Reports without borders

29 Oct

One hesitates to think of the Daily Mail being subject to even less regulatory scrutiny than it currently is, but you can understand why the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) has come to the following conclusion:

IPSO’s jurisdiction regarding material published by a global digital publisher is limited to content covering events in the UK, save where the content can be viewed in the UK and:

1. The content covers events outside the UK and:

a. Principally concerns a UK national or resident who is directly and personally affected by the alleged breach of the Code; or

b. In respect of the accuracy of the content, where the coverage concerns UK nationals, residents or institutions.

Or

2. The content is based on material published in a UK print edition of a title within the global digital publisher’s group.

This might read like something of a let-off for the British media organisations that Ipso regulates. The Guardian’s former investigations editor David Leigh – now on the board of Ipso’s regulatory rival, Impress – certainly appears unimpressed by it, tweeting a link to the news with the observation: “IPSO gives Mail Online exemption from ethics regulation”. And certainly it marks the end of Ipso’s previous approach, which was to award itself discretion to investigate stories by the foreign operations of UK papers when it chose to. But will this new proposal simply function as an exemption? I think there’s more to it than that.

All this has arisen in the wake of a row between the Mail and Ipso about an article published in 2015 making claims about a “bromance” between the head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, and the actor Tom Cruise. Miscavige complained about the article to Ipso in the UK on the grounds of accuracy and won. But the Mail declined to accept Ipso’s jurisdiction in the matter because, it said, the piece was almost exclusively about American people, events and locations; it had been commissioned and written in its US office; and it complied with American law. Apparently seeing some justification in the Mail’s position, Ipso launched a review into the extent of its remit with regard to international news, and published the proposed form of words quoted above in 2017; they were finally approved by its membership last month.

For the last few years, this blog has taken an interest in the rapid expansion of British media groups – notably the Guardian, Mail and BBC – into other English-speaking countries and the emergence of a nascent Anglosphere news agenda in which stories from the UK, north America and Australasia become mixed together and served to all three markets. This expansion has by and large outstripped the ability of the courts or press regulators to keep up: they remain constrained by national boundaries while news organisations are going global. (The Snowden revelations about the British secret service, for example, were published in the US, where the UK’s Official Secrets Act could not prevent them emerging.)

Ipso’s self-imposed rule change might be seen as simply an acknowledgment of this humbling reality, and an immediate victory for the Mail. But it also contains within it the seeds of a strategy that, in the long term, could revive regulators’ potency.

Ipso can only regulate those organisations that agree to be bound by its rules, of course. But as a general principle, this new approach – in effect, basing regulatory jurisdiction on the nationality of the subject of a story, rather than the nationality of the organisation writing it – is a strong one. If similar rules were to apply to every news outlet in every country (admittedly a big if), they could greatly clarify the confusion over global regulatory coverage.

Take the example of Rebel Wilson, the Australian comedy actor – a transnational figure who lives and works in Hollywood and is known across the Anglosphere. In 2017 she sued an Australian magazine in Australia for defamation and won a landmark A$4.5m (later reduced on appeal), a victory that was news in every English-speaking jurisdiction. Under the new rules, an article about the case by the Mail’s bureau in Sydney would be covered by the Australian Press Council on the grounds that Wilson was an Australian with a suit in the Australian courts. Even if the Mail’s US office were to write and publish some follow-up coverage with a Hollywood angle, the content would still of course be visible in Australia and be about an Australian citizen, so the APC would remain the active regulator. But, for the same reason, Miscavige would be unable to approach a sympathetic Ipso in the UK, and be forced to test his case against the First Amendment in his native US.

By the application of a universal, easy-to-understand rule – articles visible in a country about a citizen of that country will be adjudicated by the regulator of that country, regardless of the nationality of the newspaper in question – regulators would have a mechanism to attach media groups much more firmly to a particular regime, including more restrictive regimes like the British one. Publishing stories for UK consumption about nefarious British institutions via an American affiliate would become more perilous for UK media groups, although they would get better protection in certain cases from “complaints tourism”.

There would be some anomalies: who would have jurisdiction, for example, if Guardian US published a contentious story visible in Britain about a US-UK dual citizen committing misdeeds in New York? And we are probably a long way from national media watchdogs agreeing a reciprocal set of jurisdictional rules with each other. But this proposal is more than just a feeble “exemption” for misbehaving journalists; rather, for the regulators, it’s the first glimpse of a strategy that might get them back into a globalised game.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: