Coinciding lectures delivered at King’s College, London, by the former lord chief justice, Lord Judge, and chairman of press regulator IPSO, Sir Alan Moses, gave legal observers a tricky choice this week.
The Great Hall was crammed with judges, peers and politicians, including Jack Straw, Lord Neuberger and Sir Brian Leveson, for Judge’s speech on the proliferation of Henry VIII clauses.
Six floors up in the college’s anatomy theatre, Fleet Street’s finest sat alongside lawyers and at least one ‘dissatisfied complainant’ to hear Moses’ dissection of the first 18 months’ of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), Reality Regulation.
Sir Brian who graced the world with his four-volume report into press ethics, probably found the choice of which to attend easier than others.
Judge kicked off his warning over the diminution of parliamentary sovereignty, with levity. He had sent his mother a copy of the flyer for the evening, which bore a snap of him alongside a painting of a slim Henry VIII.
‘Wasn’t Henry VIII a very good-looking man,’ observed his mama.
Almost on cue an elderly and distinguished lady arrived. No, it wasn’t his mother, but the former House of Commons’ speaker, Baroness Boothroyd, and Judge paused to say how flattered he was by her attendance.
Meanwhile, Moses was giving a ‘breathless summary’ of the evolution of IPSO. In 2015, he said, IPSO received 12, 276 enquiries, only a third of which could possibly have formed the basis of a breach.
It had upheld 45 cases, 61 cases were resolved to the satisfaction of the complainant with the help of IPSO’s mediation, a total of 106 compared to the 137 complaints found not to have been in breach and 201were resolved directly with a publication.
He cautioned against putting a ‘misleading’ and ‘superficial’ focus on numbers. Judging IPSO’s success by the number of complaints upheld or rejected, he argued ‘is no more a gauge than the number of acquittals in criminal trials, or the number of refusals in claims for judicial review’.
Moses robustly defended criticism that the nine front-page notices of correction that IPSO has ordered is ‘inadequate’ noting that ‘never before have there been any front page corrections dictated by a regulator…ever’.
And the regulator has the power to dictate which correction should be published, the words that should be used, where the correction should be put and how it should be presented, in which font size and with which headline.
Concentrating too much on the resolution of complaints, he insisted, diverted attention from the developing functions of the ‘true regulator’ that IPSO has become — setting up and conducting a pilot scheme for arbitration and sending out daily private advisory notices to protect those who do not wish to speak to or be approached by the press.
‘How I wish that Tony and Pat Archer [parents of Helen Titchener, the wife who finally snapped and stabbed her abusive husband Rob, for those who been living down an Ambridge-free hole for the past fortnight] would have used our services when door-stopped by the Borsetshire Echo,’ he sighed.
The fact that IPSO has not fined any publications, he insisted, was no sign that it lacked teeth. ‘Flexing your muscles for the sake of showing you’re strong is a sign of weakness, not strength.’
Since taking on the role of independent press regulator, Moses accepted that he had ‘gone entirely native’ and learned much about the inside working of the press, even causing him to wish that he had been a journalist.
He reflected that ‘we still need newspapers, and printed newspapers with their geography, their serendipity and their smell.’
Regulation, he said, needs to do what it can to underline the importance and authority of journalism.
But he said: ‘Newspapers will do what they have always done, pander to the prejudice of their reader whose tastes and interests in stories it is their skill to anticipate — that is, after all, what we both love and loathe about them.’
Concluding, he said: ‘We have to admit, we love a story, we love a story because it excites, amuses and titillates our fancy, we love stories which cultivate our own prejudices and our own beliefs, above all we love stories because they are not boring.
‘And there we find the source of the problems with which we at IPSO daily wrestle –nobody promised that the truth would be interesting’.