Belfast Telegraph

Papers cannot now complain if their inaction ends in caning

By Paul Connolly

Some significant changes have been made to the Editors' Code of Practice, which is the cornerstone of the self-regulation system used by almost all the UK's newspapers.

These changes should make it easier for readers to complain, and also should force editors to maintain an appropriate complaints policy.

The industry has been widely - and rightly - criticised in the past for not hard-wiring in universal complaints procedures, instead allowing titles to operate their own unsupervised systems.

Some newspapers, frankly, used to treat complaints with disdain.

It used to be particularly difficult to get corrections into the national newspapers, which seemed to operate under the indulgent mindset that to correct something was somehow a sign of weakness.

Personally, I think openness, transparency, the ability to take criticism on the chin and the embracing of the letter and spirit of a complaints policy is the sign of a mature newspaper (and editor).

This is the first revision of the Editors' Code since, post-Leveson, independent lay members joined the Editors' Code of Practice committee, and the chair and chief executive of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) became full members.

It is said the changes were agreed unanimously.

So what changes have been made?

Well, in the committee's own words:

  • For the first time, specific reference is made to headlines not supported by the text of the article beneath.
  • The reporting of suicide becomes the subject of a stand-alone clause, reflecting concerns about the publication of excessive detail about methods of suicide.
  • Gender identity is added to the list of categories covered by the discrimination clause, which protects individuals from prejudicial and pejorative reporting.
  • The duty of editors to maintain procedures to resolve complaints swiftly, and to co-operate with the Independent Press Standards Organisation, becomes enshrined in the code's preamble.
  • The code's definition of the public interest, and the circumstances in which editors can invoke it, has been updated and expanded in line with the Defamation Act, Data Protection Act and Crown Prosecution Service guidance.

The last point has the potential to be rather complicated because the Defamation Act does not apply in NI thanks to a DUP/Sinn Fein stitch-up, and the Crown Prosecution Service doesn't exist here. We have the Public Prosecution Service - which hasn't, as far as I am aware, issued the same guidance as across the water.

Both of these could potentially complicate matters locally but - hopefully - in practice will not.

So how is this relevant to you? Well, for example, if you are unfortunate enough to be affected by suicide and a newspaper publishes a graphic account of how your loved one took their life, they will be in trouble. And repeated breaches could even result in fines.

Or if you are a transgender individual inappropriately singled out for vitriol or mockery, you have new avenues through which to complain, and IPSO has new reasons to act.

Also, and I think this is important, editors who do not impose on themselves and their staff a disciplined complaints policy will be open to IPSO sanctions.

In other words, editors will have to get real about both ethics and complaints. And that can only be a good thing.

Belfast Telegraph


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