Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00527-20 Ekins-Daukes v The Times
Summary of Complaint
1. Adrian Ekins-Daukes complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "Singapore offers shining vision of how Britain will thrive on its own” published on 7 January 2020.
2. The article was a comment piece which discussed how Singapore could be used as a blueprint for Britain to succeed post-Brexit, without the economic constraints Britain faced as a member of the EU. The article reported that “the 90 per cent of the British economy that is linked to services has benefited little, as there is no single market in services to speak of. Instead of consumers in Britain enjoying the competition of world market prices, they have had to subsidise continental producers through external tariff taxes and engineered higher prices”. The article also claimed that the single market has stunted growth and innovation, and specifically had seen Britain’s relative participation and performance decline when compared to the early years of the common market.
3. The article was published in much the same format online under the same headline.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate. He said that the article’s position and the headline’s claim that Britain would thrive “on its own” was inaccurate as Singapore has not thrived alone. The complainant said that the comparison with Singapore was inaccurate by virtue of the fact that Singapore is a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a union of Southeast Asian states established in 1967, with an agenda of economic integration. Therefore Singapore could not be reasonably considered to be “alone” or independent as alleged.
5. The complainant also said that the columnist had inaccurately claimed that France and Germany were afforded protectionism and promotion under the EU system as the model favoured the former’s agriculture and latter’s manufacturing industries. The complainant accepted that while this may have been accurate at the inception of the EU, this position has been outdated for several decades. Regarding protectionism, the complainant also noted that the columnist had referred to “closed and protected economies of Europe”; he said this was inaccurate, as the EU had 40 trade deals covering 70 countries, more than any other trading entity. Further, he said that the columnist had singled out the EU for crony capitalism and shared interests, without substantiating these claims.
6. The complainant said that the claim there was no single-market in services was inaccurate as there is a comprehensive system of mutual recognition of qualifications, which allow holders to practice their profession in the EU. He also said that over the decade 1998-2008, exports to EU members grew by 154%, so that in 2008 the EU had become the UK’s most important overseas market for services, accounting for 41% of exports of services exports. The complainant said that in 2018, UK exports of services exceeded £100 billion and that this – coupled with the fact that the single-market for services represented 41% of service exports – meant that it could not be legitimately claimed that this market brought little benefit to the UK. He also noted that the UK’s trade in services with the EU had multiplied by 350% since 1992 and that in the field of financial services, UK firms have provided services to EU members on the basis of authorisation issued in London. The complainant said the columnist’s claim that the single market had stunted growth and seen Britain’s performance decline was inaccurate, as Britain could, in economic terms, be considered to have been the sick man of Europe in the 1970’s pre single-market, yet achieved the second highest growth rate in the G-7 in 2015-16 post single-market.
7. The complainant also said that the article was misleading as it did not divulge to readers that the columnist was a Brexit Party MEP; that he was a leading figure in the Leave campaign; and that while he was the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, he was suspended for his anti-EU views and subsequently resigned. The complainant said that he had written two letters to the publication, the first to be published as a reader’s letter, and the second to suggest an article as a remedy to the alleged inaccuracies. He said that neither had been published and the failure to do so contradicted the publication’s obligations to correct inaccuracies under Clause 1.
8. The publication denied any breach of the Code. At the outset it emphasised that the article was clearly defined as a comment piece, and as such it had adhered to its obligation to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact as required by the Code. It said that the inaccuracies alleged by the complainant represented expressions of opinion by the columnist, and while they were open to disagreement, they were not inaccurate.
9. The publication said that the article’s reference to Britain thriving on its own featured solely in the headline and in any event was supported by the text of the article, which entirely focused on Britain’s future outside the EU; “on its own” in the context clearly meant outside the EU. Regardless, the publication noted that the UK “being on its own” did not prohibit it from forming trading alliances or joining common interest blocs any more than it prevented Singapore from joining ASEAN. It said that adopting Singapore as a comparison was not misleading and the basis for the columnist’s position was that Singapore was a city-port and trading hub with no natural resources but now represents a thriving free enterprise economy that was “built on almost nothing apart from its own efforts, talent and determination”. It said it was the columnist’s position that Singapore’s experience held lessons for Britain was made clear by the article’s declaration that “the best entrepreneurs and businesses thrive where there is enhanced risk, creative disruption and change”, and that a Britain outside the EU would be exposed to risk but also opportunity, and consequently be free to thrive as Singapore has.
10. The publication denied that the columnist’s references to protectionism were inaccurate or misleading. It said it was not in dispute that the EU has trade deals with a lot of countries as noted by the complainant. However, this did not mean that the EU had not sought to protect its market and members’ economies with barriers. The publication noted that approximately 30 percent of goods imported into the EU faced tariffs, that 10 per cent of cars faced tariffs, and an average duty of 54 per cent is placed on dairy products. It additionally noted that the EU also implements several non-tariff barriers and cited product standards, health and safety regulations, labelling and licensing requirements which could significantly restrict trade in certain goods and services.
