Man Utd says it will “test” the press regulator

13th February 2020 Media Law

Manchester United FC announced last Friday that it has filed a complaint against The Sun with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (“IPSO”).

We examine what the powers of the newspapers’ regulator actually are and how people and organisations who feel that they have been treated unfairly by press might seek redress.

Background

The Club’s complaint relates to the coverage by The Sun of the attack on the house of the Club’s Executive Vice-Chairman, Ed Woodward. The Sun published an article both online and in print on 29 January. The headline read, ‘Ed Devils: Man Utd fans throw flares at Ed Woodward’s house in shocking scenes as anti-board protests continue to escalate’.

The reason for the Club’s complaint can be seen from the public statement via its website:

“The Club believes that The Sun newspaper had received advance notice of the intended attack, which included criminal damage and intent to intimidate, and that the journalist was present as it happened. The quality of the images accompanying the story indicate that a photographer was also present.

Not only did the journalist fail to discharge the basic duty of a responsible member of society to report an impending crime and avert potential danger and criminal damage, his presence both encouraged and rewarded the perpetrators."

The Club alleges ‘a clear breach of the IPSO Editor’s Code and journalist ethics’.

The Sun has stated in response that it “supports wholeheartedly the Editors’ Code Of Conduct” and that it intends to defend the Club’s complaint.

What is the IPSO / the Editor’s Code?

IPSO states that its function is to “hold newspapers and magazines to account for their actions, protect individual rights, uphold high standards of journalism”.

The Code sets out the rules that the voluntarily subscribing newspaper and magazine industry members have pledged to accept. The standards are therefore self-imposed. The Code is written by IPSO’s Committee, whose members are appointed by the members of press. The IPSO Board and Complaints Committee are, in part, formed of former senior newspaper editors, but there has been a restructure in recent years to include lay persons to try to ensure the independence of IPSO.

The rules of the Code can be found here. They include standards regarding accuracy of publications, privacy of individuals, harassment by the press and those working for them, publications concerning children, and the reporting of crime, to name a few.

It is difficult to know how the Club may have framed its complaint in this case without having all of the full facts to hand. Any viable complaint would have to fit within the relatively narrow confines of the Code. IPSO does not handle complaints in relation to any perceived unethical conduct of the part of the press.

Our best guess, based on the limited information available, is that the Club’s complaint may be that The Sun’s article is misleading (therefore contravening the accuracy principle), as it does not reflect the fact that its journalist received advance notice of the attack.Interestingly, according to IPSO’s statistics, it seems that complaints to IPSO relating to accuracy are the most upheld complaints.

What powers does IPSO have?

IPSO states that, normally, it will only investigate a complaint made within four months of the date an article was published, or of the date of the journalist’s behaviour, but may be able to investigate a complaint up to 12 months after an article was published depending on the circumstances.

A complaint might be resolved in one of the following ways:

  • the publication of a correction, apology, follow-up piece or letter from you
  • a private letter of apology from the editor
  • an undertaking as to future conduct by the newspaper
  • the annotation of the publication's records to ensure that an error is not repeated.

IPSO can also undertake a standards investigation to investigate where it has serious concerns about the behaviour or actions of the press. If the conduct is sufficiently serious, IPSO’s sanctions include imposing a fine of up to £1 million; requiring the member to pay the reasonable costs of the investigation; and termination of the member’s membership of IPSO.

IPSO cannot award compensation to a complainant, even if it upholds a complaint.

However, IPSO also runs a low cost arbitration scheme separate from its complaints process for people making legal claims related to defamation (libel and slander), malicious falsehood, misuse of private information, breach of confidence, harassment and data protection. Whereas any complaint to IPSO needs to point to a breach of the Code, in order to use IPSO’s arbitration scheme it is necessary to point to viable legal claim involving one of the causes of action mentioned above. Compensation can be recovered under the scheme, but is limited to £60,000.

What is the cost of complaining to IPSO?

Complaining to IPSO is free.

IPSO’s arbitration scheme costs £50-£100. A party using the arbitration scheme can be asked to pay costs to the press if the claim against them is “frivolous, vexatious, wholly without merit or trivial. The scheme only allows a successful party to recover of legal costs up to £10,000 but this can be increased to £25,000 if both parties agree.

Comment

Manchester United is not the first football club to take the media to task via a regulatory complaint. News of this complaint arrives around the same time as news of Celtic FC’s complaint to Ofcom (the UK’s “communications” regulator) regarding Sky Sport’s inaccurate translation of comments by Rangers’ striker, Alfredo Morelos.

Complaining to IPSO is, in some instances, an attractive option for those who have been wronged by the press. For example, where a complainant does not have good grounds to pursue a legal claim against a newspaper, or has limited funds available to them to do so. However, IPSO has been the subject of criticism over the years for its failure to adequately regulate the press.

Although IPSO has the power to provide some vindication to complainants in that it can procure the removal of offending online publications, and an apology and correction if the offending publication is in print, it cannot award payments of compensation to those who have been wronged. In addition, if there is no breach of the Code, which is fairly narrow in its scope, IPSO is unlikely to do anything at all in response to a complaint.

The statistics available on IPSO’s website suggest that, since 2014 to the end of 2019, 20,314 complaints to IPSO have been rejected and 26,753 complaints were considered to be outside IPSO’s remit. This is compared to only 42 complaints where IPSO imposed a sanction in the form of publication of a correction and 91 where IPSO sanctioned by publication of an adjudication. IPSO has also been criticised for its failure to fine its members and its failure to investigate systematic breaches of the Code.

Manchester United states that IPSO’s decision regarding the Club’s complaint is an “important test of the self-regulatory system for newspapers and its ability to uphold ethical standards in the press”.

It remains to be seen how IPSO will respond to this high-profile complaint.

JMW’s media team advise on all matters relating to publication and threatened publication by the media, including complaints to media regulators such as IPSO, Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority. We can also advise in relation to IPSO’s arbitration scheme. Please contact the team for more information.

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Laura Wilkinson is a Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Commercial LitigationMedia Law departments

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