Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00040-20 Smith v metro.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Heather Smith complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that metro.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Labour tax plan ‘could stop parents passing on homes to kids’” published on 1 July 2019.
2. The article reported on comments made by a politician, who said that his party was considering raising the inheritance tax threshold should it become the party of government. The article explained what these changes were, and that they would lead to more people paying the tax each year. It said that “under current laws, inheritance tax affects 640,000 households each year, but it is claimed that [the new tax] would affect up to 10 million homes”.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate. She said that the word “affect” strongly implied “paid”, and 640,000 households did not pay inheritance tax each year. She said that in fact, according to HMRC figures, 24,500 estates paid the tax each year.
4. The publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate. It said that “affect” in this context clearly referred to the number of households that were potentially liable to pay the tax each year, not the numbers who actually pay the tax each year. It noted that the article contrasted 640,000 households with 10 million households – readers would understand that 10 million households would not be paying the tax each year under the proposed changes, and so neither do 640,000 households pay inheritance tax annually under current laws. It said that the information had been provided from a reputable press agency, and it understood that it originated from a political party’s estimates based on land registry data. Nevertheless, on receipt of the complaint it offered to remove the words “each year” from the article, and during IPSO’s investigation it offered to footnote this change with the following wording:
“Since publication, this article has been amended to clarify how current inheritance tax thresholds affect households in the UK. Due to the value of certain houses, it is estimated that around 640,000 households would potentially be affected by present legislation.”
Relevant Code Provisions
5. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
6. It was not in dispute that approximately 24,500 households paid inheritance tax each year, as opposed to 640,000. Whilst the Committee recognised that 640,000 households could potentially be liable to pay the tax at any one time, the addition of the words “each year” gave the clear impression that this was the total number of households that pay the tax annually. Where it was clear from publicly available documents that the number of households which pay the tax annually is not 640,000, the way in which the figure was presented constituted a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, and there was a breach of Clause 1(i).
7. The Committee considered that this represented a significant inaccuracy; the actual number of households which pay the tax each year is substantially lower than this figure, at 24,500. A correction was therefore required under Clause 1(ii) of the Code.
8. The publication had offered to amend the online article on receipt of the complaint and, during IPSO’s investigation, to add a footnote recording the change. The offer was made sufficiently promptly, and the publication of the proposed correction would represent due prominence. The Committee was concerned that the wording of the footnote was presented as a clarification rather than a correction. However, it considered that the amendment and footnote together made the correct position clear that the previous version of the article was inaccurate, and the change that had been made. For all of these reasons, this action proposed by the publication was sufficient to remedy the breach of Clause 1(i), and should now be published in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
9. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i)
Remedial Action Required
10. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.
11. The publication had offered to publish a correction in a prominent position and sufficiently promptly as to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii). This should now be published to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
Date complaint received: 03/01/2020
Date complaint concluded: 07/08/2020
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