Press regulation in the UK is a joke. Whereas broadcast media outlets have to follow strict guidelines around the content they put out, print media is given free reign to pretty much publish what it likes, regardless of facts or bias.
If a paper is found publishing something untrue, all it has to do is print a small apology that rarely matches the prominence of the original inaccurate story. Papers have frequently printed sensationalist and misleading front page headlines and then, when caught out, got away with a correction buried away at the foot of one of the inner pages.
This has led us to a situation where the worst offenders flout the rules almost at will. In 2017, the Daily Mail was sanctioned a total of 50 times (amounting to nearly one a week). It’s no wonder that public trust in the press in this country is lower than anywhere else in Europe.
IPSO is the current press regulator, taking over from the Press Complaints Commission in 2014 after the Leveson Inquiry. But many see it as unfit for purpose, unwilling to show any teeth and bring the papers into line, and too cosy in its relationship with the tabloids (the Daily Mail‘s Paul Dacre and The Sun‘s Trevor Kavanagh have held key IPSO positions).
To add to this, the government has just scrapped plans for a second phase of the Leveson Inquiry. So what could be done to improve the current woeful situation? Well, I discussed a few possible suggestions with followers of this blog’s Facebook page…
Force papers to publish more prominent retractions
The most popular suggestion. Making the correction take up the same space as the original fake story seems like an obvious solution.
If a front page story is subsequently found to be false, why should the correction go anywhere other than on the front page? Allowing papers to publish tiny apologies for huge front page or double-page spread headlines is like catching someone stealing £1000 and only making them pay £50 back.
It also means that the original untrue headline is seen by far more people than the correction.
‘Even if you choose not to buy any newspapers, their front page headlines have an influence on us‘ commented one Facebook follower, Sheila Knight. ‘You cannot avoid them in supermarkets and newsagents. Only retractions on the front page would have any impact.’
Some people came up with more creative suggestions on the same theme. Joe Swindells suggested ‘forcing the editor to run the story again with corrections, in a like for like way‘.
According to Anni Hat: ‘corrections should be published on the front page of all other newspapers‘.
Paul James, perhaps with tongue slightly in cheek and influenced by a recent Oscar-winning film, suggested going as far as ‘forcing papers to print a retraction an a large billboard, in front of which the editor and columnist spend a week in the stocks.‘
Making the punishment match the crime would surely have an effect. Would papers regularly print sensationalist or shit-stirring rubbish if they knew it might cost them a front page later down the line?
Another idea could be to make papers tweet their corrections. Tory MP Ben Bradley’s recent apology tweet for slurring Jeremy Corbyn was retweeted over 50,000 times, which highlights the power of social media when it comes to spreading the word on misdemeanours.
Impose fines for offences
Another method of bringing the press into line could be to hit them where it hurts – in the pockets. Newspaper owners tend to be ridiculously wealthy sorts but none of them like losing money, as the reaction to the growing success of the Stop Funding Hate campaign has shown.
With the proliferation of online media, traditional press publications have taken a bit of a financial battering in recent years. The threat of a sizeable fine hanging over their heads if they flout the rules might make editors a bit more careful on what content they publish.
Believe it or not, IPSO actually has the power to impose fines under the current rules but it doesn’t seem to want to use this.
Suspensions for repeatedly publishing inaccurate content
A slightly more controversial suggestion (freedom of the press and all that). But, as someone once remarked, with great freedom comes great responsibility. We’re not talking some massively censorious campaign to stop the press publishing anything slightly controversial. But if, for example, a paper is caught publishing untruthful or misleading information on the same topic three times, would it really hurt to see them stopped from writing on that one subject for a temporary period (e.g. 3 months or 6 months)?
If for nothing else, it would undoubtedly see the Daily Express banned from reporting on anything to do with the EU for large parts of the year, which would surely be a good thing.
Temporary bans would also have the effect of being newsworthy themselves, shining a light on the bad behaviour of papers.
It’s a measure that divides opinion. Some fear that it’s venturing just a little too far towards authoritarianism, others see it as a just method of ensuring that the industry retains standards. Adam Beckett suggested that repeat offences should carry more severe punishments, saying ‘Three strikes and the owner should face a lifetime ban from owning, having shares or having any controlling interests in a media company‘.
It would be interesting to see how a certain Mr Murdoch would react to that idea.
Make papers publish how many days it’s been since their last correction
This is an idea someone mentioned in a Facebook discussion a while ago. It’s basically the system often seen in public toilets (‘this toilet was last cleaned 15 hours ago‘) adapted to deal with mopping up a different type of foul-smelling effluence – that of tabloid bullshit.
It would be simple to implement and having a figure stamped in a prominent place (‘this publication last lied to you 5 days ago‘ would be a great improvement to the front pages of many papers, in my opinion) could encourage an improvement in standards.
Another suggestion on a similar theme was put forward by Paul Petty, who said ‘each paper should be forced to publish what percentage of their front pages in the current year didn’t have stories that had to be subsequently retracted’.
Corrections to be announced on other news outlets
A couple of people suggested bringing the broadcast media into it.
‘The BBC and Channel 4 as public broadcasters should announce when corrections have been mandated as part of the news and run the corrected story’ said Robert Wood.
‘Most of the late night news shows have a ‘tomorrow’s front pages’ section’ said Andrew Henshall. ‘This should be preceded by a ‘corrections and retractions’ section with any offenders getting left out of the subsequent section.’
‘A truth rating would be good, a bit like food hygiene ratings and scored on the number of corrections in a given period’ – John Knight
‘Publish a league table of retractions by media outlet’ – Paul Brownlow
‘Anyone they lie about gets to guest edit the paper for a day’ – Matthew Pond
‘A prominent warning on articles of a subject they have had excessive complaints upheld on, e.g. WARNING, this article may misrepresent facts on immigration’ – Nick Treleaven
So plenty for IPSO to chew on if it ever decides to get serious and actually do something to make the press fit for purpose. Until then, we can all help advertise apologies and corrections ourselves by spreading them on social media. Make sure they get the audience they deserve.
Don’t like what you’re seeing in the press? If you see an article you’re unhappy with, you can email the press regulators at email@example.com to voice your concerns. If enough complaints are received, they will have to look into it.
Tabloid Corrections Facebook page: here.