If truthful reporting risks increasing tension between communities, should it still be published? Do journalists have a social duty to repress certain topics which are unhelpful? These questions tend to separate free societies from those countries where the press is muzzled. In Britain, there has been a tradition: readers decide what is acceptable. But that tradition is under threat, not just from politicians but from the press regulator itself.
You may not have heard of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, but it’s worth knowing about. It regulates this magazine and most British newspapers. When it was set up five years ago, its rules, laid out in the Editors’ Code, were meant to enforce accuracy and basic standards. Writing must be truthful and reporters should protect their sources, not engage in harassment and so on.
But in recent years, journalists have noticed Ipso branching out into ‘correcting’ opinion pieces. I used to be the managing editor of The Spectator, and remember handling its complaints. Towards the end of my time in the job, there were signs of Ipso being manipulated by activists. This was alarming in itself. But it’s clear some of these activists now have a very far-reaching, more worrying, agenda.
For months, Ipso has been working on a new project: an ‘informal working group’ to guide journalists on what should and shouldn’t be said about Islam and Muslims. Drafts of this guidance have been leaked to Policy Exchange by someone concerned about where it might lead, and it is examined in a new study by the thinktank called Eroding the Free Press. I can disclose it here for the first time.
Notably, there is a shift in the guidance from the strict focus on accuracy to more elastic and subjective terms. Journalists are urged to ‘be aware that their content can have an impact… on how minority communities are treated’. They are told that ‘inaccuracies and insensitivities’ can ‘damage communities’ and that ‘unbalanced coverage can work to increase tension between communities’. This, it is said, ‘can make harassment more likely’.
It sounds banal enough. But what would it mean in practice? When the Times revealed the grooming scandal in Rotherham, for example, the story was incendiary. How exactly should such an important piece of investigative journalism be balanced? Who decides what is ‘insensitive’ anyway?
Even Ipso’s current rulebook has allowed it to be abused by activists. Miqdaad Versi is a prominent member of the Muslim Council of Britain and a campaigner who has made it his mission to complain about so-called ‘Islamophobia’ in the UK’s media. He does so to editors directly and via Ipso’s official complaint channels.
A search of Ipso’s records underlines the scale of Versi’s activity — and the reason he has been called ‘the UK’s one-man Islamophobia media monitor’. He has personally complained about articles in publications including the Sun, Sunday Times, Daily Express, Mail Online and The Spectator.
One national newspaper editor confirmed that he frequently corrects stories online when Versi contacts him — if only to stop the deluge of emails, which can relate to obscure points about the history of Islam.
No one has been told who sits on Ipso’s group, deciding how the British press should report about Islam. Which is odd: why the secrecy? When Sir Alan Moses, Ipso’s outgoing chairman, was asked twice in private for details of the Ipso group, he said it was confidential, then wasn’t sure — and certainly didn’t reveal its membership. But I can confirm that one of its members is the very same Miqdaad Versi. Soon, he may well be able to complain to Ipso about stories he dislikes, using guidance that he himself helped to draft. In a commercial sphere, this would be called ‘regulatory capture’: when a vested interest leans on a regulator to rewrite the rulebook, then uses the new rules to their own advantage.
Without Ipso, there would be no tool by which the likes of Versi could interfere with newspapers. The Muslim Council of Britain has tried to set up its own press watchdog: the academic-sounding ‘Centre for Media Monitoring’, which draws up dossiers on journalists and newspapers it finds guilty of incorrect reporting and opinions. There’s quite a lot of them: in the final three months of last year, it found, 59 per cent of all newspaper articles about Muslims associated them with negative behaviour. Terrorism was the most common theme, and over a third of all articles misrepresented or generalised about Muslims, it said.
By now, you might not be surprised to learn that the Centre for Media Monitoring is also under the control of Miqdaad Versi, who is executive director. This is what Versi does: he is an activist who wants to dictate what the media can and can’t say about Islam, and to set himself up as the ultimate arbiter. Ipso, it seems, has fallen for his posturing.
But why, you might ask, is Britain’s supposedly fearless press loth to criticise Ipso, especially given how scathing many editors are about it in private? Consider its background. Ipso was founded in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. The Leveson inquiry had called for a ‘statutory verification process’ which, it was claimed, was needed to guarantee the independence of the press. This was doublespeak. What campaigners called a ‘dab of statute’ could have led to a slow drift towards full statutory regulation of the press. It was fiercely and rightly resisted by publishers, including The Spectator.
So the bullet was dodged and Ipso was founded instead: self-regulation survived. The fear among editors and journalists now is that if it fails, newspapers and magazines could be exposed to something worse: for example, being forced to join a regulator such as Impress, backed by Max Mosley, who helped to bring down the News of the World after it splashed inaccurate details of his sex orgy.
The trouble is that campaigners seem to have cottoned on to the timidity around Ipso, and so are using the regulator as a vehicle to push various agendas. The Ipso guidance says that journalists should ‘present more than one opinion’. Tell that to Rod Liddle. Then there is the more troubling suggestion that ‘journalists may find it helpful to consider the expertise of the person/organisation, their background and any previous comments on the issues, in deciding who to approach for comment’. In other words, self-appointed Muslim spokesmen such as Miqdaad Versi?
Even without the new Ipso guidance in place, a number of editors and journalists have spoken privately to us about the ‘chilling effect’ that has already occurred in relation to subjects that touch on Islam. There is a degree of self-censorship going on and this raises the question: what stories have been set aside on the grounds that pursuing them might bring too much trouble? Note that some of the UK’s foremost investigative journalists — such as Andrew Norfolk and Dominic Kennedy of the Times — have already been denounced by activists for their alleged ‘Islamophobia’.
It won’t end here. If the new Ipso guidance is published, it is likely to be ‘banked’ as a useful concession on the road towards yet further restrictions on media freedom. The next step could be for activist groups to obtain changes to the Editors’ Code, so that it would prohibit discrimination against groups of people — as well as individuals (at present, it rules out only the latter).
Editors and journalists are clear that such a change — giving activists more power to complain ‘on behalf’ of others — would mark a sinister turn in press regulation. It would deeply compromise the free press. But make no mistake. As it stands, that is the direction of travel — and time is running out to change course.
Will Heaven is Policy Exchange’s Director of Policy.