Decision of the Complaints Committee 00779-19 Sutton v Daily Express
Summary of Complaint
1. William Sutton complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Express breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "SECOND VOTE WILL LEAD TO CIVIL UNREST", published on 22 January 2019.
2. The article appeared on the front page of the newspaper, and continued on pages 4 and 5. The sub-headline said "PM: New poll would threaten democracy", and the article reported that the Prime Minister had "warned that a second EU referendum could trigger civil disorder and unrest across Britain by destroying trust in Parliament". The article went on to quote the Prime Minister's comment that a second referendum "'could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy'".
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), because the front page headline stated as fact that a second referendum would lead to civil unrest, when this was only a possibility, and the Prime Minister had stated social cohesion "'could'" be damaged. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 3 (Harassment) because its headline represented a veiled threat to individuals including himself who were campaigning for a second referendum, suggesting that any civil unrest would be the fault of those campaigners, rather than its perpetrators. He said that the headline was aimed at deterring their campaign, which represented harassment.
4. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said that the words "will lead to" in the headline showed that the newspaper's intention was to suggest that a second referendum would precipitate a move towards civil unrest; it did not indicate that this was a certainty. The publication also said that the article made clear that the Prime Minister had suggested that there was a potential for civil unrest in the event of a second referendum, by quoting directly from her comment that “a second referendum could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy”. It said that the remainder of the article was an interpretation of this warning, and noted that the headline was not presented as a direct quotation from the Prime Minister.
Relevant Code Provisions
5. 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 complainant had not sought to argue that the Prime Minister’s comments could not be interpreted as a reference to possible civil disorder; rather, he was concerned that the headline suggested that this was an inevitable outcome, rather than a possibility.
7. The headline claim that a second referendum “will lead to civil unrest” was not attributed to the Prime Minister, and was not a direct quotation from her speech. The sub-headline summarised the Prime Minister’s position that a “new poll would threaten democracy”; the Prime Minister’s position was reported in the first line of the article, which explained that she had warned that a second referendum “could trigger civil disorder and unrest across Britain by destroying trust in Parliament”, and the article went on to quote the Prime Minister’s claim that it “’could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy’”. The headline did not suggest that the Prime Minister personally had said that a second referendum would inevitably “lead to civil unrest”; the headline was the position of the newspaper — in light of the warnings given by the Prime Minister — and was presenting a prediction, which would have been understood by readers of the headline. The Committee did not, in these circumstances, consider that there had been a failure to take care over the presentation of the headline, and it did not consider that the headline gave rise to any significantly misleading impression that would require correction. There was no breach of Clause 1.
8. The terms of Clause 3 (Harassment) generally relate to the nature of approaches made by journalists to individuals, and are usually engaged when an individual continues to be contacted or approached by journalists after having made a request to desist. In this case, the complainant had not been approached by any journalist; rather, he disagreed with the headline and felt that it was an attempt to change his behaviour. This was not a concern that engaged with the terms of Clause 3.
9. The complaint
was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 22/01/2019
Date decision issued: 29/05/2019
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