The sham ‘regulator’ admits there are standards problems at Sir Robbie Gibb’s newspaper but insists – against all the evidence – that it has the matter under control, writes Brian Cathcart.
“We are very much alive to the standards issues at the Jewish Chronicle and the effect editorial failings at the publication have had.” Thus the chair of press complaints body IPSO, Lord Faulks, declared in a letter last week.
That there are serious, longstanding standards issues at the Jewish Chronicle is hardly a matter of dispute, but sadly, whether IPSO is “very much alive” to them is a different matter. ‘Close to dead’ might be more accurate.
For a start, it took Faulks two whole months to reply to a letter signed by no fewer than 15 people, who have either had complaints against the paper upheld by IPSO or have secured libel settlements from the Chronicle. In other words, people with an incontestable locus to speak out and a right to respectful treatment from IPSO.
Faulks, a former Conservative minister, began his response by blaming the delay on “challenges with staffing”, even though five weeks ago IPSO was able to find enough staff to provide a comment on the letter to a journalist. “Very much alive”, then, for friendly press inquiries; less so when it comes to answering those who have actually experienced “the effect editorial [that] failings at the publication have had”.
It was in the hope of stirring IPSO into doing something about the collapse of standards at the Jewish Chronicle that the 15 people wrote to Faulks at the end of July – indeed, it was the second time they had attempted it – but it is now clear that they have been wasting their time.
All Faulks would promise in his letter was: “We will continue to act proportionately and flexibly to address editorial standards issues and tailor our approach to the context.”
Read that as: ‘We will do the least we can, however ineffective that is, and hope the problem goes away.’
Just how inadequate IPSO’s response has been may be judged from the chronology:
2018-2019: IPSO finds that the Jewish Chronicle has breached its code 15 times.
End of 2019: IPSO’s complaints panel reports the publication to IPSO’s standards department.
2020-mid-2021: IPSO finds 18 more breaches.
Mid-2021: The first letter is sent demanding a formal standards investigation. This is rejected (after a five months’ delay).
2021- 2023: The Jewish Chronicle is found by IPSO to have committed eight more breaches.
April 2023: The IPSO complaints panel again refers it to the standards department for unacceptable conduct.
July 2023: A second letter is sent demanding a standards investigation – but it is brushed off after two months.
To be clear, the frequency with which the Jewish Chronicle is found to breach the code is off the scale for a small weekly – even for a thick paper appearing every day it should be a cause for concern. (And remember, IPSO dismisses 99% of the complaints it receives). Nor are these breaches trivial: again and again, IPSO describes them in rulings as ‘serious’.
But as Faulks’s letter makes clear, IPSO will do nothing meaningful. It refuses to carry out a standards investigation (something it has never done and, it is now clear, will never do). And it claims that monitoring and occasional training at the Jewish Chronicle are sufficient remedy when, after five years of failure, demonstrably they are not.
Why the refusal? There are three explanations.
First, as its nine-year track record shows, IPSO is a useless complaints body which simply does not care either about low standards or the effect they have on members of the public who are wronged. It just goes through its feeble motions, very slowly, hoping not to attract attention to itself.
Second, the appointments processes for its IPSO board members (who are supposed to make the big decisions) are not properly independent and so consistently produce pliable people ready to accept a hopeless status quo.
Third, IPSO is ultimately controlled by national newspaper groups which, since they routinely flout ethical standards themselves, cannot contemplate any use of an investigation procedure that could one day be turned on them.
There is a further issue specific to the Jewish Chronicle. Though it is among the smallest IPSO members, it carries weight because its sole registered owner is Sir Robbie Gibb, former Downing Street communications chief, current BBC trustee, and brother of Schools Minister Nick Gibb.
A formal standards investigation would be embarrassing for Gibb: people might suggest that his failure to uphold standards at a publication he owns outright calls into question his ability to perform his BBC role, which includes ethical oversight of BBC journalism.
Finally, let’s return to Lord Faulks’s letter and to IPSO being “very much alive” to the effects of editorial failings at the Jewish Chronicle. When Press Gazette reported the demand for a standards investigation, it perversely devoted the opening paragraphs of its article to the views, not of the complainants, but of the Jewish Chronicle.
These views included: “In a climate of rising antisemitism, we will never be cowed by attempts to bully us into silence.”
The implication of this sentence, which was used by Press Gazette in its headline, is inescapable: the Jewish Chronicle was suggesting that the request for a standards investigation was an attempt to silence the newspaper motivated by antisemitism.
A reminder: what united those who wrote the letter was that either IPSO or the Jewish Chronicle itself had found their complaints justified. Given that fact, when IPSO sees those people smeared and intimidated in this way it should surely step in and tell the publication to withdraw and apologise, or at least it should condemn the remarks.
But no. Where IPSO is concerned, being “very much alive” to the harms caused by bad journalism does not stretch even that far.
* Brian Cathcart is a journalist, academic and campaigner. He was one of founders of the Hacked Off group for a free and accountable press