Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01743-21 Power v Mail Online
Summary of Complaint
1. Rosemary Power complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Illegal migrants are getting Covid jabs in free plush quarantine hotels at Heathrow weeks ahead of older and more vulnerable British people...while arrivals from 'red-list' countries must pay £1,750 for WORSE accommodation”, published on 12 February 2021.
2. The article reported that some migrants claiming asylum in the UK during the coronavirus pandemic were receiving a coronavirus vaccine ahead of vulnerable or older British people who were higher up the priority list. It also stated that these migrants were staying in higher quality hotels than travellers returning from red list countries, who were obliged to pay for their quarantine accommodation, reporting that the migrants’ situation was a “far cry from the less-than-warm welcome awaiting travellers from 33 'red list' countries flying into Heathrow, and four other English airports”. The article noted that a four-star hotel was “among hotels across Britain housing migrants who have slipped into country illegally”. The claim that the migrants had “slipped into the country illegally” was repeated in the text of article, and the experiences of several migrants was reported in the article in quotes; one stated that “I was living rough in Calais until before Christmas when I came to the UK by boat”; another explained “I had been in Europe for seven years trying to find a way to get to the UK”. The article also reported that the migrants were “await[ing] their asylum claims to be decided” and described the migrants as “asylum seekers”. The article reported that the migrants, in discussing the hotel accommodation in which they lived, had described the “English breakfast [as] ‘very good’”. A bullet point at the start of the article claimed that one “20-year-old boasted how he and 400 other migrants have had the coronavirus jab”. The article included the man’s full quote, stating that he “proclaim[ed] proudly: 'I was given the vaccination yesterday at the hotel to stop me catching Covid. There are 400 migrants living here and we nearly all had it. No one I know refused.'” And that he “tapp[ed] his arm to show the site of the injection”.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said that the headline wrongly described asylum seekers as “illegal migrants”. She said that it was not illegal for asylum seekers to arrive in a country undocumented and by informal routes, and that this was frequently the only option available to them. She said that 98% of people who arrived in this manner claimed asylum, and therefore they should be referred to as “asylum seekers”.
4. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to describe the subjects of the article as receiving an “English breakfast” as this gave the misleading impression they were given a substantial breakfast and not simply the bread, butter and jam they did receive. She also said it was inaccurate to state that one of the asylum seekers had “boasted” that he had received the vaccine; she said that their expression of gratitude should not have been twisted. Finally, the complainant said that the article had breached Clause 1 as it was irrelevant to compare the treatment of asylum seekers with those who had chosen to travel from red list countries and that the tone of the article was abusive.
5. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that headlines should be read in conjunction with the content of the article, and noted that the article referred to the hotel occupants as “asylum seekers” five times. It said it was, therefore, abundantly clear that the residents had claimed asylum, and were awaiting judgment with respect to their applications. It said it was also clear from the article that the asylum seekers interviewed had entered the country illegally, making them “illegal migrants”, and noted that the Prime Minister had stated that those who crossed the channel via boat without the correct documents were “breaking the law”. The publication said that it was not an inaccurate characterisation to refer to asylum seekers who had entered the country as irregular migrants as “illegal migrants” as this was a plain term description of how they entered the country. Whilst it did not accept that this amounted to a breach of the Code, it amended the headline refer to “asylum seekers” rather than “illegal migrants”. In addition, a footnote was added to the article which read “Since publication the headline of this article has been amended to refer to 'asylum seekers' and not 'illegal migrants'.”
6. The publication said it was not significantly inaccurate to refer to a breakfast of bread, butter and jam as an “English breakfast” and said that it had used this term to contrast with the breakfasts served in the migrant’s home countries. With regard to the claim that one of the migrants had “boasted” that he had received a vaccine, the publication noted that the article in full made clear he had “proclaimed proudly” he had the jab, and had tapped the vaccine site on his arm.
7. The Committee noted the terms of Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention:
REFUGEES UNLAWFULLY IN THE COUNTRY OF REFUGEE
1. The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.
and section 31 of The Immigration and Asylum Act (1999) which states that:
Defences based on Article 31(1) of the Refugee Convention.
