Complainers' charter is a ridiculous anchor on free Press
The newspaper regulator Ipso was right to throw out a complaint against the Belfast Telegraph, says Mick Hume. The freedom to publish only those opinions which others find inoffensive is no freedom at all
Who should decide which arguments and opinions a newspaper can publish? Should it be the Editor, accountable to his or her readers? Or an external regulator, responding to demands from third party complainants?
That was the issue at the heart of a case that the Belfast Telegraph has just won. The industry regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) backed the paper against an extraordinary international campaign to make the Editor remove a reader's letter from the website and publish a correction and apology.
The Ipso case marks a victory for the Belfast Telegraph and freedom of expression. Yet it also illustrates the underlying threat to that precious freedom posed by the attempts to impose new rules on the Press.
The case involved the always emotive issue of the Nazi Holocaust and anti-Semitism. It began in the summer with a letter to the editor from John Dallat, an SDLP MLA, which referred to the infamous "Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland".
The Press attaché of the Polish embassy in London protested that Dallat's letter was inaccurate, because the wartime death camp was "not 'in Poland', but rather on the German-occupied Polish territories".
Among readers who might have thought that the Press attaché doth protest too much was the Cork academic Dr Kevin McCarthy. He responded in a letter, arguing that the Nazis had built their "extermination centre" there precisely because of Poland's "deeply-embedded anti-Semitism".
That anti-Semitism, suggested McCarthy, was demonstrated when 42 Jews - including survivors of the death camps - were massacred in the Polish city of Kielce in July 1946, some 16 months after Auschwitz had been liberated.
Cue an international wave of outrage from online campaigners. No less a figure than the Polish ambassador in London demanded that the Belfast Telegraph remove Dr McCarthy's letter from its website and publish a correction. The paper refused.
Meanwhile, a reader in Dublin, Adam Augustyn, made a formal complaint to Ipso, insisting that Dr McCarthy's letter broke the Editors' Code of Practice because he had not provided evidence to support his controversial argument. Ipso responded to Augustyn, rejecting his complaint on the ground that the letter "was published in the 'opinion' section of the publication and was clearly presented as the views of the letter-writer".
Whatever anybody thinks of the arguments, Ipso was right to rule against the complaint. If freedom of the Press is to have any meaning then newspapers or websites must be free to publish controversial opinions, ideas and arguments as they see fit.
The freedom to say, or to publish, only those opinions which others find inoffensive would be no sort of freedom at all. The Belfast Telegraph has made an important point of principle by standing up for Press freedom against an alliance of internet zealots with an ambassador to the Court of St James.
So, yes, Ipso got it right this time. But it should never have had the chance to make the decision.
Why should a regulatory body be empowered to rule on which arguments a newspaper can legitimately publish? Especially when it is responding to complaints from "third parties" who are not directly affected by publication - including, in this case, a reader from Dublin which, last time I looked at a map of Ireland, was still outside the jurisdiction of a UK regulatory body.
The need to make publications respond to third party complaints was one of the key recommendations of the 2012 Leveson Inquiry.
Lord Justice Leveson probed not just the phone hacking scandal, but the entire "culture, ethics and practice" of the UK media. It became a show trial, in which the Press - especially the national tabloid Press - was found guilty before it began.
The judge passed a harsh sentence, including various punitive proposals which had less to do with the hacking of phones than with taming the unruly Press.
These included an arbitration body that would hear complaints not only from individuals alleging direct mistreatment by the Press, but from third parties and "representative groups", who simply did not like something they had seen or read.
If the judge figure on Leveson's arbitration body sided with the complainant, the regulator would then have the power to order the publication of a correction or apology and determine how and where it should be published, raising the prospect of front pages being edited by judges rather than journalists.
Lord Justice Leveson's plan was effectively a complainants' charter that would throw the Press open to anybody with an axe to grind or a taste for self-publicity.
The major UK political parties agreed a deal with the tabloid-bashing Hacked Off lobby to establish a Leveson-style regulator by Royal Charter - the first State-backed system of Press regulation since 1695.
Newspapers across the UK, including the Belfast Telegraph, rejected this attempt at State interference in the affairs of a supposedly free Press and, instead, signed up to an independent regulator, Ipso.
Yet Ipso has incorporated much of Leveson's scheme for sanitising the Press - including an acceptance of complaints from third parties and "representative groups".
This has led the regulator to uphold complaints such as the permanently-offended Trans Media Watch objecting to a Sun columnist's poor taste joke (the horror, the horror).
Third party complaints against the Belfast Telegraph to date include one hair-splitter about the paper suggesting that men suffering from depression contact MIND, when that particular mental health charity does not operate in Northern Ireland; and another protest that an article was wrong to say the No More Page 3 campaign wanted to "ban boobs" from the papers, as they only wanted them covered up voluntarily.
These were deposited in the same dustbin of history as that Dublin reader's complaint about the more serious matter of the post-war massacre of Polish Jews.
Yet the fact that an external regulator and its complainants' charter exists at all remains a big problem. At best, our hard-pressed Press faces a serious waste of time and resources to deal with complaints through Ipso.
At worst, third party complaints risk giving another third party - the "independent" regulator itself - the power to dictate to and punish insolent publishers.
Three years since the Leveson Inquiry, the threats to Press freedom have hardly gone away. Now, the politicians' system of regulation by Royal Charter is creaking closer to launch, backed by a law that threatens to impose punitive costs and damages on publications that refuse to bend the knee to the new regulatory order.
If this is the "carrot" offered to the Press that is claimed, it is one shaped like a baseball bat with a nail hammered through the end.
A free Press remains the lifeblood of a free society and should be defended against all-comers. No doubt there are all sorts of problems with the Press that people want to complain about, but nowhere is the problem that the Press is "too free".
History suggests that there is always one thing worse than a free Press and that is its opposite.
And a Press free to publish and be damned remains vital to establishing the historical truth about the Holocaust, or anything else.
Mick Hume is the author of There is No Such Thing As A Free Press: And We Need One More Than Ever (Imprint Academic). His latest book, Trigger Warning: Is The Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by William Collins (£12.99)