James Delingpole

Ipso: a great new way for bullies to muzzle the press

By the time complaints are rejected, the damage is done: journalists are fined days of work for voicing unpopular opinions

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

One of the fundamental principles of English common law is that you are innocent until proven guilty. And rightly so, for imagine how unfair it would be if any old loon with an axe to grind had only to lodge a trumped-up complaint with the relevant authorities in order to have you punished for no reason whatsoever.

Actually, though, this cruel and capricious system exists in Britain. It’s called the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) and, as might be expected of the bastard offspring of the Leveson inquiry, it’s doing an absolutely first-rate job of empowering bullies and curbing freedom of speech in order to assuage the spite of that small but vocal lobby of caught-red-handed luvvies, lefty agitators and failed hacks which thinks our press has got too big for its boots.

Not that you would necessarily guess this if you went to Ipso’s website. Its Editors’ Code of Practice seems reasonable enough (‘The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information…’) and, scrolling down its list of rulings, what you find in the vast majority of cases is the phrase: ‘The complaint was not upheld.’ This would suggest that Ipso is both judicious and restrained.

Or so you’d think till you become the subject of one of its investigations. This happened to me recently. I can’t give you the exact details but suffice to say that I’d written something so uncontentious and easily verifiable that I might have written, ‘The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.’ Yet still, a political activist decided he had sufficient grounds to complain about this. And rather than tell him where to go — as five seconds on Google would have enabled their salaried and presumably time-rich staff to do — Ipso decided it was meet and right to make this imaginary problem my problem.

When I replied to their query with a link to a scientific website clearly showing that the sun does rise in the east and does set in the west, I thought that would be an end to it. But no. Mr Activist hit back with an even longer screed, vigorously disputing that the evidence I had provided said what I claimed it did, and demanding recourse.


‘Could we perhaps offer to remove these pars in the online version?’ suggested the newspaper’s readers’ editor diplomatically. ‘No!’ I said. ‘He’s trying it on and there’s a point of principle here. Correcting mistakes is one thing. But censoring stuff for the crime of being true? No way.’

Now, of course, I have every confidence that, when this issue is eventually resolved, Ipso will come to the only sensible conclusion. But by then it will be too late — for I will already have been forced to waste hours dealing with the kind of red-crayon complaint which, in more sensible times, would have been dealt with simply by allowing the ‘reader’ to present his case in the ‘letters to the editor’ section.

This is what Mark Steyn means when he says: ‘The process is the punishment.’ He’s referring to the far more onerous, costly and time-consuming legal case in the US that he is fighting with climate scientist Michael Mann, but when it comes to the way Ipso is being used the principle is much the same.

These activists needn’t care what Ipso’s eventual ruling is: by that stage they’ll have won regardless. Unlike in the law courts, they will have successfully intimidated and inconvenienced their enemies while incurring no financial risk. Not that money is a problem for them anyway because, quite often, making these complaints is what they are paid to do. Bob Ward, for example, a serial complainant who most recently brought an Ipso case against the Mail on Sunday for saying something he didn’t like about Arctic sea ice, has a lucrative job at the Grantham Institute, among whose raisons d’être is to make life impossible for climate sceptics.

For the journalists on the receiving end of this punishment by process, though, it’s a different story. Christopher Booker, for example, now sometimes finds himself wasting days on end fending off complaints brought by activists passing themselves off as concerned readers. One case cost him 12 solid days in lost work. He has the facts on his side and is confident of eventual victory. But even when Ipso finds in his favour, the hassle of making his defence (unpaid) will amount to the equivalent of a fine worth many hundreds of pounds.

Now, we all have our problems in this increasingly overregulated world, so I don’t expect you to shed too many tears for the plight of the freelance journalist. But what should definitely worry you about this use of Ipso is its effects on freedom of speech.

Consider Andrew Gilligan, the brave and brilliant scourge of Islamist skulduggery (from the Trojan Horse affair to Lutfur Rahman), who now has to set aside ‘a day or two’ each month just to deal with Ipso complaints. His newspaper, the Sunday Telegraph, is happy to build these costs into its reporting budget. But for some publications, the inconvenience and expense is so off-putting that they simply give up and pursue less obstreperous targets. These complaints wear people down and stop them reporting.

This is just the sort of thing that wiser heads warned would happen at the height of the Hacked Off hysteria. Weren’t Leveson’s recommendations supposed to protect us from bullies, rather than enable them?

