Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00565-21 Tatton v The Sunday Times
Summary of Complaint
1. Benjamin Tatton complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Where's our Dunkirk spirit? Indoors, moaning that the sea's a bit choppy and the boat smells”, published on 17 January 2021.
2. The article appeared online in a substantially similar format.
3. The article was an opinion piece by a prominent columnist, in which he commented on the reaction of the UK public to the Covid-19 pandemic generally and the free school meals debate in particular. The article noted that the columnist had “heard a woman on the news the other day demanding that she be given £30 to provide lunch for her child”. He had questioned her reasons for needing this amount of money: “Thirty quid? Where’s she going to take him? Fortnum & Mason?“. He then commented on another woman, who “said it was no good providing actual food for her kid and she wanted a voucher instead […] Presumably so that she could exchange it at the supermarket for fags and scratchcards.” The article then focused on teachers, stating that “as far as [the columnist] can tell, instead of working out how they will educate their pupils in these troubled times, every single one of them is to be found on the news every night, with his laptop at the wrong angle and a terrible painting in the background, saying that Boris Johnson should buy every child in the land an iPad and that no teacher should have to work again, ever."
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. The complainant first noted that £30 was intended to cover 10 lunches worth of food, and that it would not be possible to pay for 10 meals worth of food using £30 at Fortnum & Mason. The complainant also said that the columnist appeared to not be aware that “the £15 vouchers were replaced with less than £5 of food.” He went on to note that, contrary to the columnist’s claim that a woman wished to exchange a free school lunches voucher “at the supermarket for fags and scratchcards”, it was not possible to exchange such vouchers for age-restricted products. The complainant provided government guidance to support his position on this point. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate in its description of members of the teaching profession, as he said IT equipment was used to teach children remotely and asking for this equipment was not an attempt on the part of teachers to shirk their responsibilities.
5. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 12, as he considered that, by stating that an unnamed woman wished to exchange a food voucher for “fags and scratchcards”, the article discriminated against those below the poverty line.
6. The publication said it did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the article did not state that it was possible to exchange food vouchers for age-restricted products such as cigarettes and scratchcards. Rather, it said, the columnist was speculating on the motivations of an unknown person; it was conjecture of an unnamed individual’s motivation, and clearly presented as such. The newspaper went on to note that the columnist was known for dealing in exaggeration and hyperbole and that the reference to exchanging food vouchers was clearly part of the article’s stream of fantasy, comment and speculation. For this reason, the complainant’s concern on this point did not represent a possible breach of Clause 1.
7. The complainant said that, regardless of whether the columnist’s claim that a woman wished to exchange a free school lunches voucher “at the supermarket for fags and scratchcards” was based on speculation, it still breached Clause 1 and 12 as the speculation was based on inaccurate and discriminatory perceptions of people below the poverty line.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. 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.
9. Clause 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Findings of the Committee
10. The Committee first noted the context of the article; it was a first-person, polemical, and hyperbolic comment-piece. Clause 1(iv) makes clear that publications can editorialise and campaign, provided they distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture, and fact. The Preamble to the Editors’ Code makes clear that the Code must protect the right to challenge, shock, be satirical and to entertain. However, there remains an obligation under Clause 1 to take care over the accuracy of any claims of fact made within a comment piece and to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact.
11. It was not in dispute that the columnist had “heard a woman on the news” who had “demand[ed] that she be given £30 to provide lunch for her child.” The columnist’s reaction to this was relayed in the article; he had questioned why she needed this much money: “Where’s she going to take him? Fortnum & Mason?“. While the columnist’s questioning may have been based on a misunderstanding on how many meals the £30 was intended to pay for, the article did not state – as fact – that £30 was intended to cover the cost of one meal. The Committee noted that the columnist believed that £30 was too large of a sum for its intended purpose; however, this was clearly presented as his hyperbolic opinion on the sum and was distinguished as such. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
12. It was again not in dispute that the columnist had seen a woman say that she would prefer a voucher to food. What was in dispute was whether it was accurate for the article to then state that the woman wanted the vouchers “[p]resumably so that she could exchange it at the supermarket for fags and scratchcards”. The Committee found that this was clearly distinguished as conjecture on the part of the columnist by the use of the word “presumably.” There was no indication that the speculation was based on anything other than the columnist’s own opinion of the woman’s motivations; the article did not state as fact that vouchers could be exchanged in the manner described. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
13. The Committee found the statement that: “as far as [the columnist] can tell, instead of working out how they will educate their pupils in these troubled times, every single one of them [teachers] is to be found on the news every night, with his laptop at the wrong angle and a terrible painting in the background, saying that Boris Johnson should buy every child in the land an iPad and that no teacher should have to work again, ever” was clearly presented as the hyperbolic opinion of the columnist. It made clear that this was the columnist’s view on teachers - “as far as I can tell” and it was clearly hyperbolic to state that “every single [teacher]” was “to be found on the news every night” saying that “no teacher should have to work again, ever.” Readers would understand that this was not a claim of fact about all teachers during the pandemic, and was instead the columnist’s view on the profession. There was no breach of Clause 1.
14. Clause 12 relates to prejudicial, pejorative, or irrelevant references to an individual’s protected characteristic. The article did not contain any such reference to an individual, and the Committee also noted that economic status is not a protected characteristic under the terms of Clause 12.
15. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 20/01/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/05/2021Back to ruling listing