Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00797-21 Sloane v Mail Online
Summary of Complaint
1. Andrew Sloane complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Boris Johnson wants lockdown exercise rules relaxed as busy Brits throng the streets but shops, gyms and hairdressers could stay shut until April and pubs might not open until May”, published on 30 January 2021.
2. The online article reported that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had requested officials to explore a “slight lifting of the rules” which limited people to meeting one other person for “outdoor exercise once a day”. It stated that ministers had previously rejected calls to “flesh out the rules” surrounding exercise amid concerns that a lack of clarity on the subject had allowed the police to hand out fines “too enthusiastically” to members of the public. The article included a panel, titled “Lockdown rules: So what ARE we allowed to do then?”, that detailed various different scenarios, such as walking with a friend, stating for each situation what was legally permitted, what was not and what was effectively a legally “grey” area. It noted, for example, under “LEGAL” for walking with a friend that “meeting one person from outside your household is permitted in England if you leave home on your own, and observe social distancing. You should leave home only once a day.”
3. The complainant said the article was misleading, in breach of Clause 1. He said that the term “rules” conflated the guidance issued by the Government – which was not enforceable – with the law – which was. He said that the assertion that people should only meet one other person for outdoor exercise once a day did not appear in legislation – there was no legal limit placed on the number of times the home could be left for exercise. He said that this contrasted with the impression created by the panel, titled “Lockdown rules: so what ARE we allowed to do then”, noting that the assertion “You should leave home only once a day” was included within a section headed “LEGAL”. In addition, the complainant said the article was misleading to define the Government’s “stay local” advice as a “grey area”. He said that there was no ambiguity and “the law could not be clearer” in relation to this.
4. The newspaper did not accept it had breached the Editors’ Code. Whilst the publication accepted the clear distinction between guidance and legislation, it considered that “rules”, a term it had used throughout the article, was an acceptable umbrella term for lockdown restrictions, noting that the Government’s own website made clear that in order to “find out exactly what the rules [were] during the coronavirus pandemic, [one] need[ed] to look at both legislation and guidance […] the law is what you must do; the guidance might be a mixture of what you must do and what you should do.” It said that the article reflected this, with the title of panel stating “Lockdown rules: So what ARE we allowed to do then?” and then outlining that the “rules” covered both Government guidance and legal requirements. As a consequence, in this context, it said readers would not be misled by the use of the term “rules” within the article. In any event, it maintained that the article accurately reflected Government guidance which recommended that one “should” only exercise outside once a day; it did not state that “one can” only leave their house once a day for exercise.
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
5. Whilst the Committee recognised the complainant’s concerns about the clear distinction between guidance and the law, it noted that the term “rules” was a non-specific term that was dependent upon context. In this instance, the article was published in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, where restrictions were placed on the movements and activities of the public, and the Government had repeatedly used the term “rules” throughout the pandemic as an umbrella term to cover both the guidance it had issued and the legislation Parliament had introduced. In the view of the Committee, the article appropriately reflected this wider context, with the panel titled “Lockdown rules: So what ARE we allowed to do then?” breaking down the “lockdown rules” into what was legally permitted, what was not and what was effectively a “grey area”. Taken in this context, the Committee was satisfied that it was not misleading to use the term “rules” as a general term for the restrictions introduced in response to Covid-19. As such, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
6. The Committee then considered the complainant’s concerns related to the content of the panel, noting that the disputed statement “You should leave home only once a day” was included under a heading titled “LEGAL”. The Committee noted that the publication had not sought to argue that leaving the house more than once a day was illegal, accepting that this was an instruction issued by the Government and not enshrined in law. However, the article, in the view of the Committee, had given the misimpression that there was legal requirement and as such had failed to clearly distinguish between guidance and the law in regard to this specific point; this distinction was, in the view of the Committee, a significant one and demonstrated a clear failure to take care. In the view of the Committee, this required correction under Clause 1 (ii). Neither a clarification nor a correction was offered by the newspaper in regard to this. As such, there was a breach of Clause 1 (ii).
7. The Committee then turned to the complainant’s concerns related to the “stay local” advice. The Committee noted that the article made clear that the Government had advised that “one should not travel outside your local area” and that the limits of what constituted “local” had not yet been established in England, in contrast to Scotland and Northern Ireland, with the panel stating, for example, that the “exact point at which a short local drive [became] a breach of the rules [was] unclear”. In such circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the article was significantly inaccurate or misleading to characterise the Government’s “stay local” advice as a “grey area”. As such, the Committee found the article did not raise a breach of Clause 1 on this point.
8. The complaint was upheld in part.
Remedial Action Required
9. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, 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 an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.
10. The Committee considered that the article gave the misleading impression that that the public were legally entitled to leave the house only once a day for exercise. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record.
11. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. This correction should appear as a standalone correction in the online Corrections and Clarification’s column. It should also appear beneath the headline of the online article should it remain unamended. If, however, the article is amended this correction may appear as a footnote, recording the alternations made. The wording of this correction should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
Date complaint received: 30/01/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 01/07/2021Back to ruling listing