Matt Tee, chief executive of IPSO, UK: Exclusive Interview

By on 12/12/2016
Matt Tee, chief executive of the Independent Press Standards Organisation

Most governments find press regulation a tricky business; but few struggle as much as the UK, which now has two rival regulators. Matt Ross meets Matt Tee, whose regulator has earned the backing of newspapers – and the scorn of privacy campaigners

Press regulation is a controversial business. Where the regulator has close links to the press, those with a grievance against newspapers often complain that complaints systems are weighted against them. And where the regulator is tied to the government or to privacy campaigners, there’s a threat to investigative journalism, open debate and the freedom of the press. So in most democratic countries, regulators sit somewhere between these two extremes.

The UK, however, has wound up in the truly bizarre position of having one regulator of each type: the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), whose client base includes the vast majority of publishers; and Impress, which is funded by privacy campaigners – and which, following its accreditation under a complex new system, may soon enjoy some big advantages over its press-led rival.

According to the champions of Impress, IPSO is a creature of the press barons: a figleaf, dedicated to defending newspapers against legitimate complaints. Yet IPSO chief executive Matt Tee certainly doesn’t have the CV or manner of a panglossian defender of the UK’s voracious, excitable press. In fact, our interview begins by exploring some of the growing problems affecting Britain’s print media.

Anyone who understands the civil service will know that much of the mainstream press has little understanding of the non-political aspects of government – and Tee acknowledges that in recent years newspapers have shed many of their specialist ‘beat’ journalists, losing much of their sectoral expertise. “When I was head of the press office at the Department for Trade and Industry in 1999, even then we were down to four specialist industrial correspondents” across the daily press, comments Tee. “I think there’s one now, and he works for Press Association. There’s not the specialists covering these issues any more, and I think that’s a sad thing.”

Bad questions and fake news

This affects the ability of the press to test and challenge government policies and positions, he believes: “If you don’t have specialist correspondents on mass market papers, the questions journalists ask of those who should be held accountable are of a less good quality. Their interviewing will be less forensic”. The problem is worst in the local press, he believes; at national level, the UK’s thriving specialist and trade publishing sector helps to compensate for the mainstream press’s declining topical expertise.

As newspapers field fewer specialist correspondents, Tee warns, they’re less able to sift the truth from misleading information – and that’s particularly dangerous in an era when “politicians just lie routinely”, whilst unscrupulous writers fill social media with an avalanche of ‘fake news’ (see news).

Nor can national press regulators do much about fake news. “Globalisation poses significant regulatory issues,” says Tee, pointing out that much fake news is distributed via global social media channels not traditional publishers. “Facebook doesn’t agree that it’s a publisher of news: it’s a platform on which news is published,” he notes; and even if it did concede that point, how would the world’s many press regulators agree how to police a truly global communications platform?

In another critique of the press, Tee also believes that “the relationship between media and government is such that it encourages short-termism” – thanks in part to journalists’ “very understandable desire to know whether something works the day after you’ve begun doing it.” Some ministers have found a way to both please the media’s appetite for instant results and instigate less popular, long-term policies built on firm evidence, he says; but it does take a particular kind of politician to do so.

On the whole, though, Tee is a champion of “journalism which holds government to account; which finds out things that government didn’t want you to find out.” The freedom of the press to probe, to examine, to challenge, to embarrass is, he points out, “an important part of democracy.” And it’s this freedom – its extent, and the constraints on it – that lie at the heart of the dispute which has landed the UK with two rival press regulators.

How did we get here?

Back in 2007, two people working for now-defunct tabloid the News of the World (NoW) – the Sun’s Sunday weekly – were convicted of illegally hacking into celebrities’ voicemails in search of juicy stories. And by 2011, the police were discovering that this technique had been widespread across the paper. As the number of victims reached 4000, the NoW was axed and ultimately its editor – a former adviser to prime minister David Cameron – was imprisoned. With the financial backing of millionaire Max Mosley, the hacking victims and others badly treated by the press formed the pressure group Hacked Off to push for tighter regulation. And Cameron appointed Lord Justice Leveson to lead a judicial inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the UK press.

