IPSO Blog: Commercial content...it's complicated

This week there has been a lot of discussion of claims published by the website Open Democracy about an offer allegedly made by the London Evening Standard to a select group of potential advertisers.

According to Open Democracy, the Standard was willing to publish news and comment pieces favourable to these companies with no indication to readers that they were reading anything but normal editorial content.

The Standard has absolutely denied that it was or would be willing to offer positive news coverage or favourable comment as part of a commercial deal. It said that “like all British newspapers, the Evening Standard has valued commercial partners and works with them on specific campaigns for the benefit of our readers” and that any commercial contracts would include a guarantee of editorial independence.

IPSO does not regulate the Evening Standard, and we have no direct information about their commercial and editorial practices. No doubt this story will continue to run, but it is only the latest talking point in a wider ongoing discussion among publishers, advertisers and readers about the evolving relationships between the editorial and commercial sides of the news business, which is challenging the whole industry.

The classic ideal was that editorial and commercial sides of a business should be separated by a “Chinese wall” – no communication, no engagement, no relationships – as an absolute non-negotiable. I suspect it was always a bit more complicated than that, but it seems pretty clear that given the challenging commercial environment facing publishers, it has become even more so.

Finding new ways to engage with advertisers is a necessity for many publishers, not an optional extra, and this has led to a huge expansion in the extent and diversity of the contacts between the commercial and editorial sides of publishers, as well as between editorial departments and advertisers. Whether you see this as a threat or innovation, it means that maintaining editorial independence requires something more sophisticated than expecting journalists to put their fingers in their ears when it’s time to talk about the money.

So where does IPSO fit in to this?

Publishers who are members of IPSO must follow the Editors’ Code of Practice – a set of rules which govern press behaviour and how content is produced. It covers things like accuracy, privacy, reporting of crime and discrimination. However, the Code doesn’t currently deal specifically with the transparency of commercial content like that described in the Open Democracy article. That’s not a coincidence – it’s a reflection of the Code’s origins in the “Chinese wall” mindset. The closest it comes is Clause 13 (Financial journalism), but that’s about prohibiting journalists from improperly using their roles to gain personal financial benefit, not benefit for their organisations. 

So what sort of regulation do we have?

The primary regulator for advertising the UK is the Advertising Standards Authority, which enforces the CAP Code for non-broadcast advertisements, sales promotions and marketing communications. They also produce a lot of helpful guidance about non-broadcast advertising.

They are able to take complaints about improperly identified content, but like the Editors’ Code, their remit arguably reflects a traditional idea of how this content will be produced – it applies only to material “the content of which is controlled by the marketer, not the publisher”. 

I am far from the first to note that this potentially leaves out of the picture quite a bit of content that is coordinated with advertisers but not signed off by them.

What can be done?

Acknowledging the challenge is easy, but coming up with a working solution that is worthy of public trust without undercutting potentially vital new sources of revenue for publishers is much harder.

The Editors’ Code of Practice Committee received submissions during its last (2017) Code Review about transparency in this area. Having considered the issue, the Code Committee essentially decided that it required more study. It asked that IPSO consider and discuss with members how they might report on transparency policies concerning editorial and commercial relationships.

This could potentially form part of the annual statement that publishers are obliged to submit to IPSO explaining their approach to editorial standards, complaints-handling processes, training processes and compliance more generally.

We are at the early stages of considering how this would work, and are planning to engage extensively with our members and groups concerned about this issue before making recommendations about the best way forward.

It is a complex issue, with potentially significant consequences should we get it wrong. But on the flipside, getting it right could potentially do a huge service to the public and to our members.