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  • Rik

    Shocking stuff,the left will always defend to the death your right to say exactly what they tell you to say(and think).

  • finzi_holst

    There is a quote: “There is nothing more intolerant than a liberal empowered.” Shoulders back, Mr Delingpole. Thank you for fighting with the longer view in mind.

  • Sean Grainger

    Why haven’t we heard from Mark Steyn lately?

  • Mr TaxPayer

    Sounds like the trolls are trying to shut you down whenever you speak climate sense. Perhaps we should play them at their own game? Anyone fancy making some complaints about tosh in the Guardian?

  • Peter Jones

    Having used both IPSO and its predecessor the PCC, there is practically no difference between the two – so whatever merit there might be in Delingpole’s comments, it isn’t quite right to say that IPSO introduces problems that are novel.

    The cases I’ve dealt with have concerned recycling, and demonstrably untrue claims made by newspapers (e.g. about recycling being dumped abroad). I’ve written about the principal example here: http://www.isonomia.co.uk/?p=2768, and managed to obtain substantial amendments and retractions as the newspapers eventually admitted they’d got it wrong.

    I considered taking Delingpole to task over an article on recycling and waste management earlier in the year, but concluded that the prospects of winning significant changes to an opinion article (even one which rested on various errors and half truths) were too slight to merit the effort. So the process cuts both ways. I wrote about that article here: http://www.isonomia.co.uk/?p=3548

    I take the point that the process can become the punishment, but if you look at
    the hilariously obtuse responses I’ve received from certain
    publications, it doesn’t look as though they’ve spent significant
    amounts of effort on them – certainly far less than I’ve had to spend
    working out what the source of their erroneous claims might be so that I
    can show how they came to err.

    I’m not sure what alternative to the current remedy Delingpole would consider suitable. When the parties disagree over complex issues, is there an alternative to arguing it out? Or is the argument that publications should print what they like,
    without any means of ensuring corrections are made when they get it wrong?

    • William_Brown

      In my experience there are those newspapers who print one truth, and others who print theirs. It is argument and opinion – often cited from equally credible (and incredible) sources.

      I must say that I find that the ‘left’ seems to have a greater propensity for taking legal action over issues with which it disagrees, simply because it thinks it shouldn’t be said. It is this point that Delingpole seems to be making and I tend to agree with him.

      • Peter Jones

        It sounds as though what you’re saying is that there are no truths, only opinions. I take a different view.

        It simply is not the case, for example, that 12m tonnes of the UK’s household recycling is dumped in China each year. Yet the Daily Mail printed that claim on its front page. How do I know it’s not true? Only just over 10m tonnes of recycling was collected from households in the year in question.

        This doesn’t strike me as a partisan left/right issue – whatever your views are, isn’t it best if they’re based on decent information? And if newspapers (of whatever stripe) put out demonstrably false claims, don’t we need a mechanism to address that?

        • fartel engelbert

          Just write a letter to the editor.

          • Peter Jones

            And when they completely ignore it, having put misleading information in front of hundreds and thousands of readers – then what?

          • fartel engelbert

            Start your own paper or blog. I would rather you did this than limit free speech.

          • Peter Jones

            I have written about media inaccuracies, both on the blog I edit:
            (e.g. http://www.isonomia.co.uk/?p=1702)

            and in the relevant trade press.
            (e.g. http://resource.co/article/down-dumps-delingpole-10086)

            However, many people wouldn’t have access to channels of communication like this. Even in my case, the audience for these is nothing like as large as the front page of a national newspaper, and I suspect the audience of the overlap with (say) the Daily Mail’s readership is limited. Are you saying that you are in favour of hundreds of thousands of people being given false information, then not having a reasonable opportunity to find out that it was false?

            IPSO doesn’t, in my view, limit free speech. Remember, it is a voluntary system set up by the media, to try to forestall a statutory body being established. Under IPSO rules, newspapers get to publish whatever they like. In the event that there is a complaint, then (after however many weeks or months of wrangling it takes before agreement is reached between the parties or IPSO decides it has to adjudicate), the newspaper might have to edit or delete an article and publish a correction/retraction. It’s pretty feeble as a means of ensuring people can have some level of trust in the information newspapers give them – but better than nothing.

          • fartel engelbert

            Great. Now go and get a life.

        • GraveDave

          This doesn’t strike me as a partisan left/right issue – whatever your views are, isn’t it best if they’re based on decent information?

