Response to “The Fake News Ferret” Hacked Off report

IPSO disputes unsupported accusations contained in Hacked Off report and details ongoing work on editorial standards around the reporting of Covid-19

“The Fake News Ferret: The Coronavirus fake news published in national newspapers”: IPSO Response

Responsible, accurate journalism has rarely been more important than during the Covid pandemic. Readers need to know that they are relying on accountable news sources that are working to high editorial standards, like those regulated by IPSO. 

The report claims that IPSO has done “nothing” on Covid coverage and implies that IPSO has not upheld complaints about Covid. Both are untrue. IPSO has moved swiftly to respond to the challenges posed by Covid, including by investigating and upholding a number of complaints about stories related to the coronavirus and issuing confidential privacy notices on behalf of impacted individuals. IPSO has not hesitated to uphold complaints in robust terms where publications have failed to take care over the accuracy of coverage. 

Concerns cited in the report

The report claims to have identified 55 examples of “disinformation” and cites these as evidence that national newspapers have been “unaccountable” and publishing “fake news” about Covid. It fails to note that, according to Hacked Off’s own information, 18 of the examples cited had previously been corrected, amended to remedy inaccuracies, or removed – in some cases within hours of publication. The publication of prompt corrections to significant inaccuracies and misleading claims is one way in which publications demonstrate accountability as required by Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code.  

The report does not contain details of most of the examples it relies on. At IPSO’s request, Hacked Off provided a copy of an appendix listing the articles and which references the corrections. This publicly unavailable appendix notes the remedies previously applied. IPSO has confirmed that at least three more articles were corrected, some with IPSO involvement. 

The report claims that “none of these examples are minor or careless inaccuracies. They are serious and either deliberate or extremely reckless”. Among the 55 examples is an article published by The Sun in February 2020, which said NHS England had advised people to wash their hands before every meal and avoid shaking hands to prevent the spread of the “Wuhan coronavirus”. The respected independent fact-checking organisation, Full Fact, said that this was incorrect, because although some doctors had advised people to wash their hands before every meal, this was not NHS England advice at the time. The headline of the article was later amended to make clear that this was the advice of individual doctors, not the NHS body. Full Fact did not describe the story as “disinformation”. 

IPSO has not been asked to rule on complaints about any of the articles cited. It did receive complaints about some. To give one example, IPSO received four complaints about a 10 March article on (“Coronavirus shock claim: virus ‘genetically engineered for efficient spread in humans’”). The headline was amended and a correction issued within 48 hours. 

IPSO’s Covid response

Many of the examples cited in the Hacked Off report fall far short of justified claims of “disinformation”. Meanwhile, IPSO takes extremely seriously its role in promoting high editorial standards in reporting on this issue. 

Despite the significant constraints imposed by remote working, IPSO has remained fully operational throughout the pandemic and has responded strongly to the Covid challenge: 

  • Roughly 10% of all complaints IPSO received in 2020 were about Covid. 
  • IPSO has completed investigations on 17 Covid-related complaints, of which 7 have been upheld, 5 resolved to the satisfaction of the complainant, and 5 not upheld. Examples can be viewed here. Other investigations are under way. 
  • To help editors and journalists understand how key provisions of the Editors’ Code apply to Covid and avoid potential pitfalls, IPSO is publishing case studies on all Covid-related rulings, drawing out key learning points from each complaint. With regular updates as more decisions become available, this initiative is the first time IPSO has made information accessible to editors in this way. 
  • IPSO has collected and signposted information relevant to Covid reporting on its website to ensure that the public are able to find it quickly and easily. 
  • IPSO has made proactive approaches to individuals and organisations affected by Covid to make them aware of its services, and has issued privacy notices on behalf of numerous people affected by Covid, which remain confidential. 
  • IPSO has actively monitored trends in Covid reporting to track patterns and identify areas of potential concern. 

IPSO will continue to rigorously and robustly handle complaints, including those relating to the Covid pandemic; to monitor editorial standards; and to ensure it provides regular, timely information to publications about the editorial standards it expects in this area. 

It welcomes complaints from Hacked Off or any other party that wishes to raise concerns that coverage about Covid has been inaccurate or misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). 

Published 22 January 2021