IPSO Blog: Explaining third party complaints

Complaints Officer Thomas Moseley explains how we handle complaints from third parties and how they feed into our wider standards work.

Who can complain to IPSO?

Anyone can complain to us about a significant inaccuracy which has been published on a general point of fact (under Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code). Our services are available to everyone, free of charge, and most people who complain to us are ordinary members of the public.

A large number of the complaints we receive are made under Clause 1, including many by members of the public who are concerned about the accuracy of press reporting. For example, a complaint about reporting of one scientist’s views on climate change research was investigated and upheld, although the complaint came from someone else.

IPSO takes forward complaints under Clauses 2–16 of the Code – covering issues like privacy, harassment, intrusion into grief or shock – from anyone directly affected by editorial material or a journalist’s behaviour (or, with their permission, a representative like a family member, solicitor, or trusted friend).

Our regulations do not allow us to take forward complaints about issues other than accuracy from people with no connection to the alleged breach of the Code (we call these third party complaints) – but there are very good reasons for this.

Why can’t third party complaints about privacy, harassment and other personal issues be taken forward?

Complaints framed under Clauses 2 to 12 often relate to stories about sensitive or personal issues including bereavement, private relationships or personal identity. People unconnected with a story do not know how the subject themselves feels about the coverage or about making a complaint. They should be free to make their own decisions about how they would like to respond and it’s not for us or anyone else to presume to know what their wishes are.

When we investigate complaints, publications are asked to explain the circumstances of publication, or journalistic conduct, and complainants are given the opportunity to respond. Investigating without the involvement of the subject would be difficult as neither IPSO nor an unconnected complainant would be in a position to dispute a publication’s account of a particular situation.  

Often publications will offer corrections or private apologies to complainants to resolve a complaint and without their input, we don’t know what the subject of the story might consider to be a suitable solution.

Aside from the practical considerations, conducting an in-depth investigation without an individual’s input or consent could cause embarrassment or even represent a serious intrusion. All decisions made by our Complaints Committee are published on our website so to take forward complaints without agreement would mean that we were publishing material which included potentially sensitive details, without the subject’s consent. Even where no sensitive details are involved, putting the public spotlight back on the coverage may be very unwelcome for the person or people directly involved.

Representative groups have a special role

While it’s important to consider the individual at the centre of a news story, our regulations do create a special mechanism for recognising the voices of others who may be affected by coverage that potentially breaches the Code, a representative group complaint.

If you complain to us on the basis that you are a representative group, our Complaints Committee looks at a number of criteria when deciding whether to take forward the investigation. To help them make a decision, we will ask you to explain which group you believe has been affected by the alleged breach of the Editors' Code, how you are representative of that group, how you believe the alleged breach is significant and how you believe the public interest would be served by considering the complaint.

Taking forward representative group complaints is an important way to address individual instances that cause concern about breaches of standards. In addition, in exceptional circumstances – and having considered detailed criteria that set out when this is appropriate – IPSO’s Board is able to ask the Complaints Committee to investigate and adjudicate a potential breach of the Editors’ Code. 

Upholding press standards

We understand that many members of the public who make complaints about stories that do not directly concern them do so because they want to protect the subject of the story in question and feel, rightly, that we all benefit from having a press that is accountable and upholds the standards set out in the Code.

While these complaints are not taken forward through the complaints process, they are fed into the work of our Standards function which performs wider monitoring of the media landscape. They are used in our guidance and training and in monitoring publication’s compliance with the Code through the annual statement process. We also make direct contacts to relevant agencies when we have reason to believe that there are concerns about press activity, for example at the scene of a major incident.

IPSO’s role extends beyond handling individual complaints and we are committed to working with member publishers to help them to comply with the Editors’ Code and to respond to wider concerns expressed by readers and others.

IPSO is committed to balancing the rights of individuals with freedom of expression. If you are concerned about something you have seen and aren’t sure how to make a complaint you can contact us here.