelling in the opposite direction.

It won a court action taken by the News Media Association arguing that it should be ineligible for recognition because most of its funds come from a Max Mosely family foundation.

An appeal is likely, but Impress has been mired in controversy after it admitted that some of its senior board members had breached its own standards of impartiality by attacking a number of national newspapers on Twitter.

No national newspapers or significant regional dailies have signed up to Impress regulation.

IPSO will this week agree a number of tweaks to its editors codes but asked whether he would consider changing the name from being a “press” organisation to reflect the growing importance of the online world Sir Alan Moses would have none of it.

“The printed media have never been more important because it’s curated and its editors recognise the importance of the regulator,” the IPSO chairman replied.

Whether Facebook and Google will ever get the importance of curation and regulation remains a moot point.

Raymond Snoddy chaired the IPSO Road Show in Belfast


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