00055-21 Firth v Daily Mail

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00055-21 Firth v Daily Mail

Summary of Complaint

1. Jonathan Firth complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Look out, Boris... this may be Britain's destiny all too soon”, published on 1 January 2021.

2. The article was a comment piece from the perspective of an imaginary news editor in the year 2024, reflecting over the past few years. When considering coronavirus the article reported that “in the first 50 weeks of 2020, mortality was only marginally higher than the average for the previous ten years.”

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “Look out Boris, Rishi may be Britain's destiny all too soon: A big majority, a vaccine, a Brexit deal. But in a New Year gaze into his crystal ball, JOHN HUMPHRYS sees a very unexpected twist for the PM”.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as the Office of National Statistics had set the mean death rate for England as 10.381 per 1000 people, in comparison to 9.2189 for 2010-2019, equalling a 12.6% increase. He said that this could not be described as “marginal” as it was almost ten standard deviations away from the mean, and that the term “marginal” implied that there was very little difference to previous years, when tens of thousands of people had died due to the pandemic.

5. The publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate on this point. It said that the disputed figure was the death rate, rather than the raw figures for number of deaths. It said this figure came from a report published by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries which showed that in the first 50 weeks of 2020, mortality in England and Wales was “6.9% above the 2010-2019 average”. It said that a “marginal” increase was a matter of subjective interpretation, and that the article was entitled to characterise the rise of 6.9% as marginal. Whilst it did not rely on the figures prior to publication, the newspaper noted that the Office of National Statistics had noted that age-standardised mortality rate for 2020 was 1,043.5 per 100,000, which was 7.2% higher. It noted that the article was clearly a comment piece focusing on the government’s response to Covid-19, and made clear to distinguish between comment conjecture and fact in style and tone, including by the columnist describing himself as an editor from the future.

Relevant Code Provisions

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 question for the Committee was whether the mortality rate in the first 50 weeks of 2020 could be described as “only marginally higher than the average” without breaching the Code which requires the press to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. Whilst including the precise figure of 6.9% would have been clearer, the Committee considered that “marginally higher” did not have a defined meaning. The article was clearly a comment piece, and therefore the term “marginally higher” would be understood to be the columnist’s interpretation. Where the publication had relied on government statistics that had placed the 2020 death rate at 6.9% higher than the average over the past ten years, it was not misleading for the columnist to characterise a rise of 6.9% as “marginally higher”. On this basis, the publication had not failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information, and there was no breach of Clause 1.


7. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

8. N/A

Date complaint received: 02/01/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/05/2021

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