New regulator will have to prove itself to a lot of sceptics
Barring unforeseen events, by May 1 next, this newspaper and every other publication in the Belfast Telegraph group will have a new regulator.
Last week, Independent News & Media in Northern Ireland, publishers of the Tele, the Sunday Life and associated publications and websites, signed up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso).
Ipso plans to go live by May 1 and, so far, approximately 90% of news publishers in the United Kingdom have signed up.
Most others are expected to do likewise, apart from a few undeclared groups. Chief among these are Guardian News and Media, publishers of the Guardian and Observer, the Financial Times group and the Independent in London. These groups are not implacably opposed to Ipso, nor do they enthusiastically support it, either. I guess they're waiting to see if the thing actually works.
I am in no doubt that it will. It is the toughest voluntary newspaper regulator in the Western world, and there is a real commitment for reform within a chastened industry. As an entity, Ipso rests on a complex series of inter-lockable contracts, enforceable under commercial law.
There are five governing documents. Chief of these is the Scheme Membership Agreement, a contract which binds publishers to Ipso and which gives the regulator tough powers of investigation, enforcement and sanction.
There are also the Regulations, part of the membership agreement, which govern how Ipso will operate, how complaints are investigated and the conduct of standards investigations.
The Articles of Association set out the governance of the regulator and guarantee its independence from the news industry.
The Articles of Association of the Regulatory Funding Company set out how Ipso will be funded. Finally, the Financial Sanctions Guidance sets out the guidelines under which Ipso can impose fines of up to £1m.
All of these documents are available for inspection at www.ipso.co.uk. There is also a three-page guide to the above for anyone who (understandably) does not want to go plough through the actual documents.
Fair enough, but what does all of that mean for the reader? Well, these things have yet to be settled, but my assumption is that publishers will have to demonstrate exceedingly robust internal procedures, for example, in dealing with complaints.
But it's much more than that. They will need to take proper cognisance of, and keep computer-dated records, proving that ethical considerations were fully explored – and resolved – before publication of controversial articles. Reckless behaviour will be penalised. Publishers are obliged to report annually to Ipso on how they maintain records and comply with the rules. Large publishers will likely create the post of a "compliance officer"; smaller ones will invest a senior executive with this responsibility. Member companies will be required to establish a whistle-blowing hotline for staff to use if they feel under pressure to take unethical actions. The compliance officer will ensure staff who make genuine ethical complaints are protected from sanction by employers.
The establishment of Ipso does create a stand-off between the news industry and the Government, with the Royal Charter on regulation left dangling. However, it appears the Government intends to let Ipso prove itself to be a robust, efficient and independent regulator.
For critics, the key point at issue is its independence from the industry. If there is any suggestion that Ipso is a poodle, or lapdog, rather than a ferocious rottweiler, then its moral authority will likely vanish overnight.
Inevitably, this means that Ipso will need to claim a few scalps in its initial period. It will need to prove itself and, if that means making an example of an errant newspaper, then it will happen.
The first editor into its firing line is in for a very rude wake-up.