Leveson’s 2012 report recommended reforming press regulation, including the creation of a body tasked with checking that a regulator is independent, properly funded, and able to protect the public – but the government hit a problem, explains Tee, over how to ensure that this accrediting body could not be influenced by ministers. “How do you set it up and give it independence?” asks Tee. “Everybody agrees that they don’t want the state involved in press regulation, because there’s a danger of a threat to freedom of expression.”

The solution was a ‘Royal Charter’, meaning that the Queen ¬– rather than Parliament – grants the Press Recognition Panel (PRP) its powers. This, says Tee, was “the least worst model the government could think of” – and having thought of it, ministers wanted to ensure that the press would sign up to a regulator granted the PRP stamp of approval. So they introduced two powerful levers. First, if any publisher overseen by a PRP-approved regulator lost a libel case, they would not routinely be required to pay either ‘exemplary’ damages – the fines imposed to punish and deter malicious behaviour – or their opponent’s costs. And second, if any publisher not subscribing to the PRP-approved regulator fought a libel case in court, they could be required to pay both sides’ costs – whether they won or lost the case.

Rebellion in the ranks

These are pretty big sticks, designed to herd the press towards signing up to the approved regulator. But the newspapers refused to play ball: they quickly, says Tee, “decided that [the PRP] wasn’t arm’s-length enough in terms of government involvement in press regulation, and pretty much en masse decided that whatever they were going to be regulated by would not be recognised under the Royal Charter.”

Why not? “The idea of submitting, as they would put it, to a form of state regulation is such anathema to them that they’d rather take the risk than be regulated by what they saw as an arm of the state,” replies Tee. The press barons may also, he acknowledges, have thought: “I’m not having the government push me around.”

So the newspapers founded their own regulator – IPSO – and hired Matt Tee as chief exec. A former maths teacher turned communications trainer turned government press officer, Tee had worked his way up to become the civil service’s communications chief 2008-11: he understood the press, but couldn’t be painted as its knee-jerk defender – and, as the publishers moved to defy the government’s wishes and undermine its policy, his contacts and expertise in Whitehall must have made him an attractive hire.

For his part, Tee was impressed by the independence and authority of IPSO’s chairman: retired judge Sir Alan Moses. And he thought IPSO a much more powerful and functional body than its predecessor, the much-mocked Press Complaints Commission. “The idea that you might have a stronger, more powerful press regulator, but that it wouldn’t be recognised under the Charter, seemed to me the most effective way to go,” he comments.

With the vast majority of publishers signed up to IPSO, it could have been game over. But Hacked Off wasn’t ready to give up, and soon IPSO had a rival: funded by Max Mosley’s charitable foundation, new regulator Impress applied for recognition from the PRP – and, in October, its application was approved.

This town ain’t big enough for the two of us

That approval brought into force the new rules around exemplary damages; so Impress members now enjoy greater protection from punitive fines than IPSO’s. This doesn’t seem to worry Tee, who says even Impress members could be hit with exemplary damages if a judge “thought the behaviour was so egregious that the damages needed to recognise a degree of punishment as well as compensation for the harm caused. So there are very few people – including among those close to Hacked Off – who think this is a valuable provision.”

Tee’s much more concerned about the government bringing into force the ‘cost-shifting’ changes to libel rules – in which case, he says, “you might have someone bring a libel case, be shown to have lied, and at the end of the case have costs awarded against the publication”. But ministers are first having a long think: the government has opened a consultation on the issue, and culture secretary Karen Bradley has acknowledged fears that ill-founded libel claims could drive small publishers out of business.

This was, of course, the point of cost-shifting: these powers were designed to force publishers to sign up to the approved regulator. But ministers had not anticipated, says Tee, that the vast majority of publishers would reject its solution and form a rival body. “They envisaged that there would be a single regulator, with most newspapers signed up, that would be recognised under the Royal Charter,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Tee warns that if cost-shifting is introduced then the press might “stop publishing contentious and difficult content in the way they should.” This “potential chilling effect is a serious issue,” he argues.

Anyway, he says, IPSO is as strong a regulator as Impress. It couldn’t win recognition by the PRP, he acknowledges – but there’s only a couple of barriers. One is its refusal to offer a compulsory arbitration scheme, under which publishers must fund the costs of examining and resolving accusations made against them; small publishers couldn’t afford it, he says. And the other is IPSO’s rejection of Leveson’s recommendation that “a regulator should be able to compel newspapers to apologise. Our view has always been that an apology which is compulsorily procured isn’t an apology worth having.”

