Here’s how to stop Brexit press fixing a People’s Vote

by Daisy Cooper | 11.07.2018

During the referendum, the Brexit press ran lots of false stories – and the watchdog did almost nothing to remedy the failure. If we get a People’s Vote on the final deal, the mischief mustn’t be repeated.

When The Sun’s notorious fake news front-page headline ”Queen Backs Brexit” was challenged by Buckingham Palace, even the Queen had to wait more than two months for a ruling by IPSO. It was tucked away on page 2, while the more prominent leader column defended the original splash.

And when the Daily Mail – just ten days before the referendum – ran a front-page splash: “We’re From Europe. Let us in!” illustrated by a photo of refugees in a van in East London, it rapidly became apparent that the refugees were from the Middle East. The Mail printed a tiny correction the next day on page 2, in just 54 words. It then took IPSO four more months to agree that the story was plain wrong and to decide that no additional, or more prominent, correction was needed.

Such is the state of Britain’s “fourth estate” and its influence on our democracy. And make no mistake about just how powerful these news corporations still are. Front-page stories are still used to set the news agenda of broadcasters like the BBC and ITV.

IPSO, the “Independent Press Standards Organisation” is far from independent, both by the standards of any other industry and by those set for the press industry itself. And its powers are puny. But, right now, it is the only organisation with the ability to issue even a slap on the wrist to press barons.

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With a People’s Vote looking increasingly likely, it’s vital that press regulation is improved – both to discourage falsehoods, and to correct them prominently and fast. Here are five things IPSO should do in advance of any future referendum:

  • Tell its members to carry prominent adverts every day during the campaign explaining IPSO’s process so the public knows how to complain.
  • Put in place a fast-track service so the most obviously false stories can be corrected within a day and throughout the relevant news cycle.
  • Insist on papers publishing corrections that are the same size and prominence as the initial misleading stories.
  • Investigate the accuracy of press reporting, on both sides, during the last referendum so lessons can be learnt now.
  • Warn its members that real sanctions will follow if there are abuses.

There’s nothing to stop MPs asking IPSO – right now – to bring forward its own proposals immediately after the summer break. If it fails to do so, then Parliament should consider using the primary legislation required to deliver a People’s Vote to ensure that that vote cannot be corrupted by an industry that still so often acts with impunity.

We know from repeated polls that the public want independent press regulation they can trust. What better opportunity than a People’s Vote to ensure that Britain’s press is truly accountable to the British people.

Daisy Cooper was the St Albans Liberal Democrats 2017 General Election candidate and is a former Joint Executive Director of Hacked Off

Edited by Hugo Dixon

4 Responses to “Here’s how to stop Brexit press fixing a People’s Vote”

  • I think this quotation should be more widely seen.

    ‘Let me offer another example. In 1955 a referendum was held in Sweden to determine if driving should be on the left or right side of the road. All neighbouring countries had already changed, or decided to change, to right-hand driving (and Volvo and Saab produced cars only for right-hand driving), so the argument for a change was pretty straightforward.

    Nevertheless, 82.9 percent voted in favour of keeping left-hand driving, and only 15.3 percent voted for a change. However, in 1963 the Swedish Parliament decided the country should switch. Once the change had taken place, it received massive popular support. I would guess that, if asked, 99 percent of Swedes would say this was one of the wisest decisions their political representatives had ever made. In cases like this (and they are many) it is very hard to determine what the will of the people consists of. ‘

    From Bo Rothstein The Quality of Government Chicago 2011 p81

  • @Richard Seebohm
    The Swedish government all those years ago set a fine example of how to act in the light of a referendum, which ours of today would do well to ponder.

    I wonder whether a seemingly trivial thing like which side of the road our wonderful nation happens to drive on subconsciously prejudices British drivers on the continent against that continent and all its works by stressing them for as long as they are on the road behind the wheel. Back in Blighty they devise all sorts of arguments for why the EU is not right for UK, or just not right at all. But really it is a reaction to the subliminal apprehension and stress they have experienced. A tiny effect multiplied many times over maybe. We need some explanation for irrational self-harming behaviour in the polling station.

    The other triviality which sets a Britisher’s mind into anti-continent mode is metrication. One of the sillier aspects of the NI/Eire border is the sign that says ‘Speeds in Miles per Hour’. Speed in Miles per Hour?? The British government initiated the process of metrication in the last century but one! It still has not completed it. What are schoolchildren who are taught exclusively in metric to make of it? I think they have failed to realise that the British public’s reluctance to change its measuring habits is not down to the quantities but to the nomenclature. It understandably prefers pithy Anglo-Saxon to Latin-Greek polysyllables. After all, it has no problem with watts and amps. Call a kilometre a metric mile, problem solved. After all at a French market things are for sale by the ‘quart’. Would it be too much to ask our sovereign democratic elected independent patriotic national leaders for a little … leadership – in this matter? A trivial effect on an individual referendum voter’s mind but significant maybe when perfused throughout the voting population.

    The palaver is finished

  • Press freedom to lie with impudence is an abuse that must be stopped. Expecting Paul Dacre or Murdoch to transform themselves into some sort fair minded minded persons beggars belief. Waiting for MPs to politely ask them to stop using their power as a sledgehammer to bash public opinion into a shape that suits them is beyond wishful thinking. Getting MPs to act is only the first step. We cannot expect these powerful people to stop abusing their positions. Abandoning the EU is approached with the same zeal as condemning limits on plastic bag use. And these rags are just the tip of an iceberg of machinery to enable the entitled to rule as they see fit. More must be done to ensure any second vote is fair an without influence by the dark side. Better just to cancel the exit process and throw the criminals into prison.