          The Daily Mail is the oft quoted bible of the Right.
          So be careful.

          • Mary Ann

            It would be a joke if people didn’t believe it.

          • William_Brown

            The DM and The Guardian are surely two sides of the same coin and are both part of the problem – Both shriek with confected offence and are somewhat boisterous with their version of balance.

            Peter Jones is right to call for the press to be truthful, of course he is, but the ‘truth’ of most matters is far more complex than black, or white. The DM and Guardian brigades don’t do grey, they are too bogged down with political dogma, received societal ‘truths’ and, let’s be honest, deliberate ignorance, to appreciate any nuance that runs contrary to their particular stance.

        • Nick Riggs

          That 10m vs 12m does not in itself reveal an untruth. For example, a backlog pile of waste being reduced at 2m tonnes per year would also fit the facts. You would need to identify that there was no such ‘surplus’. A single data point is not enough.

          • Peter Jones

            True. Were those the only two facts on which I based my critique of that article, I could have been wrong. However, there was in fact a lot more to say: for example, many councils publish the end destinations of their recycling, and a much of the material is reprocessed in the UK.

            There’s a bit too much info to deal with it all BTL. If you want to read more, you can find it here:

            http://www.isonomia.co.uk/?p=2768

            and here:

            http://www.isonomia.co.uk/?p=1702

          • Nick Riggs

            Thanks. And I do accept your call for truth in journalism.

        • Mary Ann

          I think we do, how else will people ever know the truth. Your average wail reader is not going to check the figures.

    • defective unit

      Ever thought of complaining about the continuous stream of lies that gets published by the guardian?

      • Mary Ann

        You mean when they are trying to balance the right wing press.

        • defective unit

          Because telling more lies balances out other people telling lies? You must be a labour voter lol

      • Peter Jones

        If you’d care to highlight an instance that’s likely to meet the IPSO criteria, I’ll consider it. But perhaps you might prefer to to take on the job yourself.

        • Joe Blo

          Good luck with that. The guardian has opted out of IPSO so any complaints about the guardian have to go to the guardian.

  • MikeF

    “loon with an axe to grind had only to lodge a trumped-up complaint with the relevant authorities in order to have you punished” – if that can be turned into an indictment for an ‘aggravated’ offence then what can actually happen can also be not too different.

  • Dr. Heath

    Inside every liberal is a totalitarian screaming to get out…

    Or so the witty t-shirt slogan or clever bedroom wall poster says. In reality, the Great Totalitarian Age continues to unfold – perhaps according to the righteous designs of some totalitarian sky fairy who has yet to make herself manifest amongst us. Climate Alarmists. Almost all feminists. Especially ‘the young’. And, of course, Guardian readers. Shouting down people who have the temerity to disagree with you is the next best thing to being involved in the building of a perfect world. And you get a free halo! What’s not to like about being a fascist?

  • The Press Council of Australia is just as bad. There may as well be one of those famous “super-injunctions” in place, if James can’t even tell us what he’s been stitched up over.

    Orwellian, it is.

    • freddiethegreat

      Try the fascists in South Africa (yes, that nice Mr Mandela and his cronies). If a minister decides (on any grounds whatever, even delusional ones – which is most likely) that a story is wrong, untrue, or covers something that he/she/it (we’re big on sex confusion here) thinks is in the national interest, the journalist (who 25 years ago was campaigning for the nice Mr M) can receive at least 10 years in prison.
      In an identical country, this is why samizdat was invented.

  • Bob John

    As a Christian evangelist I note, with alarm, how free speech is being crushed in this once free country. Christian preachers have been nicked for nothing more than stating that homosexuality is sinful.

    • Kevin T

      Which is simply stating a fact. (Whether or not you believe in sin or God or accept what the Bible says is sinful is up to you.)

      • William_Brown

        It’s not a fact, it’s an opinion.

        • hairybuddha

          Christian literature clearly places homosexual sex in the “sin” category. Some Christians don’t want to believe this because they want to retain their sentimental attachment to the faith they were brought up in but remain in the mainstream of modern morality. They can best salve their cognitive dissonance with some overdue apostasy. Bite the bullet, drop the Book.

        • Bertie

          I think you’ll find it’s a sin….One’s backside is meant for one thing – and it isnt having something shoved up it!

          • Pacificweather

            I think you might change your mind if you suspected you might have bowel cancer. You would be only too pleased to have something shoved up it to find that you didn’t.

          • Bertie

            That would be an acceptable exception surely? And not one that is repeatedly weekly! Unlike buggery.

            An uphill gardening Scottish Nationalist are we then Pacific?

          • Pacificweather

            Weekly? I should be so lucky. Although, in the USA, it is rumoured that buggery is more prevalent amongst heterosexuals. American women take an enlightened view it is said but one shouldn’t listen to gossip. In the highlands we take a wee dram and select the best looking sheep on cold winter nights. It saves listening to the angst ridden conversations the next morning.

          • Bertie

            Oh dear oh dear.

            Less Scotch for you methinks.

          • Pacificweather

            Good point. I’ll change to Bourbon.

          • Bertie

            Have yee nai tried Irish whiskey?

          • Pacificweather

            I have; just a drop or two. There is a family story that my great grandfather used to make his own in County Monaghan and my cousin has a bottle he claims my great grandfather made. Nobody has had the courage to try it in 160 years. I have also tried Welsh whiskey which is surprisingly good.

          • Bertie

            You lucky lucky devil!
            160 year old bottle – goodness gracious. Wonder if it’d be worth trying it – negative connotations to the family heritage etc. But,at some point, taste it someone surely will.

            Not tried Welsh whiskey. Poor cousin?

          • Pacificweather

            Very smooth and mellow. Just right for a male voice choir to put them in a patriotic mood.

  • freddiethegreat

    On the other hand of course, what journalist or editor hasn’t censored himself? In regard to the climate lie, Israel, creation science, Christianity? What goes around comes around.

  • Kevin T

    Imagine the likes of Fabian Solutions with the power to harass any journalist that offends it and you see the problem here.

  • trace9

    “.. I can’t give you the exact details ..” – Then Shut Up!

    • William_Brown

      …because it’s an on-going case, you buffoon.

  • Noud Van Dregt

    Oddly enough IPSO have no record of any complaint even vaguely resembling what Delingpole described above. Funny, that.

    • Mc

      Is that perhaps because the case is still ongoing and that IPSO perhaps only publishes details of concluded cases?

  • Diggery Whiggery

    This is why justice through regulatory quangos can never work.

  • Mr Creosote

    ” imagine how unfair it would be if any old loon with an axe to grind had only to lodge a trumped-up complaint with the relevant authorities in order to have you punished for no reason whatsoever.”

    It’s also called the planning system – many, many legitimate development schemes are delayed, sometimes for years, by loons – and ultimately we all foot the bill in terms of housing shortages, horrendous appeal costs and Judicial Reviews, invariably funded unknowingly by the taxpayer.

  • John Carins

    Perhaps a case of ipso facto?

  • J K

    “I can’t tell you the exact details” – in that regard no different from any other Delingpole articles. I’m amazed that anyone can lodge a successful complaint against is articles – they’re so brazenly content free.

  • JohnCrichton89

    The left wing attempt at censorship is working in conjunction with the most right wing attempt at censorship, Muslims threaten to kill you and liberal authoritarians try to ruin you financially or put you in jail……….. we have seen this PC mentality completely ruin streets, towns and even entire cities because we can’t even mention the problems associated with certain demographics, let alone begin to address them.

    It’s far past the point of no return for much of the UK, lest you think blacks or Muslims are about to accept social responsibility and work with us to help fix the problems associated with their groups. They have no reason to care, they can literally go around raping children with impunity and get paid with our own tax money for doing so.

    • Mary Ann

      Well there obviously isn’t any censorship on here.

    • Bertie

      “The left wing attempt at censorship is working in conjunction with the
      most right wing attempt at censorship, Muslims threaten to kill you and
      liberal authoritarians try to ruin you financially or put you in jail…”

      Sorry – where’s the Right Wing attempt at censorship in your comment above. ISSI certainly are not Right wing in any form – far less , yes.

  • artemis in france

    James, your determination is admirable. I wonder if Cameron would consider setting Gove loose on the Ipso question. It seems just the kind of issue which would ignite his passion for justice and truth….

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  • jaz

    I am not quite sure what point Delingpole is trying to make here. Is he suggesting that he should be free to run any old twaddle and not be held to account for it — a point he appears to be testing to destruction?
    Is he suggesting that his interpretation is the only one that is correct and therefore we should just shut up and not challenge him?
    I realize that unfettered arrogance is Delingpole’s contribution to society but even by his “standards” that is a bit much.
    He seems to be annoyed at being held to account for what he writes, yet at the same time endlessly drones on about how others in positions of power are not held to account.