Impress would not agree. Nor are its founders impressed by IPSO’s failure to fine a newspaper since its foundation – something that Tee puts down to what he acknowledges is a “high bar” for fines: the need to find evidence of “serious and systemic wrongdoing”. But he points out that IPSO does regularly rule in complainants’ favour – in recent months, over half of complaints have been resolved via mediation or concluded in favour of the complainant – and argues that these days newspapers are more careful about following the Editors Code. When accusations are made, he says, “we routinely receive email trails from publishers showing the discussions about whether a piece of content should be published or not. So I think the thought that goes into it is better now than it was when we were established.”

Digging in for a long battle

It’s clear that neither side is going to back down here: the next move lies with the government, which must decide whether to push through the cost-shifting powers of ‘Section 40’. Either way, Tee believes his members will be sticking with IPSO. “I’ve absolutely no sense that any of our members would see Section 40 as a sufficient incentive to join Impress,” he says. “I suppose there’s a potential danger that a bunch of them might do so in order to be protected from Section 40, but I see no sign of it.”

So the UK finds itself in the very odd situation of having two competing press regulators: one backed by the newspapers, and one by campaigners for an ‘accountable’ press. It’s hard to see this as a triumph of government policymaking. “There’s a point of view, which I rather subscribe to, that judge-led inquiries are really quite good at saying what went on,” comments Tee. “They’re rather less good at saying what should happen as a result of it.”

And could government have found a happy medium: a way to satisfy both the media and the campaigners? Tee thinks not. “There are people within Hacked Off and similar groups whose view is that the Sun and the Mail should not be printed. They are fundamentally against certain sorts of expression,” he says. “That’s about censorship, and I don’t think there’s a position that we could have reached that would have satisfied them.”

Following Leveson’s report, he believes, the government gave Hacked Off an effective veto over decisions. And at that point, says Tee, failure became inevitable. “Some of the meetings towards the end of that process were essentially about government and the other two major parties trying to get to something that Hacked Off would say was good enough, with the exclusion of the big newspaper groups,” he says. “And that ended in a position where it was never going to work.”

The Global Government Forum: Five Thoughts for Better Government

Matt Tee on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Matt Tee’s answers – click below to watch his full answers in a Global Government Forum video.


Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you and your colleagues?

“How to use data and technology, particularly from the experience in the US. We’re still not good enough at it. The use of data and technology in, for example, health – where I spent a considerable part of my career – is still in a fairly fledgling state. But at least we’ve got exemplars that we can copy internationally, where they’re doing quite exciting things.”

Are there any projects or innovations from this country that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

“I would point to my time as the permanent secretary for government communications. For the first time in recent memory, we imposed a sort of gateway on significant government spending on advertising, where we looked at whether the advertising was likely to be effective and whether it was a cost-effective way of using government money. And I think that gateway and quality control over something like government communications is something that other countries could learn from.”

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“One of the things that I would reflect on – it’s true in press regulation, and it was certainly true when I was in the civil service – is that when we talk about colleagues doing similar jobs in other countries, we focus on the differences. We don’t focus enough on what’s similar about the challenges that we’re facing. Looking for common experiences or challenges should lead us to a place where we’re also focussing on common ways of meeting those challenges.

“Certainly, if I look at the world of press regulation and press councils across the world, I think we’re having a good go at trying to do that. It is difficult when, you know, in some Eastern European states, press freedom and freedom of expression are still significant issues in a way that they’re not in the United Kingdom. They do have different things to focus on. But all of us are, for example, focused on how you continue to regulate an industry which is contracting every year at a fairly significant rate.”

Finally, what is your favourite book?

“I have two favourite books. In non-fiction, Good to Great by Jim Collins has some really great lessons about how companies move from being good to being real exemplars in their area. And in terms of fiction, I very much enjoyed Ken Follet’s Century Trilogy, which basically chronicles the 20th Century.

 

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

Newspapers struggling to challenge politicians’ lies, says UK press regulator

Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Canada: Exclusive Interview

Robert Beschel, global lead, Center of Government Practice, World Bank: Exclusive Interview

Giannis Baskozos, General Secretary of Public Health at the Greek Ministry of Health: Exclusive Interview

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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