IPSO Blog: A Day in the Life of a Complaints Officer

Holly Pick writes of her experience as a complaints officer.

I applied to be a Complaints Officer in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. Having followed the Inquiry on the news – and been shocked by some of its findings – I was attracted to the prospect of a role that would help ordinary members of the public navigate the press complaints process and help them have their voices heard against such powerful news organisations. Three years on, the job still gives me the feeling that I am making a useful contribution, while also being endlessly varied and challenging.

New complaints 

On average, IPSO receives around 40 new complaints a day – finding out what subjects are giving the public cause to complain is always an interesting daily duty. On some occasions, we come to the office to discover that hundreds of people have complained about one single article. Although processing this number of complaints creates a large amount of work for the team, it also makes me feel heartened that there are so many people out there that care enough about the actions of our press to make the effort to complain about it. 

The material under complaint is hugely varied: from articles about politics, local and international news, court and inquest reports to celebrity gossip and opinion pieces by provocative columnists. The complaints range from those about accuracy to the publication of private or insensitive information, concerns that a newspaper has been discriminatory, engaged in harassment or used subterfuge. On top of that, we get a large number of complaints that don’t fall within our remit – for instance, they concern advertising or relate to a publication that is not a member of IPSO. 

A member of our Complaints Team assesses every complaint that we receive. We often go back to the complainant for more information about their concerns, or complaints that immediately raise possible breaches of the Code will be referred to the newspaper concerned. If we don’t consider that a complainant has identified a possible breach of the Code, we write to them with a detailed, personal explanation for that decision. Obviously this outcome can be disappointing for the complainant, but if they believe that we have made the wrong decision in rejecting their complaint, they can request that our Complaints Committee reconsiders the matter.  


On average, our Complaints Officers each manage a caseload of around 10 investigations at a time. Investigations start once direct correspondence between the complainant and a publication is no longer productive, or after 28 days. The start of an investigation is when we identify what information the Complaints Committee will need when it considers the complaint and has to decide if the Code has been breached, and we plan our approach accordingly. 

The questions we might ask publications during our investigations are as varied as the subjects under complaint. In the case of an accuracy complaint, we usually ask them to demonstrate how care was taken over the accuracy of the article, and whether they consider that a “significant inaccuracy” has been identified. In cases relating to intrusion, we may ask the newspaper how it sourced the published material, whether it accepts that the material was private, and whether its publication was justified. In the case of a complaint about subterfuge, we would ask the newspaper to explain in detail the process by which the decision to use subterfuge was made, and why its use of subterfuge was justified in the public interest. 

All the information submitted by a newspaper during our investigation is sent to the complainant who also has the opportunity to comment. Investigations can be concluded quite swiftly, others may take longer – it all depends on the complexity of the matters raised and the speed with which the parties respond.  If it’s possible to find a way to resolve the matter to the satisfaction of all parties, we will – and in my experience, that is often what complainants want. If it’s not possible to find a resolution, we prepare the file, which includes all the correspondence on the complaint, for consideration by the Complaints Committee. 

Private advisory notices and pre-publication advice 

IPSO operates 24 hours a day, which means that one of our Complaints Officers has to be on call at all times. I have to admit that being on call throughout the night and over the weekend is not my favourite aspect of the role, but when I receive calls from people who genuinely need assistance, it really can be the most rewarding part of the job. 

Finding yourself the subject of unwanted media attention can be incredibly distressing, particularly as it tends to happen to people at a time when they may be experiencing other stresses in their personal lives, such as a bereavement. When it’s appropriate, IPSO can help by sending out a notice to the media – including broadcasters and publications that aren’t members of IPSO – passing on the complainant’s request that the press desist from attempting to make further contact. 

Although these notices are only advisory – IPSO does not have the formal power to stop a journalist asking questions – they are effective. One of my complainants, who had a number of journalists attempting to make contact with him, said that within an hour he received no further contacts by email, social media or on the doorstep, and I was very happy that we were able to make a positive difference at what was a difficult time in his life.    

It’s not just out-of-hours that we send out these notices. Every day we receive calls from complainants: some may feel they are being harassed, others just need help making a complaint, while others may want to discuss their complaint, which is under investigation. 

We’re also regularly on the phone to the publications we regulate – they may need advice on a complaint that has been referred to them or is being investigated, but they may also seek our advice before an article is published to make sure that they aren’t about to breach the Code. 

Facing criticism 

It can be incredibly frustrating to read criticism written by people who are sceptical about IPSO’s independence, accusing it of being “in the pockets of the press”. In my view, it’s really important to the work that we do that we talk to the publications we regulate – whether it’s big national newspapers or small regional weeklies. After all, we have the same goal: to raise standards of journalism and to preserve a thriving and free press.    

IPSO is always going to have its critics, and I’m sure that there are many ways that the service we offer could be improved. But every day that I come into the office, I see first-hand the level of care that is taken to properly consider every complaint we receive, how hard the team works to make sure our service is accessible to complainants, and the effort that is put in to help publications meet the high standards that our Complaints Committee expects – and I’m proud to be a part of it. 


Originally published 25 August 2016.