Belfast Telegraph

Regulating the Press... why it's a right alphabet soup

By Paul Connolly

The grand battle over Press regulation – well, this stage of it anyway – is drawing to a close. The new standards body, IPSO, announced its board this week (NI Consumer Council chairm Rick Hill is a member) and by September should be officially keeping the unruly house of the Fourth Estate in some kind of order.

IPSO stands for the Independent Press Standards Organisation. It's not to be confused with the International Programme for the State of the Ocean, or the Irish Payments Services Organisation – both august organisations, I'm sure – and a host of other bodies that use the same acronym.

And most definitely not to be confused with Ipso Facto, the "goth-inflicted, melodramatic psychedelic rock band" founded by Rosalie Cunningham and friends in 2007 (although I'm sure if Rosalie were to compose a thundering anthem for freedom of expression we'd all be clapping along).

There will, I fear, be plenty of dreadful puns on "IPSO facto" in coming weeks and months as you hear more about the successor to the Press Complaints Commission.

Scholars will know that 'ipso facto' comes directly from the Latin meaning "by the fact itself", or, in plain English, "a direct consequence".

The fact that IPSO was a direct consequence of the despicable behaviour of some Fleet Street tabloids is not lost on the rest of the industry, particularly the innocent regional Press.

At the moment, if this, or any other, newspaper were to traduce, harass or otherwise wrong you, the PCC will investigate (go to www.pcc.org.uk if you spot anything serious).

In a number of weeks, this task should transfer to IPSO, armed with its contract-based regulation system that includes tough powers and the ability to fine errant newspapers up to £1m.

The media world, interwoven as it often is with political faction-fighting, commercial competition and big personalities, is never straightforward and so, not unsurprisingly, there is a 'split', with several newspapers refusing to sip from IPSO's cup. Chief of these are the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Independent group.

The Northern Ireland picture is fuzzy. The Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life and related websites are in (disclosure: Belfast Telegraph Editor Mike Gilson sits on the board of IPSO's regulatory funding company).

The News Letter, as part of the UK-wide Johnston Press group, will also be in, along with JP's local weeklies, including the Mid Ulster Mail and Londonderry Sentinel.

The Irish News is undecided, according to the latest information I have heard, and the same applies to the Sunday World.

Editors and proprietors of the other local regional weeklies will, I'd imagine, be invited to join in the autumn if they don't volunteer by then.

As I said, life is never simple in media-land. A serious attempt at a rival to IPSO is being set up. Called Impress, it has attracted heavyweight backers and is pitching for non-IPSO newspapers to join, although apparently none actually has so far.

Impress, which has apparently received a £40,000 funding pledge from Harry Potter author JK Rowling, wants to see a regulator completely independent of the industry and which is fully "Leveson-compliant" – ie, which will completely implement all of the controversial Leveson report into Press standards which so upset large sections of the newspaper industry generally.

Confused? So am I at times. And I haven't even mentioned the Government's Royal Charter and its appalling plan for exemplary damages on newspapers which don't join a state-approved body (in other words, it appears, IPSO members).

The bottom line is that Press regulation in the UK is about to get much tougher. Although, personally, I hope the initial complaint to the new body is about the first writer, or sub-editor, who uses an 'IPSO facto' pun. That really will be a crime against journalism.

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