Decision of the Complaints Committee 01659-14 de Pulford v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of complaint
Summary of complaint
1. Luke de Pulford complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Why criminalising gender abortions is sinister and wrong”, published online on 4 November 2014.
2. The article was a comment piece on the new Abortion (Sex-Selection) Bill, which seeks to clarify the law as laid out in the Abortion Act 1967, to make clear that it is illegal to have an abortion on the basis of the sex of the foetus. The article criticised the bill and its sponsor, Fiona Bruce MP, suggesting that the bill would restrict women’s choices, while claiming to do the opposite.
3. The complainant was concerned that the article contained a number of inaccuracies, and that the writer was commenting on a bill which she had not seen. The complainant said that it was not possible to criminalise sex-selective abortion, as it is already illegal under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and is not permitted by the Abortion Act 1967. He said that the bill instead sought to correct a common misinterpretation of the 1967 Act: that foetal sex can prove a risk to the mental health of the pregnant woman and thus be a legal ground for abortion. He also said that it was inaccurate to say that the bill used “the language of women’s liberation”; this implied “sinister motives”.
4. The newspaper said that its readers would be familiar with the nuances surrounding abortion debate and legislation, a frequent subject of coverage in its pages. It said that it was clear from Ms Bruce’s recent comments that the Abortion Act’s failure to specify the illegality of sex-selective abortion was the premise of her bill. It also said that it was the writer’s opinion that the bill would restrict women’s choices, and that this was closely aligned with Ms Bruce’s general anti-abortion stance. It said that, in this context, it was fair comment to describe the bill and its motivations as “sinister”. Ms Bruce had written an article on ConservativeHome.com in advance of tabling the bill which outlined her thinking and explained what she was seeking to achieve with the bill. It also said that the fact that the writer had not, at the time of writing, seen the precise text of the bill, was irrelevant to the point that she was making, especially given that Ms Bruce’s opinions on the matter were already in the public domain.
Relevant Code Provisions
5. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.
iii) The press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
6. The article under complaint had been clearly distinguished as a comment piece. Journalists are entitled to present robust opinions on topics of public debate, so long as they are clearly distinguished from fact. In this case, the writer was entitled to present her views on the new bill, based on Ms Bruce’s article on ConversativeHome.com, and to comment on any perceived motivations surrounding it. While the Committee acknowledged that the Abortion Act 1967 did not provide for abortion on the basis of foetal sex alone, there was confusion surrounding the circumstances in which a woman may have an abortion when the sex of the foetus is an issue. The purpose of the new bill is to clarify the position. Given this, it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading to state that the new bill “proposes a ban on sex-selective abortions”.
7. The bill had been described by Ms Bruce as a “chance to fight what we believe to be the first violence against women and girls” and its purpose as being to “support women who are under pressure to have gender-selective abortions”. In light of this description, the journalist was entitled to argue that this constituted the “language of women’s liberation”, and it was clearly distinguished as the comment of the writer. The article had not misleadingly implied that the writer had seen the text of the bill, and had attributed her understanding to public statements made by its sponsor. Further, the writer was entitled, under Clause 1 (iii) of the Code, to express her view that the bill, and its motivations, were “sinister”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, and the Committee did not establish any significant inaccuracies, which would require correction in order to comply with the terms of the Code.
8. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 05/11/2014Date decision issued: 04/02/2015 Back to ruling listing