    • WFC

      I think that he is suggesting that we managed to survive for hundreds of years without an IPSO telling journalists what they are allowed to write (and newspapers what they are allowed to publish).

      But there is a simple solution. Make every complainant put up a deposit of (say) £ 500, which they will get back if the complaint is upheld, but forfeit (to the complained of journalist) if it isn’t upheld.

      That should sort out the wheat from the chaff.

      • Peter Jones

        “we managed to survive for hundreds of years without an IPSO telling journalists what they are allowed to write”

        We have also managed to survive since 1953 with bodies very similar to IPSO (the General Council, the Press Council, the Press Complaints Commission).

        “That should sort out the wheat from the chaff.”

        No, that would sort out the people who can afford to risk (say) £500 from those that can’t.

        • WFC

          There has been nothing “very similar to IPSO”.

          Not since the Court of Star Chamber was abolished, in any event.

          (Even the sedition laws of the 18th century could only be enforced in proper courts with juries.)

          • Peter Jones

            It’s the same people in the same building applying the same code of practice as the PCC. It is, like the PCC, a voluntary scheme run by the press. Like the PCC, it cannot prevent material being published and only intervenes if a complainant and a paper are unable to negotiate a resolution. Sounds pretty similar to the PCC to me.

            Unlike the PCC, IPSO has the power to issue financial sanctions against a publication in the event of systematic failure. It has not, as far as I’ve been able to find out, done so thus far.

            Unlike the Star Chamber, it has to follow a clear set of rules. It does not have the power to ban the publication of all new books, no matter how adverse their coverage of the 30 years war might be. It does not have the power to pillory, whip, or remove the ears of those it finds to have breached its code of practice.

      • jaz

        So recourse against journalists is simply for the rich? If you have been harmed by a journalist but are poor, well tough luck?
        IPSO don’t tell journalists what to write, they are there for members of the public to be able to hold media organisations to account. Given the state of the British media this seems like a good idea. The PCC was compromised and useless.
        I thought holding people to account was supposed to be a good thing. Clearly Delingpole thinks he is above such trifles.

        • WFC

          Many states in many countries have been “trying to hold media organisations to account” for centuries.

          In some places, and for certain periods, states have succeeded in doing so.

          Never thought I’d live to see the days that the British would be moronic enough to let it happen here, though.

          • jaz

            I suggest you read what powers IPSO has.

  • David Prentice

    Don’t worry, surely the freshly empowered Conservative PM has your back?

  • WarriorPrincess111111

    Ipso represent our present status over so many everyday situations – why take a common sense, fast procedure – when a resolution can demand something more complicated, more costly and more time consuming!
    Welcome to the world of idiotic time wasters!
    Newspaper personnel are not strangers to receiving regular complaints, these are common from the time of the earliest issues. One newspaper in the 18th century was fined for even mentioning ‘The House of Lords’. There has always been Watchdog committees for the newspapers but due to the ‘Nanny State’ we are now under, people believe that they can persuade others to agree with their point of view and when this just does not happen, they continue whinging on, involving everyone they find to listen to them and demanding ‘their rights’. Sad!

    • Peter Jones

      “people believe that they can persuade others to agree with their point
      of view and when this just does not happen, they continue whinging on,
      involving everyone they find to listen to them and demanding ‘their
      rights’. Sad!”

      Just so we’re clear, are you talking about people who use IPSO, or Delingpole in the article?

      • jamesdelingpole

        I think he means you, Peter.

        • Peter Jones

          Thanks for venturing BTL, James, though it’s a shame you did so just to take a dig rather than to engage with some of the issues raised in the discussion.

          For example, what (if anything) would you like to take the place of the IPSO process? Do you feel that newspapers have any kind of responsibility to their readers to ensure that, if they find out they’ve got something wrong, they correct it?

          Or perhaps you might comment on whether the impact of IPSO is a greater or lesser factor in controlling what the press say than the influence of advertisers, or owners, and the obscure but effective processes by which the news agenda is set.

  • Steve of Cornubia

    It would be illuminating to see the full list of Ipso ‘investigations’ and work out what percentage of complaints arise from reaction to sceptical articles versus warmist articles.

    If Ipso is truly working as an apolitical instrument, then one would expect the split to be around 50:50. Anybody care to guess?

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