Manchester United, the Sun and that complaint to the press 'regulator' IPSO
Complaining to IPSO, the fake ‘regulator’ operated by the big newspaper companies, is almost always a waste of time, first because the dice are loaded against complainants and second because, even if you win and your complaint is upheld, IPSO has no power to deliver a meaningful remedy.
This is worth remembering in the context of Manchester United’s complaint against the Sun newspaper over its reporting of a nasty incident outside the home of the club’s vice-chair, Ed Woodward. The club alleges ‘a clear breach both of the Editors’ Code and of journalistic ethics’, but the reality is that the Sun will probably be able to laugh its way through the whole IPSO process and out the other side.
Look at what happened to the Queen. She (or rather Buckingham Palace) complained to IPSO about the Sun’s ‘Queen Backs Brexit’ front-page splash in 2016 and even though IPSO condemned the report as misleading all that resulted was a small correction. And when the Sun’s editor announced on the BBC that he didn’t care and would do the same again, IPSO did nothing.
Manchester United’s complaint is a serious one, as its statement made clear: 'The club believes that the Sun newspaper had received advance notice of the intended attack, which included criminal damage and intent to intimidate, and that the journalist was present as it happened. The quality of the images accompanying the story indicate that a photographer was also present.’
The implications were spelled out: ‘Not only did the journalist fail to discharge the basic duty of a responsible member of society to report an impending crime and avert potential danger and criminal damage, his presence both encouraged and rewarded the perpetrators.’
For its part the Sun has admitted its journalist was at the scene, but it insisted: ‘At no time was our reporter made aware of what was to take place, nor incited it or encouraged any criminal activity.’
The ethical issues here seem straightforward: where journalists become aware that a crime is about to be committed or is being committed they have the same obligation as any other citizens to report it to the police. Only if there are compelling public interest grounds (such that they are in the process of uncovering a worse crime) might they be justified in remaining silent.
We don’t know all the facts, but what we know should put the Sun on the defensive, especially since the revelation by the Zelo-Street blog here and here of a similar pattern of events, also apparently involving the Sun, surrounding a protest at the gates of Wayne Rooney’s home in 2010.
Three problems with IPSO
In the context of the IPSO complaint, however, it seems to me that there are three problems ahead for Manchester United.
The first is the nature of IPSO itself. Though its full name may be the ‘Independent Press Standards Organisation’ it is anything but independent, and the publishers of the Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK group, are among its most powerful puppeteers.
The second is that IPSO will usually go to great lengths to avoid tackling serious conflicts of evidence (see its refusal to tackle the Times's discredited report on the ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’), so that even if Manchester United has a battery of evidence up its sleeve it will be no surprise if IPSO feebly declares itself unable to decide who is telling the truth, thus handing the benefit of the doubt to the newspaper.
The third problem is that IPSO does not make judgements about journalistic ethics, only about breaches of the Editors’ Code, and that code is written by a panel convened by the press industry and packed, as its name suggests, with newspaper editors. Manchester United may have difficulty finding any clause of the code which it can argue was breached.
It's that bad. To attempt a footballing analogy, it is as if Manchester United were playing an away fixture, uphill, under special rules written by the opposing side, which also happens to employ the referee.
And let’s add a fourth problem. In the event that the club manages to overcome all these difficulties, the best it can hope for in terms of a remedy is a mealy-mouthed, one-paragraph ‘clarification’ buried on an inside page. No fine, no public rebuke for the Sun’s editor or its reporter, no investigation of the Sun’s standards processes, nothing at all that might prevent it happening again.
An important test
Despite all this, there is some truth in Manchester United’s claim that its complaint is ‘an important test of the self-regulatory system for newspapers’.
Few complainants in IPSO’s five-year history have had a higher profile and few complainants are better equipped to press a complaint effectively. That means that more people than usual will be watching to see how IPSO rises, or does not rise, to the occasion. That can’t be a bad thing.
Even before the complaint is lodged, what we can learn from this affair is that IPSO is not fit for purpose. By any normal measure Manchester United have a case worthy of consideration by a genuine press regulator with a genuine code of conduct (that's if it is not actually a matter for the police).
Such a regulator, acting to uphold standards and protect the public, would spare no effort in establishing the facts and making them public, and if it found the newspaper had breached the code it would ensure that the public was appropriately informed, that the paper was appropriately sanctioned and that measures were put in place to ensure such conduct was not repeated.
That, indeed, is what the Sun itself would demand of a regulator operating in any other sphere of life – from banking to professional football. There can be no excuse for newspapers having a unique power to mark their own bad homework and award themselves passes when they like.
Is it really possible for a code of conduct to encompass these issues? Yes, if it is written with a sincere intention of reflecting definitions of ethical conduct. And let us imagine that, in this case, the Sun has done nothing wrong. With a credible, independent regulator and a credible code, when a complaint fails the public are far more likely to believe it has been rejected for good reasons.
Now imagine it was you
Consider now the plight of ordinary citizens who have been wronged by newspapers. Unlike Ed Woodward and Manchester United they don’t have lawyers to do the work, they don’t have the clout to ensure they are listened to and they don’t have the PR machine to get their message out in the teeth of the conspiracy of silence about such matters that persists among the corporate papers. In reality, ordinary people are simply unable to hold papers to account.
Finally, Manchester United, if it really wants the Sun condemned, could find more effective ways to use its power. It could urge supporters not to buy the paper or click on its online products, and it could even follow Liverpool FC in refusing to deal with Sun journalists. That might actually make a difference.