Decision of the Complaints Committee 00154-19 Stirling v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of Complaint
1. Mitchell Stirling complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The British people won't be scared into backing a woeful Brexit deal nobody voted for”, published on 7 January 2019.
2. The article was a long form opinion piece, which appeared on page 18, in which the author set out his opposition to Theresa May’s Brexit deal, and instead argued in favour of a no-deal Brexit. The author said that fear of a no-deal Brexit had been greatly exaggerated by those opposed to Brexit, and in fact, a no-deal scenario correlated more accurately with the public’s expectation of what would happen when they voted to leave the EU. In support of this argument, the author said that: “Of all the options suggested by pollsters – staying in the EU, coming out on Theresa May’ terms, or coming out on World Trade terms – it is the last, the so-called no-deal option, that is gaining in popularity. In spite of – or perhaps because of – everything they have been told, it is this future that is by some margin preferred by the British public.”
3. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to claim that polls showed that a no-deal Brexit was more popular “by some margin” than remaining in the EU or Theresa May’s deal; he said that no poll available at the time of publication, or provided by the publication in defence of this statement supported these claims, and this inaccuracy was exacerbated by the fact that the author and his regular column are high profile and prominent. He also noted that a news piece, reporting that the columnist had expressed the views in the article, had appeared on the newspaper’s front page.
4. The publication said that the article was clearly an opinion piece, and readers would understand that the statement was not invoking specific polling – no specific dates or polls were referenced. It said that the writer was entitled to make sweeping generalisations based on his opinions and that the complainant had misconstrued the purpose of the article; it was clearly comically polemical, and could not be reasonably read as a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters.
5. Nonetheless, the publication said that should the statement be read literally, there were polls that supported the claim. It pointed to one poll which showed that after support for a ‘Canada-style trade deal’ and ‘Don’t know’, respondents preferred a no-deal Brexit over Theresa May’s deal and remaining in the EU. It also pointed to four other polls researching support for Brexit outcomes. The publication said that by amalgamating various combinations of the responses contained within these four polls, each poll could be said to reflect support for a no deal scenario over Theresa May’s deal or remaining in the EU. In addition, the publication said that polls on Brexit were ever changing and taken against a constantly evolving background of events. It said that as polls were rarely identical or directly comparable, it was inevitable that there would be some degree of subjectivity involved in interpreting the results.
Relevant Code Provisions
6. 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
7. Columnists are free under the Code to campaign, be partisan, and express strong opinions using hyperbole, melodrama and humour. However, there remains an obligation under the Code to take care over the accuracy of any claims of fact. In this case, the article made a factual claim; in considering whether this claim had a basis in fact, the Committee first turned to the content of the five polls. The publication had not provided any data which supported the author’s claim either that a no-deal Brexit was the option preferred “by some margin” over the three options listed, or that these represented “…all of the options suggested by pollsters”. Instead it had construed the polls as signalling support for a no deal, when in fact, this was the result of the publication either amalgamating several findings together, or interpreting an option beyond what was set out by the poll as being a finding in support of a no deal Brexit. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i). The reference to the polling was not material to the author’s polemical argument. However, it was a significant inaccuracy, because it misrepresented polling information. The publication had not offered to publish any correction and this meant there was also a breach of 1(ii).
8. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial action required
9. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication. The nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.
10. In this case, the article had given the misleading impression that polling had found a statistical basis to support the author’s claims. However, the inaccuracy was not material to the overall argument of the article, and so the Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction which made clear that no poll had found that a no-deal Brexit was the most popular option when presented alongside a range of outcomes.
11. The article had appeared on the newspaper’s front page, but the inaccuracy had appeared in the text of the article, published on page 18. The correction should appear in the newspaper’s established corrections and clarifications column. It should also appear as a footnote to the online article. If the inaccuracy remains published in the online article, the correction should appear at the top of the article. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position should be agreed with IPSO in advance.
Date complaint received: 07/01/2019
Date decision issued: 04/04/2019
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