Jul 24, 2016

Can Ipso apply in countries with strict press regulation- and with none?

The Guardian

Peter Preston

Sunday 24 July 2016


The Mail Online’s Tom Cruise revelations expose the knotty problem of regulating global digital news on a national basis


The problem Lord Justice Leveson couldn’t begin to solve is coming back to bite the press regulators he left behind. Simply, what happens when you’re dealing with a British newspaper’s online operation based in America, with American reporters writing about American celebrities for a largely American audience? Otherwise known, in this first headbanger of a case, as “Exclusive: inside the ‘bromance’ of Tom Cruise and Scientology founder David Miscavige”, a Mail Online special that Miscavige took to the Independent Press Standards Organisation and sort of won last week – except that Ipso then set up its own inquiry to try to address the more problematic issues involved.

The “bromance” itself isn’t particularly significant. It featured a series of interviews with former Scientologists saying Cruise had had special treatment at the church’s Gold Base headquarters. Miscavige pleaded inaccuracies under clause one (facts) and won.

Mail Online hadn’t given due weight to Miscavige’s denials and had failed to quote a Scientology spokesman’s responses. “It had also failed to provide a defence of the accuracy of the article, or its decision not to publish a correction.” Why not, pray? The Mail is a huge defender of Ipso. But no: “The story had been written to comply with American law and journalistic conventions, not the British Editors’ Code of Practice.” So the paper declined to defend its story.

The intractabilities are clear. US press law – on privacy, say – is hugely different from Britain’s rag-bag of restrictions. America’s first amendment runs wide and strong; Britain can barely raise a trickle. There are fundamental distinctions because press guidelines, where they exist, are designed to fit journalists’ behaviour into wider legal contexts. The differences cut both ways. Talk to a British website lawyer about the pitfalls of reporting US business in Delaware and you’ll see frown succeeding frown.

Until there’s a framework of international law covering digital news, there’ll be constant stumbles. But we could wait forever there. So how can UK rules of conduct be deemed to apply to newsgathering rights thousands of miles away? If the boot was on the other foot, if British publications were reckoned out of American – or Australian, Indian or Saudi – bounds, press freedom and defiance would go hand in hand.

There are certain caveats, to be sure. If the material shown is only posted on the Mail’s US website, that creates an (admittedly notional) declaration of intent. The Mail, as a warm upholder of Ipso, might voluntarily agree to observe its injunctions wherever they’re questioned round the globe.

But the basic divide between legal imperatives and voluntary code observance creates difficulties time after time. Why should we behave differently in a land where press regulation barely exists – or in one (Australia) where the rules are far more insistent? The problem, at root, doesn’t lie with journalism standards but with the clotted, chaotic nature of the world at large. Good luck to Ipso as it searches for solutions. But nobody, from Gold Base down or up, should expect a golden light to dawn.



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