(1) It is a defence for a refugee charged with an offence to which this section applies to show that, having come to the United Kingdom directly from a country where his life or freedom was threatened (within the meaning of the Refugee Convention), he […].—
(b) showed good cause for his illegal entry or presence;
(2) If, in coming from the country where his life or freedom was threatened, the refugee stopped in another country outside the United Kingdom, subsection (1) applies only if he shows that he could not reasonably have expected to be given protection under the Refugee Convention in that other country.
8. The publication said that the legal instruments demonstrated its position that it was not mutually exclusive to describe foreign citizens who enter the country without leave and who then immediately present themselves to the authority in order to claim asylum as being both asylum seekers and illegal migrants. It noted that both of the legal instruments made reference to “illegal entry or presence”, and that the people who were interviewed by the reporter indicated that they had entered the country illegally by small boat over the channel or by lorry from Europe. The publication also said that, whilst it did not wish to make any particular assertions regarding the asylum seeker status of the migrants interviewed, 31(2) of the Immigration and Asylum Act made reference to the protection that could be given by the previous country the migrants stopped in, and that the most recent country passed through by the migrants interviewed would have been France.
9. The publication also noted that the UK government itself referred to the method of entry described by the migrants in the article under complaint as “illegal migration”, such as in the recent consultation into the reform of the Human Rights Act 1998 which stated that “298) Equally, there are a number of other challenges to the government’s ability to tackle illegal migration, particularly via small boats in the English Channel”.
10. The complainant disputed this interpretation and said that the publication’s response contradicted the relevant legal instruments, and she did not consider it relevant to cite quotes from Members of Parliament or the Home Office.
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
11. The Committee first made clear that people have a right to seek asylum in the UK, and that it is not illegal to do so.
12. The body of the article had referred to the migrants as “await[ing] their asylum claims to be decided”, and described them as “asylum seekers”. The question for the Committee was whether it was inaccurate to describe the migrants, elsewhere in the article, as “illegal migrants”, in these circumstances. The Committee noted that the terms “illegal migrants” and “asylum seekers” were distinct terms, and were not interchangeable.
13. The article had described the routes taken by the migrants into the UK, such as in lorries or via boat, and had quoted two migrants describing how they had entered the UK through irregular routes. The publication had provided quotes from the government which described migrants who entered the UK via irregular methods in which it had described them as “breaking the law” and had described these routes as “illegal migration”. The Committee also noted that the United Nations Refugee Convention, which UK immigration law is based on, and the Immigration and Asylum Act (1999), use the term “illegal entry” when describing irregular methods of entry of migrants seeking asylum, albeit that these provisions made clear that penalties would not apply in these cases.
14. Where entry into a country via irregular means had been described as “illegal” by the UK Government and in British and international migration law (notwithstanding a subsequent claim of asylum), the Committee did not find that characterising irregular entry into a country as “illegal” represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article or a significant inaccuracy. In addition, where the article made clear that the migrants were in the process of seeking asylum, and had included various accounts and examples of the migrants’ personal irregular entry as the basis for its description of them as “illegal migrants” or entering the UK “illegally”. The Committee considered that the article had drawn a distinction between such irregular routes, and legal routes by “travellers from 33 'red list' countries flying into Heathrow, and four other English airports”. In these circumstances, the Committee found that the article was not stating that asylum seekers themselves were illegal, but that the particular asylum seekers interviewed and staying within the accommodation in question had entered irregularly. Where this distinction was drawn, it was not misleading to describe them as “illegal migrants”, while making clear their status as asylum seekers. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point, however the Committee welcomed the publication of the clarification offered by the publication.
15. With regards to the other points under complaint, the Committee did not consider it significantly misleading to describe bread, butter and jam as an “English breakfast” where it described a breakfast made up of foods commonly consumed at breakfast in England. In addition, the decision to compare the situation of the asylum seekers and people who had travelled to the UK formally from red list countries was a matter of selection and therefore fell within the publication’s editorial discretion. The complainant had also found it inaccurate to describe one of the asylum seekers as “boasting”. The article had included a quote from the asylum seeker, and where his words were included within the article, it was not inaccurate to characterise these words as “boasting”. Similarly, the tone of the article, whilst offensive to the complainant, was not a point that could be found to be inaccurate and therefore did not engage Clause 1. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
16. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 17/02/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 18/03/2022Back to ruling listing