IPSO Blog: Legsit and third party complaints

This week has been a busy week for IPSO as we’ve received over 1,600 complaints from members of the public about the Daily Mail’s “Legsit” article.

We are always grateful when people bring concerns to our attention. We review each and every complaint and inquiry we receive – and we respond to every single one.

In the case of “Legsit”, we have written to a number of people to explain that because the concerns they have raised under Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code relate to Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May, we are unable to consider their concerns further.

We often get questions about why we don’t take forward third party complaints like these, and we know that sometimes people feel disappointed about this, so this week’s blog seems like a good opportunity to explain a bit more about IPSO’s rules and how they work and why.

What are the rules about third party complaints?

IPSO’s regulations make clear who can make a complaint about a particular issue. Anyone can complain under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code about a significant inaccuracy which has been published on a general point of fact. A large number of complaints to IPSO do fall into this category.

Complaints about other issues under the Code are more complicated. IPSO can take forward complaints under Clauses 2–16 – covering issues like privacy, harassment, intrusion into grief or shock, and discrimination – from anyone directly affected by an article or journalistic conduct or their authorised representative. This could be, for example, another family member, solicitor, or trusted friend.

Our regulations do not allow us to take forward complaints about issues other than accuracy from third parties, with no connection to the alleged breach of the Code.

Why can’t third party complaints be taken forward?

The short answer is that the policy on third party complaints is bound into the legal contract that governs our relationship with the publications we regulate.

However, there reasons of principle behind this. Complaints framed under these clauses often relate to stories about sensitive or personal issues, such as a bereavement, or an individual’s health, private relationships or personal identity. 

We understand that members of the public who make such complaints 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.

Members of the public who are unconnected with the subject of the story do not know how the subject themselves feels about the coverage or about making a complaint to IPSO – and neither does IPSO. Subjects of press coverage, particularly vulnerable ones, should be free to make their own decisions about how they would like to respond.  It’s not for IPSO, or anyone else, to presume to know what they might wish to do. 

When we investigate complaints, publications are asked to explain the circumstances of publication, or journalistic conduct, and complainants are given the opportunity to respond. In many cases, publications will offer remedies like corrections or private apologies to complainants as a means of resolving their complaint, and a number of complaints are resolved directly between the parties.

Investigating without the involvement of the person involved can also pose practical problems. To investigate a complaint without the input of the person involved 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, or know what the subject of the story might consider to be a suitable solution to their complaint.

Aside from the practical considerations, conducting an in-depth investigation without an individual’s input or consent could cause embarrassment, or represent a serious intrusion. IPSO’s commitment to transparency means all decisions made by our Complaints Committee are published on our website. To take forward complaints without their agreement would mean that IPSO would be publishing material about an individual which included potentially sensitive details about them, without their consent.

Our regulations ensure that an IPSO investigation does not cause further distress or intrusion to subjects of press coverage.

A special role for representative groups

While we are always aware of the importance of considering the individual at the centre of a news story for the reasons explained above, our regulations do create a special mechanism for recognising the voices of others who may be affected by coverage that breaches the Editors’ Code: ‘the representative group’ complaint. This means that IPSO can consider a complaint from a representative group affected by an alleged breach of the Code.

Sometimes representative groups will do so with the consent of the individual at the centre of the coverage. Trans Media Watch for example, a group representing transgender individuals, had agreement from Emily Brothers to make a complaint about a discriminatory reference to her in a Sun column.

In another case, Changing Faces complained about an online article which included prejudicial and pejorative references to individual’s physical illnesses or disabilities. In this case, they were not complaining on behalf of an individual, but as a group representing people with conditions or marks which affect their appearance. In this case we took forward the complaint on behalf of Changing Faces because they represented people affected by an alleged breach and there was a substantial public interest in doing so. 

Taking forward representative group complaints in this way 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.  

What about IPSO’s role upholding press standards?

IPSO’s role extends beyond handling individual complaints and we keep in mind at all times our broader responsibility for press standards. 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 about press standards.

IPSO’s Standards function reviews press standards generally and finds ways to ensure that they are maintained and raised where necessary. This is done in three main ways – by providing guidance and training; by supporting publishers to comply with the Code and then monitoring that compliance through the annual statement process; and by monitoring both complaints received by IPSO and concerns expressed externally about press standards.

Every month, the Standards function reviews complaints received by IPSO to identify if there are broader concerns about press standards. That review includes complaints that were not taken forward, to ensure that we are not missing any information that might be relevant. Many complaints about “Legsit” were around these standards issues and will be incorporated into our broader standards work, which could include, if appropriate, developing guidance on a particular topic, as we did with the reporting of transgender issues or developing training for journalists.

In conclusion…

IPSO is committed to balancing the rights of individuals with freedom of expression and will continue our work to achieve this. Our services are available to everyone, free of charge, and most people who complain to IPSO are ordinary members of the public. If you are concerned about something you have seen in a member publication and aren’t sure how these procedures would apply, feel free to contact us to discuss it further.