Three years after the Leveson enquiry , and 15 months after the demise of the Press Complaints Commission , today’s announcement of a revised Code of Practice for newspaper editors is both welcome and important. The Code is the rules that most editors have to play by, whether in print or on line. It is determined by a committee (committee) by editors themselves and is separate to the body which deals with complaints and sets standards, which is IPSO (The Independent Press Standards Organisation Independent Press Standards Organisation).
Overshadowed by louder and more compelling news, this is nevertheless significant. Here’s why;
Headlines not supported by the text that follows them are not now allowed. Before it was a requirement to take the headline and the text together as a whole. This overlooks the key role played by headlines. They don’t just signpost us to what to read – they can convey a distinct message all on their own. It is right and overdue that this is addressed.
Reporting of suicide gets a clause of the Code all of its own. This highlights just what a tricky journalistic issue this is, as well as the sad fact that excessive detail has been linked to copycat activity.
Also being drawn out is gender identity which it will no longer be legitimate to make gratuitous prejudicial or pejorative reference to. You could say that the pre-existing reference to gender in the same clause of the Code mean that this is covered already – but given really bad behaviour by some publications in respect of a systematically discriminated against group, this is a welcome development of work started by the PCC in 2013.( http://bit.ly/1NqQriL and reported on at http://bit.ly/1IqBoK )
In a crucial development, the new Code has an obligation to maintain internal procedures it resolves complaints swiftly. I think that this designed-in compliance is at the heart of an effective self-regulatory system. By making it clear that publicans themselves have an unavoidable responsibility to maintain standards, self-awareness and resource necessarily increases.
But there are only two cheers for the new Code. More could and I hope will soon be done. In particular I want to see:
- Page 1 apology and corrections for page 1 errors – if publications are so happy to “splash” material on their front a page that then proves to be wrong, that seems an appropriate, proportionate sanction.
- Lay members were introduced onto the Code committee last year – currently there are three, but 10 industry representatives. Three balance needs to change
- IPSO must up its game on standards. What does an effective complaints handling process look like? IPSO should be challenging, auditing, identifying and sharing best practice.
The current set-up, with the Code Committee and IPSO is not everyone’s cup of tea. There is a rival regulator, IMPRESS, but it is virtually irrelevant to all practical intents and purposes. Not all publications have signed up to IPSO – the Guardian, Independent and Evening Standard for example but a majority certainly have.
Critics decry the self-regulatory nature of the press, but the failing of Leveson was to leave too much ambiguity in key recommendations. The realpolitik is that IPSO is currently the only substantial show in town, and over 1600 readers offended by the Sun’s now-infamous “1 in 5” headline have put their faith in the organisation to deal with their concerns.
Press regulation is important. But it isn’t simple. Leveson was preceded by a long line of Royal Commissions and other enquiries over the past century. If the answer was straight-forward, we all would have seized upon it by now. So we are where we are – but that is not a rationale for doing nothing. The Code revision has to be viewed in that context.
The new Code is operative from 1 January, The current code is at http://bit.ly/1Q27aQ3
Full disclosure: I was a Press Complaints Commissioner from 2008 – 14