IPSO's new chair – it's worse than you think
You are visiting a foreign country and you are told that the person in charge of press regulation there was until three years ago a government minister. Not only that, but until very recently he was still an active politician, loyally advancing the interests of the ruling party.
Where are you? Turkey? Hungary? Zimbabwe? No, you are in the United Kingdom.
As we learned last week, the next chair of IPSO, the see-no-evil ‘regulator’ operated by the corporate press, will be Lord Faulks, who until summer 2016 was Minister of State for Justice and who since then has been an active, loyal, Conservative peer.
IPSO's announcement of this last Thursday proves to have been characteristically disingenuous. Emphasising his standing as an ‘eminent QC’ rather than as a politician, it was at pains to point out: ‘Edward Faulks no longer takes the Conservative whip and now sits as an unaffiliated peer.’
An ordinary reader of that sentence would probably understand that Faulks had parted company with the ruling party a while ago. It might even be read as an indication that somewhere along the way he had displayed an independent streak and decided he had had enough of party politics.
But no. Lord Faulks only resigned the Conservative whip in the House of Lords last week. In other words, he wasn’t given the job of IPSO chair because he was politically independent; on the contrary, he was given the job in the full knowledge that he was a working party politician.
IPSO’s claim that he ‘now sits as an unaffiliated peer’, implying that this was the norm for him, is thus exposed as especially devious. Lord Faulks, so far as I can see, has not ‘sat’ even once as an unaffiliated peer; the Lords has been in recess since before he resigned the whip.
(It’s worthy of note here, too, that until last week he seems to have taken the party whip very seriously. In nine years of activity he voted 660 times and on 658 of those occasions he followed the whip – a loyalty rate of 99.7 per cent. The two rebellions, on issues to do with legal aid, were in 2012. His most recent expression of party loyalty came in a vote on 22 July – two weeks ago.)
I know that Lord Faulks only resigned the Tory whip last week because I asked him by email and he told me, adding an explanation. He wrote that he would not start as chair until January and had resigned the whip to emphasise his independence. He said that, having spent most of his career as an independent barrister and a part-time judge, he believed he was capable of independence.
The problem with this is that he can’t reasonably ask people to take his word that he is, or will be, independent, any more than it is up to me to decide that he isn't. To repeat, there exists a public body which is itself free of outside influence whose job is to determine on behalf of the public whether press regulators meet basic standards of independence. It is the Press Recognition Panel (PRP).
What criteria does the PRP apply? Ones that were approved, uniquely, by every party in Parliament (including Lord Faulks’s) on the basis of recommendations made by a very senior judge (Sir Brian Leveson), who had conducted a year-long public inquiry on the subject, giving all conceivable interested parties the chance to put their cases.
Have a look at page 18 of the Recognition Criteria, paragraph 5e, which states that no member of the House of Lords can be a board member or chair of a recognised regulator if they have had an 'official affiliation' with a political party in the past five years. That is five years, not five months. In other words, Lord Faulks might yet be eligible to chair a regulator in whose independence the public can have confidence, but not before 2024.