With the general election fast approaching on 8 June, one thing is certain – the election’s players, policies and announcements will be a key focus for the UK’s newspapers for the next five weeks.
As Roy Greenslade said in his recent blog for IPSO, “general election campaigns are journalistic heaven for mainstream media” and the election is guaranteed to generate headlines as well as scores of analysis, opinion and speculation from columnists and commentators.
IPSO has received a number of queries about how the election season affects its work, so this week’s blog deals with some of the frequently asked questions around election reporting.
Purdah is a term used across central and local government to describe the period of time immediately before elections or referendums when specific restrictions on the activity of civil servants are in place.
Some of the things it covers include taking care when making announcements, handling information requests and arranging ministerial visits. It also stresses the importance of taking extra care with official websites and social media during the campaign period as these will be scrutinised closely by the news media and political parties. You can see the full guidance here.
No such period exists for newspapers and magazines who are free to report on all aspects of the election. In fact, newspaper coverage is one of the main ways that candidates and parties communicate with potential voters – so it is in the public interest that they continue to do so.
It’s well-known that some newspapers align themselves with certain political parties and ‘endorsement’ from a newspaper is common both in the UK and elsewhere.
However, newspapers’ allegiances can and do switch, as this interesting dataset from the Guardian produced for the 2010 General Election shows.
The Editors’ Code (the set of rules IPSO members must follow) has no stipulations about campaigning. In fact, Clause 1 specifically states that newspapers are free to ‘editorialise and campaign’, but that they must clearly distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact.
This means newspapers and magazines can be a supporter of any party, cause, or person, and this includes their coverage of election-related material.
The selection and presentation of material for publication is a matter for individual editors, but they must take care to make sure that the Code is not breached.
Similarly to campaigning, the Editors’ Code does not cover bias. The position a publication takes is a matter for individual editors, so long as they do not breach the requirement in Clause 1 to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material.
Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code deals specifically with the issue of accurate of reporting. It says that the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text. It also makes clear that comment, conjecture and fact must be clearly distinguished.
IPSO will deal with all complaints made under the Editors’ Code during the period. If the Complaints Committee determines that the Editors' Code has been breached, it can require the publication of its upheld adjudication and/or a correction. The nature, extent and placement of corrections and adjudications will be determined by the Committee.
We will also continue to monitor standards and if a systemic problem is identified IPSO could potentially launch a standards investigation.
Buckingham Palace v The Sun
IPSO received a complaint from Buckingham Palace during the EU Referendum campaign about a front page article headlined “Queen Backs Brexit”, published in the Sun. The article reported that two unnamed sources had claimed that the Queen made critical comments about the EU at two private functions and that this meant she was a supporter of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum.
IPSO’s Complaints Committee upheld the complaint and ordered The Sun to publish a full adjudication with front page reference as the headline was not supported by the text. This represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information in breach of Clause 1.
Haigh v Daily Express
IPSO received a complaint just after the end of the EU Referendum campaign about a front page article in the Daily Express headlined “EU Exit Boosts House Prices”. The complainant said that the newspaper had inaccurately reported that the vote to leave the European Union had “boosted” house prices by more than 10% as the figures which the article cited did not reflect the period following the referendum but related to the period leading up to it.
The Committee ruled that the article had given the clear impression that house prices had risen considerably as a result of the vote to leave the EU, and the newspaper had failed to substantiate this claim.
This seriously inaccurate information had appeared prominently in the front-page headline, and it required the newspaper to publish an adjudication with a reference on the front page.
Portes v Times
IPSO received a complaint about a front page article in The Times published in the run-up to the 2015 general election, headlined “Labour’s £1,000 tax on families”. The complainant said that the articles’ claim that “Ed Miliband would saddle every working family with extra taxes equivalent to more than £1,000”, was inaccurate.
The Committee found that that the way in which the newspaper characterised the findings of a publicly available report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies which analysed the Labour Party’s tax proposals represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, resulting in a significant inaccuracy requiring correction.
Sturgeon v Telegraph
IPSO received a complaint from the First Minister of Scotland in the run up to the general election 2015, about an article which reported the contents of a leaked Government memorandum which claimed to share details of a private meeting between the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, and the French Ambassador, Sylvie Bermann. The complainant said that the claims contained in the memo and repeated in the article were categorically untrue and regarded the newspaper’s decision not contact Ms Sturgeon for comment as a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code.
IPSO’s Complaints Committee judged that, while the newspaper was entitled to report on the memorandum, it had published its contents as facts without taking additional steps prior to publication – such as contacting the parties involved for their comment – to verify their accuracy. As a result, the article was significantly misleading. The Committee upheld the complaint under Clause 1 (i) and (ii) and required The Daily Telegraph to publish the adjudication on page 2 of the newspaper with a front-page reference, and online.