Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00394-21 Pelling v Metro
Summary of Complaint
1. Dr Michael Pelling complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Metro breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “COVIDIOTS GOAD COPS / Ministers back crackdown on lockdown law breakers”, published on 11 January 2021.
2. The article reported on the policing of the pandemic, with government ministers voicing their support for the actions taken by the police against “lockdown law breakers” in Bournemouth. It reported that the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock MP, said “the rules [were] not boundaries to be pushed”, with the Home Secretary, Priti Patel MP, saying that the police “will not hesitate” to enforce “the new rules” with fines of up to £10,000 for the “worst offenders”, adding that “there is still a need for strong enforcement where people are clearly breaking these rules”. The article went on to report that the new rules introduced by the government “criminalise” meeting family or friends unless they are part of one’s household or support bubble, adding that “homes can be left for exercise once a day – and not for recreation or leisure”. The article included a panel, titled “THE RULES SAY STAY AT HOME UNLESS FOR…”, that detailed 13 exemptions to the “stay at home” rule, including: “Exercise alone or with just one other person once a day”.
3. A substantially similar version of the article also appeared online with the headline “Ministers back crackdown on lockdown law breakers”. This article has since been removed for reasons unrelated to this complaint.
4. The complainant said the panel titled “THE RULES SAY STAY AT HOME UNLESS FOR…” was inaccurate and misleading, in breach of Clause 1. He said that, firstly, it gave the misleading impression that the list of the 13 exceptions it detailed to the “stay at home” rule was exhaustive. In fact, the law required members of the public to stay at home unless an individual had a reasonable excuse for absence and provided a non-exhaustive list of admissible exceptions for absence. Secondly, he said that the assertion that people could “Exercise alone or with just one other person once a day” did not appear in the legislation – there was no limit placed on the number of times the home could be left for exercise. The complainant considered that the publication had conflated guidance – which was not enforceable – with the law – which was. While the language of the article as a whole clearly indicated it was referring to the law – using terms such as “law breakers”, “enforcement” and “criminalise” – the limit on daily exercise was merely guidance. He said that mispresenting the legislation in this area had the potential to be very damaging; people might feel unable to leave home for a necessary and important reason, because it did not fall within the 13 exceptions listed by the newspaper.
5. The publication did not accept that the article breached the Editors’ Code. Whilst the publication accepted the clear distinction between guidance and the law, it considered that “rules”, a term it had used throughout the article, was an acceptable umbrella term for both, noting that the Coronavirus Legislation itself made clear that “the law is what [one] must do; the guidance might be a mixture of what [one] must do and what [one] should do”. In addition, though the publication accepted that some of the “rules” were not enforceable under law, such as the instruction to take outdoor exercise no more than once a day, it said readers would not have been misled if they gained the impression that leaving home, for reasons other than the 13 listed in the panel, might result in a fine by the police. It added that the panel was intended as a “quick, at-a-glance guide” to the main exemptions to the Government’s “stay at home” message and, as such, readers would not understand this to be a definitive list, outlining every possible exemption to the legislation. It added that the disputed information included in the panel mirrored what the Government said on its own website, which outlined “what [one] can and cannot do during the national lockdown” and stated that the public “should follow this guidance immediately. This is the law”. The publication highlighted that the Government’s website made clear that people may leave their home to “exercise with [their] household (or support bubble) or one other person” and “exercise should be limited to once per day” and “[one] should not travel outside your local area”.
6. The complainant did not accept that “the rules” was an acceptable umbrella term for both Government guidance and the law, nor did he accept that readers would understand this from the article. He suggested that the ambiguity over the boundary between law and guidance was a deliberate ploy by the Government to promote and engender compliance and argued that the Government’s approach did not excuse or absolve the newspaper from its own responsibilities to accuracy. The word “rules” had been used elsewhere in the article in reference to the law, not guidance.
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
7. It was clear that, in the context of the article as a whole, where “rules” was used repeatedly to refer to laws, readers would understand that the panel was referring to laws, not guidance. As such, the question for the Committee was whether the newspaper had misrepresented the law in the content of the panel.
8. In considering the care taken by the newspaper, the Committee noted that the information included within the panel was based upon the explanation of the Coronavirus legislation given on the Government’s website, which specially identified the guidance it gave – including the limitations on excursions for exercise – as law. It also presented the list of permissible reasons to be outside the home as exhaustive. Given the nature and authority of this source, the newspaper was entitled to rely upon the accuracy of this information. There was no failure to take care on this point and no breach of Clause 1 (i).
9. It was clear, however, that, despite the government’s presentation of the guidance on its website, the limitation to one outing for daily exercise was not included in the relevant legislation and was not, therefore, set in law. Furthermore, the legislation did not define, or provide a definitive list of, reasonable excuses for absence from the home. In light of this, the Committee concluded that the impression given by the panel - that it provided an exhaustive list of lawful reasons to leave the house, and that the public were legally entitled to leave the house only once a day for exercise – was misleading. The publication had failed to clearly distinguish between guidance and the law; this distinction was, in the view of the Committee, a significant one and, while it acknowledged that the conflation of the two had arisen due to the government’s own failure to adequately distinguish between guidance and law on its own website, the misrepresentation by the panel on these points amounted to a significant inaccuracy, requiring correction under Clause 1 (ii). Neither a clarification nor a correction was offered by the newspaper. As such, there was a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).
10. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.
Remedial Action Required
11. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. Though the newspaper had taken sufficient care, the article had breached Clause 1 on a topic of public importance. In these circumstances, the Committee concluded that a clarification was the appropriate remedy. This should appear both online and in print in the newspaper’s Corrections and Clarifications column. 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: 12/01/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 11/05/2021Back to ruling listing