11. The publication denied that the columnist’s declaration that there was “no single market for services to speak of” was inaccurate. It said the columnist was not making an absolute claim that there was no single market in services, rather his claim was that there is a fully operational single market in goods and that this chiefly benefitted specific EU member states whose economies depend heavily on agriculture and manufacturing and that this brought fewer benefits to the UK, the economy of which is overwhelmingly linked to services. It said that the columnist was making the point that the single market in services, when compared to that of the single market for goods, is negligible. The publication noted that the single market for goods gave any business in the EU potential access to what is essentially a home market of 450 million consumers and that a market of this kind was still aspirational in the field of services; the European Commission had declared in its own literature that this aim was yet to be met. The publication said this was demonstrated by the current directive for services only covering service activity amounting to some 46% of EU GDP. The publication said that the instances of a single market in particular services advanced by the complainant did not in and of themselves invalidate the columnist’s interpretation of the facts. It noted that in contrast to the reliability and consistency of the single-market for goods, in the service sector a business must rely on the provisions of the directive or on one of a number of supplementary sector specific laws and therefore the administrative burdens of establishing eligibility in a non-comprehensive single market could reduce its benefit even to a company that was entitled to this benefit. The publication emphasised that it was the columnist’s view that these limitations mean that when compared with the single market for goods, there is not a comparable market for services and that this was an opinion he was entitled to express; this did not render the position inaccurate.
12. The complainant rejected the publication’s position. Regarding protectionism, he noted that the EU’s external tariff is on average 4.8%, far lower than the atypical examples cited by the publication, and that important items such as furniture or pharmaceuticals had very low, or no tariffs at all. The complainant accepted that there was sectoral protection in sensitive areas of the economy but said that this is not unique to the EU and noted that in the past, the UK maintained a highly protective regime in the important sectors of textiles and clothing. Whilst this attracted criticism, no one considered the UK to have a closed or protected economy. The complainant also said that the “non-tariff barriers” cited by the publication were not applicable or accurate as all civilised countries have regulations of this type, not just the EU and in any event the legislation in this area was accepted by its member states, including the UK.
Relevant Code Provisions
13. 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
14. The article was a comment piece and clearly distinguished as such. The Committee considered that the headline only made reference to post-EU Britain being on its own, not Singapore, and that the reference in the headline to the UK thriving “on its own” referred to its future position outside the EU. The columnist was comparing Singapore to the UK, and using Singapore as an example of the kind of policies or qualities the UK could adopt or aspire to for success outside the EU, which was not misleading in circumstances where the basis for this comparison was made clear. The Committee considered that the article made clear that the columnist’s adoption of Singapore as a blueprint or aspirational model was due to its relative lack of natural resources, its policies, and its determination. The selection of material for publication is a matter of editorial discretion as long as the Code is not otherwise breached, and not reporting that Singapore is a member of ASEAN or any other organisation did not render the comparison misleading in the context of a comment piece where the basis for the comparison was explained. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
15. The complainant did not dispute that economies within the EU were subject to some sectoral protectionism. The columnist expressed his view that such protectionism was not beneficial and was entitled to express this opinion; not specifying the amount or extent of current EU trade deals did not render the article inaccurate. The Committee considered that the columnist’s allegations of crony capitalism and vested interests within the EU were personal and broad opinions that he was entitled to express. The claims were distinguished clearly as comment, the article was headed “comment” and written in the first person, and these points did not represent factual claims. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
16. It was not the Committee’s function to rule on the extent to which there is a single market for services in the EU. Rather its function was to consider whether the article complied with the requirements of the Code. The columnist had said “there is no single market in services to speak of”. He did not make the inaccurate factual assertion that there is no single market in services at all and the Committee considered that the article had sought to compare the benefits of the single market for services relative to that of goods, rather than factually claim that a single market for services did not exist. The columnist was entitled to express his view regarding the perceived failures of the single market for services and the view that these perceived failures or difference in conditions between the single market for services and that of goods had stunted Britain’s growth. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
17. The article explained that the columnist was an MEP and former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. The publication was not obliged under the Code to specify that the columnist was an MEP for the Brexit Party, that he was involved in the Leave campaign, or mention the details of his resignation from the British Chambers of Commerce. Further, the publication was not required to specify the possible influence the columnist’s background and experiences had on his views. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
18. As above, the selection of material for publication is a matter of editorial discretion. The newspaper was not obliged to publish the first letter submitted for publication or publish the article as suggested by the complainant. Furthermore, the Committee had not established the existence of significant inaccuracies; as such, an opportunity to respond was not required under the terms of Clause 1.
19. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date received: 31/01/2020
Date received: 31/01/2020
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Date concluded by IPSO: 01/06/2020
Date concluded by IPSO: 01/06/2020