IPSO and Andrew Norfolk: they just won't face the facts
A month ago the self-proclaimed press regulator IPSO was presented with 66 pages of detailed, fully-referenced evidence of very serious failures of journalistic standards at one of its most prominent member organisations, the Times newspaper. The same document also supplied evidence of IPSO’s own failure to put a stop to this conduct when it had the opportunity, and it left no doubt of the harmfulness and cruelty of what was published.
IPSO, as you probably know, has a credibility problem. (See here for example.) You might think that, for the sake of its own reputation, it would pause to consider such evidence and reflect on its own role. It did not. Instead it has responded by publishing on its website a crass, blustering ‘rebuttal’ worthy of the Trump White House, which fails to engage with a single substantive allegation.
The evidence in question is contained in UNMASKED: Andrew Norfolk, the Times newspaper and anti-Muslim reporting – a case to answer, researched and written by me and by Paddy French. You can read it here, and you can read a summary of the findings here. The IPSO response, written by communications manager Vikki Julian, can be read here: https://www.ipso.co.uk/media/1719/unmasked-hacked-off-rebuttal_.pdf
A good indicator of the seriousness and rigour IPSO brought to its response is that it did not include the full title of UNMASKED, the names of its authors or an internet link to allow people to find it. You might conclude from these remarkable omissions that it did not want readers to know the reality of what was being rebutted. (Only when my co-author complained did they add reference details – as a footnote.)
The ‘rebuttal’ begins:
’This document sets out the regulatory action taken in relation to the complaints outlined in the above pamphlet, and corrects inaccuracies about IPSO’s standards investigations process and independence.’
Let’s look at those in turn.
‘The regulatory action taken’
In our report we made a case, supported by abundant evidence, that IPSO failed to act appropriately in the face of many standards failures at the Times. Since these occurred over a period of 15 months and since they were obviously potentially harmful to Muslims without justification, it follows that IPSO shares responsibility with Andrew Norfolk and the Times for any harm.
IPSO’s response simply confirms our case against it.
It confirms that in the case of Andrew Norfolk’s ‘Muslim foster care’ articles, IPSO chose to dismiss the overwhelming majority of complaints and consider only a narrow case put forward by Tower Hamlets council. IPSO then managed to fault the Times in relation to only one aspect of one complaint relating to one article in what was an extended, high-profile, front-page series in the Times – a series now wholly discredited, largely by facts made public at the initiative of the family court.
Similarly in relation to Norfolk’s articles about Just Yorkshire, IPSO confirms that, although the Times admitted breaches of the code of practice in both the headline and text of an article, IPSO felt justice had been done because the paper published a ‘correction’ that was not explicitly a correction, that did not explicitly admit error, that the complainant had found insufficient and that appeared on page 24 of the edition published on Christmas Eve – perhaps the best day of the year, as we observe in Unmasked, to bury bad news.
As for the third series of grossly inaccurate articles examined in Unmasked, relating to the ‘Rotherham rapist’, IPSO simply states that there was no complaint – demonstrating that, so far as IPSO is concerned, if there is no formal complaint there can be no problem. No regulator worthy of the name would adopt such a position of wilful neglect.
This was the sum total of IPSO’s actions in relation to the journalism of Andrew Norfolk analysed in UNMASKED – journalism which, in three separate and very prominent instances, presented Muslims as threatening without justification at a time when they were already experiencing peak levels of hate crime.
Thus far, in attempting to ‘rebut’ our report, IPSO confirms our contention that it took the minimum action it could in these grave circumstances, and to no meaningful effect.
‘IPSO’s standards investigations process’
Does IPSO ever investigate? No. It says it investigates, and in two different ways: in the form of formal ‘standards investigations’ and in the course of the handling of complaints. Nothing resembling investigation happens in either case.
‘Standards investigations’ were supposed to be a big new thing when IPSO was created five years ago, a means of flexing regulatory muscle and keeping errant news publishers in line. Remarkably in those five years – years which, to say the least, have been turbulent and controversial ones for the press – no such investigation has ever occurred. And it is clear from IPSO’s response here that there will be no ‘standards investigation’ of the Times over the discredited journalism of its chief investigative reporter.
