00041-20 Smith v express.co.uk

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00041-20 Smith v express.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Heather Smith complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Labour’s inheritance tax horror plan to raid 10 million Britons’ life savings” published on 1 July 2019.

2. The article reported on comments made by a politician, who said that his party was considering reforming the current inheritance tax system, and replacing with a system that would lead to more people paying the tax each year. It said that under the current scheme, “640,000 household of the 27.2 million households in the UK pay the tax each year”.

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate. She said that 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. Initially, the publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate. During the period of direct correspondence with the complainant, it said that the claim that 640,000 households pay the tax each year had been widely reported at the time the politician announced the potential policy change, including during an interview he had given. However, it said that it was willing to amend the article to make it clear that the figure was according to a political party’s estimates. Then, six days into IPSO’s investigation, it accepted that 640,000 households do not pay the tax each year and offered to add the following footnote correction in addition to its proposed amendment:

“A previous version of the article reported that '640,000 households of the 27.2million households in the UK pay the tax each year'. The 640,000 figure represents an estimate by Tories of the total number of houses worth over £1m, and in actual fact, only approximately 28,100 estates pay the tax each year. We are happy to clarify this.”

Twelve days into IPSO’s investigation, the publication accepted that it had not seen the interview the politician had given at the time of publication, and had instead based the statement on various articles which reported on the interview. It said that it now acknowledged that the statement was inaccurate and that it had misunderstood the wording it had originally published. It offered to amend the article to read that “It is estimated that approximately 28,100 estates pay the tax each year”, and offered to add the following wording as a footnote correction:

A previous version of the article reported that '640,000 households of the 27.2million households in the UK pay the tax each year'. In fact, only approximately 28,100 estates pay the tax each year. We are happy to clarify this.

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. The publication did not dispute that 28,500 households pay inheritance tax each year, rather than 640,000. The publication stated that it was said in an interview that 640,000 households currently pay inheritance tax each year, and that this was widely reported at the time – as such, it offered to amend the article to make clear that this was the estimate of a political party. However, it later accepted that it had not seen the interview at the time of publication and had based the article solely on other reporting, and misunderstood that when this reporting said that 640,000 were “affected” by the tax, this did not mean that they paid it each year. As such, there was a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, and a breach of Clause 1(i). The difference between 28,500 household and 640,000 was significant, and suggested that over 20 times more households pay the tax each year than is the case, and so a correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

7. The publication had offered to amend the article as soon as it became aware of the complaint, but this response did not properly address the concerns raised. However, 12 days into IPSO’s investigation it accepted the inaccuracy and offered to amend the article to put the correct position on record and to footnote this change with a correction. This was sufficiently prompt, and prominent. The Committee were concerned that the final version of the wording proposed 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 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).

Conclusions

8. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i)

Remedial Action Required

9. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

10. 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: 29/05/2020

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.

Back to ruling listing