Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02607-21 Various v thesun.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. The Independent Press Standards Organisation received various complaints that thesun.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “BACK TO SCHOOL Schools re-opening: How Covid-safe classrooms will look with face masks and screens separating desks from Monday”, published on 6 March 2021.
2. The article, which only appeared online, reported on proposed Covid-19 safety measures ahead of schools reopening in England on 8 March, and included a graphic showing a classroom with open windows, hand sanitisers, and a trough-style foot-operated sink, as well as Perspex screens and moveable partition screens separating children. The graphic was titled “Post-Lockdown Class: From screens to compulsory facemasks, how Britain’s schools might look when they return on Monday”. The article itself said that “classrooms are likely to look a little different” and set out some ways in which schools may introduce safety measures, such as “Perspex screens likely to shield pupils from the front of the class”. It further said that “desks will probably be separated with large screens at the side”.
3. IPSO received 97 complaints about the article. Complainants said that the article was inaccurate as the headline stated that the article showed “[h]ow Covid-safe classrooms will look” after pupils returned to school, when there was, in fact, no official guidance or requirements for reopening schools to have the measures depicted in the graphic and article in place prior to reopening. As such, complainants said that the headline would mislead readers into believing that schools would have measures in place similar to those depicted in the article, when the true position was that schools were not required to have such measures in place.
4. Complainants also said that the reference to Perspex screens was inaccurate; there was no official guidance or rules in place which referred to the use of such screens in classroom settings and the publication had no basis to say that Perspex screens were “likely to shield pupils from the front of the class” nor that “desks will probably be separated with large screens at the side.”
5. The publication said it did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It first noted that the article was compiled from information taken from various sources, from government advice and press reports to anecdotal input from teachers. It said that the article did not refer to official government guidance or rules except with reference to the use of face-masks by high school students. Therefore, it did not accept that readers would be misled into believing that the measures described in the article were based on any kind of official guidance.
6. Turning to the headline, it noted that – while the headline referred to how schools “will” look – the article itself made clear that this was conjecture on the part of the publication, based on various sources, and was not based on official government guidance. It noted that, throughout the article, all claims were presented as conjecture on part of the publication – for instance, stating that “classrooms are likely to look a little different.” The publication also noted the headline of the graphic, which made clear that it depicted how schools “might appear”. It said that the headline did not contradict the article or the graphic and that, read in conjunction with the article, the true position would be clear: the true position being that the measures depicted in the article may be in place in certain schools, and there was no inference that all measures depicted in the article would be in all schools.
7. The publication went on to note that Perspex screens had been installed in some schools, and provided news reports showing this. It noted that it had also been reported in June 2020 that Perspex screens may be installed after a Scottish teaching union had called for them to be used in schools, and that official government guidance had made reference to the need to maintain distance between pupils and teaching staffs in schools, and the need for “increased hygiene and safety protocols in place to minimise the risk of transmission” in cases of pupils who required close contact or had complex needs. It noted that the article made clear that the claim regarding Perspex screens was not a claim of fact; rather, it was conjecture and presented as such, by way of the use of the terms “probably” and “likely” with reference to the use of Perspex screens.
8. The publication said that, while it did not accept that the Code had been breached, it had amended the article headline the day after the article’s publication following reader feedback and prior to receiving notice from IPSO that the article raised a possible breach of the Editors’ Code. The amended headline read “BACK TO SCHOOL Schools re-opening: How Covid-safe classrooms could look with face masks and screens separating desks from Monday”.
9. The publication also added a footnote to the bottom of the article during the IPSO investigation and 20 days after the article’s original publication; the footnote read: “This article's original headline, which said how Covid-safe classrooms "will look", has been amended to reflect that the measures described and depicted are ones that could or might be implemented, as the text makes clear.”
10. The publication also offered to add to the article’s footnote, to make clear that Perspex screens had not been mandated by any particular governing body – notwithstanding that it did not consider the article to be inaccurate, misleading, or distorted on this point. It proposed to add the following wording to the footnote: “Perspex screens have not been specifically mandated by any official guidance.”
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. Clause 1 (i) makes clear that - in addition to taking care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information – publications must take care not to publish headlines not supported by the text of the article. The terms of Clause 1 (iv) were also engaged by the complaints raised, where the use of the term “will” in the original headline presented the claim as fact and where Clause 1 (iv) makes clear that publications should distinguish between comment, conjecture, and fact.
12. It therefore fell to the Committee to determine whether sufficient care was taken to ensure that the original headline and the article were not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted, and whether the headline was supported by the text of the article. The Committee also noted that it must determine whether the headline and article itself clearly distinguished between conjecture on the part of the publication and established fact.
13. The original headline of the article under complaint stated, without qualification, that the article showed how schools “will” look upon reopening. This was contradicted by the article and the accompanying graphic, both of which framed the claims regarding how classrooms may appear as possibilities rather than absolute claims of fact. The Committee noted that the article had been published two days before pupils were due to return to school, and that the publication had the opportunity to reach out to interested parties – for instance, teaching unions – for comment. The publication had not taken care to ensure that the headline was supported by the text of the article, and there was a breach of Clause 1 (i) as a result. In addition, the headline of the article presented conjecture on the part of the publication – which the article clearly distinguished as such, by the use of qualifiers such a “might” and “possible” – as established fact. The headline did not distinguish between comment, conjecture, and fact, and there was a further breach of Clause 1 (iv).
14. The headline inaccuracy was significant, where it appeared prominently in the headline and related to a matter of national concern: the reopening of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. As such, it required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
15. The Committee turned next to the alleged inaccuracy regarding the use of Perspex screens. The publication had distinguished between conjecture and fact in reporting that they were “likely” and “probably” to be used in classrooms; they had not made a claim of fact that they would be used, and there was no breach of Clause 1 (iv). However, the Committee did not consider that there was sufficient basis to make this claim; by stating that such screens would “probably” be used in classrooms, the article distorted the true position, which was: that some classrooms had installed screens, that 9 months prior to the article’s publication a single Scottish teaching union had called for the use of such screens, and that no official guidance mandated the use of such screens. There was, therefore, a further breach of Clause 1 (i), where the publication had not taken care not to publish distorted information.
16. The distortion regarding the Perspex screens was significant, where it had the potential to mislead readers as to what measures were likely to be in schools to prevent the transmission of Covid-19. As the distortion was significant, corrective action was required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
17. Clause 1 (ii) requires that significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information is corrected promptly and with due prominence, as required by IPSO. The publication had amended the original headline the day after the article’s publication; the amended headline made clear that the headline claim was based on conjecture and was not a statement of fact on the part of the publication. The amended headline was supported by the article, which also made clear that its claims were based on conjecture. The publication added a footnote, 20 days after the article’s publication. The footnote included the wording of the original headline and put the correct position on record, and made clear what was being corrected. The Committee found that the amended headline and additional footnote was sufficient to correct the original headline inaccuracy, and that it had been published promptly and with due prominence. There was no further breach of Clause 1 (ii) on this point.
18. The publication offered, during the IPSO investigation, to add to the footnote wording which put the correct position on record regarding the Perspex screens. The Committee found that the wording offered by the publication was sufficient to address this point of inaccuracy, and that the proposed position was sufficiently prominent. There was no further breach of Clause 1 (ii).
19. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause (i) and Clause (iv).
Remedial Action Required
20. The amended footnote which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.
Date complaint received: 24/03/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 02/06/2021Back to ruling listing