As for investigating in the course of complaints handling, the ‘Muslim foster care’ and Just Yorkshire cases amply demonstrate that nothing of the kind takes place. The only information IPSO considers when dealing with a complaint is what is put before it on a plate. It finds out nothing for itself, indeed that is one of its rules, since, as the 'rebuttal' makes very clear, it usually refuses to deal with complainants unless they are capable of presenting it with information on a plate.
Thus, for example, it allowed itself to get facts wrong in its ruling on an important aspect of the ‘Muslim foster case’ even while national newspapers other than the Times were publicly reporting the correct facts. Anyone genuinely investigating the case (as we did) would have verified the information and grasped the realities. As confirmed in its ‘rebuttal’, that is not what IPSO does.
IPSO asserts blithely in its 'rebuttal' that it is independent. It is obvious that neither IPSO itself nor the club of newspapers that created and funds it can be the judges of its independence. Exactly the same claim was made, after all, by and about the Press Complaints Commission, which found itself universally shamed and discredited as a toothless poodle of the press.
So who is in a position to determine whether IPSO is really any different? As it happens, there is a body set up by Parliament under Royal Charter, a body which is itself wholly independent, whose sole job is to determine on behalf of the public whether press regulators are independent and effective. It is called the Press Recognition Panel (PRP). Only when IPSO has passed the tests set by the PRP will it be able to make claims to independence with any expectation of being believed. (As things stand, the PRP has said that IPSO would not pass those tests – in other words, that it is not in fact independent.)
The ‘rebuttal’ contains this remarkable paragraph:
‘We also have a broader commitment to press standards which goes far beyond complaints handling. We use knowledge and data from daily work with complaints, wide monitoring of the media landscape and engagement with groups interested in coverage of particular issues to track patterns and identify areas of potential concern to provide targeted interventions to raise press standards.’
So IPSO’s role goes ‘far beyond complaints handling’ and extends to ‘monitoring the media landscape’ and conducting ‘targeted interventions to raise press standards’. Now consider those claims in the light of the IPSO response to UNMASKED.
Both authors are experienced journalists with records of serious interest in journalistic ethics. In painstaking detail we identified dozens and dozens of what we considered to be unjustified and unethical actions by the chief investigative reporter of one of the most famous newspapers in the world. Those actions, we argued in detail, had a pattern, which was that they tended to lead to characterisations of Muslims as threatening – characterisations we found to be unjustified in every case. We sent printed copies of our report to the Sir Alan Moses, the chair of IPSO, and to Matt Tee, its chief executive.
IPSO’s response to this was not to review and test the ‘knowledge and data’ we supplied, feeding them into those alleged efforts to ‘identify areas of potential concern’, potentially leading to ‘targeted interventions'. In fact there is no evidence it has taken the slightest interest in our evidence. Instead it has chosen to publish a shabby blog concerned exclusively with shoring up its own reputation. And it did so (until called to order) without even giving readers a reference to our report.
Our conclusion called for a credible, independent investigation of standards at the Times and stated that IPSO was not capable of conducting such an investigation. This conduct confirms that.
IPSO’s response concludes with this assertion:
‘IPSO strongly rejects any accusation that it is complicit in the demonisation of Muslims and other minority groups across the UK.’
This statement has all the authority and credibility of a tweet by Donald Trump declaring that black is white or that two and two makes five.
To repeat: when a detailed report alleged that a leading newspaper is demonising Muslims, IPSO, which claims to be a regulator capable of tackling such behaviour, simply ignored the evidence. Muslims are a vulnerable minority in this country: the hate crime figures prove that. Yet IPSO doesn’t care enough about them to take the evidence seriously. Does that make IPSO complicit in the demonisation? You tell me. (You might find this helpful too.)
In this context it is worth noting that, while characterising UNMASKED inaccurately as a 'Hacked Off pamphlet' (Hacked Off endorsed and supported it, but it was an independent publication by the authors) IPSO failed to mention that it was also endorsed and supported by the campaigning organisation MEND, or Muslim Engagement and Development. Is IPSO reluctant to acknowledge that many Muslims consider it complicit in their demonisation? Again, you tell me.
To conclude, like the Times’s hysterical editorial discussed here, IPSO’s ‘rebuttal’ is not a rebuttal at all. In the face of a mountain of evidence it rebuts not one single allegation. It does not even try. It is a sloppy, arrogant attempt by an untrustworthy organisation to pull the wool over the eyes of the public.
(The illustration is a detail from a 2014 cartoon by Steve Bell.)