Decision of the Complaints Committee 02706-19 Stroud v express.co.uk
Summary of complaint
1. Nicholas Stroud complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of practice in an article headlined “Brexit petition CON! Half of signatures in Revoke Article 50 petition are OUTSIDE UK”, published on 22 March 2019.
2. The article in its original form reported that data on the Parliamentary website had revealed that “more than half of the three million names on a record-breaking petition to derail Brexit by revoking Article 50 signed the petition from outside the UK”. It said that “as of 12.20pm, the petition had surged past three million”, but that “on closer inspection, about 1.26 million were from the UK”. The article said that “the rest were signatories from around the world, including at least 10,500 from France, about 5,000 from Germany and almost 4,000 from the United States”. The article noted that “some of the names will undoubtedly be genuine, as any UK resident or British citizen is entitled to sign e-petitions, and they may be abroad”, but stated that “some Remainers have even shared their postcodes to Twitter in a bid to encourage people from around the world to add their names”.
3. The article was publicised on the publication’s Facebook page with the headline “Brexit petition SHAME: Half of signatures in Revoke Article 50 petition are OUTSIDE UK”, and on Twitter with the headline “More than half article 50 petition signatories are from OUTSIDE THE UK”.
4. The complainant said that the article and its headline were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), because it was not correct to state that more than half of the signatories to the petition were from abroad. He said that the data, which was freely available on the petitions website, indicated that 96% of signatories were from the UK. He also disputed the use of the term “con” in the headline, as he said it was legitimate for UK citizens living abroad to sign the petition.
5. The publication noted that it had previously reported on concerns that the same petition had been subject to fraudulent activity, and it was in response to these concerns that the article had been written. The publication accepted that the claim that more than half of the signatories were from outside the UK was inaccurate, but denied that it had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article. It noted that the government petitions website shows, for each petition, a ‘front page’ figure for the total number of signatories; it is then possible to click a link on the page to produce a breakdown of the number of signatories by country and other variables. The publication said that, at the time of publication, the ‘front page’ total figure stood at approximately 2.5 million signatories, but the individual country figure for the UK, provided when the further link was clicked, was only 1,261,367. The publication said that its journalist had taken the figure provided for the UK, and subtracted this from the total, as they believed that the difference between the two figures would accurately represent the number of signatories from abroad. It said that, at the time of publication, this figure had appeared to be in excess of half the total figure, and this was the basis for the headline claim. The publication said that the journalist had contacted the House of Commons Media Relations Team (HoCMRT) for comment prior to publication, with respect to the possibility of fraudulent activity on the petition; its response in relation to security measures had been included in the article.
6. Following the publication of the article, a member of the public had expressed concerns that the petition was not updating the individual country-level data correctly, and in response to this, the journalist had contacted HoCMRT again to check whether the UK figure used was accurate. HoCMRT had responded stating that “there is an approximate 96.,2%/3.8% split between UK and non-UK based signatories who have signed the Article 50 petition”. In response to a further query, HoCMRT had confirmed that the country-level data was “temporarily not updating”, and that this had been the case since the previous evening. This meant that, while the ‘front page’ total number of signatories was accurate, the individual country-level data was lagged behind. The publication said that this explained why the percentage of signatories appearing to originate from outside the UK was skewed. In response to the information obtained from HoCMRT, the article’s headline was then amended - approximately three hours after publication - to read “Brexit petition CON! Thousands of signatures in Revoke Article 50 petition are OUTSIDE UK”. The article text was also amended to remove reference to the claim under complaint.
7. In its first substantive response to the complainant – which was sent approximately a month after the complaint was referred to it by IPSO, as a result of staff absences – the publication explained the origin of the error, and offered to publish a footnote clarification which set out this explanation. During the course of IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered to publish the following clarification, based on its original offer, as a footnote to the amended article. It also offered to publish it, amended appropriately, as a standalone clarification appearing on its homepage for 4-12 hours, under the headline ‘Clarification – Brexit petition signatories – 22 March 2019’; the clarification would be archived and available permanently in the online Clarifications and Corrections section of the website.
This article was originally headlined “Brexit petition SHAME: Half of signatures in Revoke Article 50 petition are OUTSIDE UK” and said that half of the signatories in the 'Revoke Article 50 petition' were from outside the United Kingdom. That information was taken from the data as published by the House of Common's petition website. The House of Commons Media Team have since admitted that from the evening of March 21 those running the official petition website 'disabled the automatic count updates to let the site run more smoothly.' That action meant the reported figure of those voting from the United Kingdom was incorrect whilst the live updated total figure of those who had voted was correct. This lacuna incorrectly increased the percentage of those appearing to be voting from outside the United Kingdom. In fact, on the day the article was published 96% of signatories to the petition were UK residents, and 4% were from outside the UK.
The publication also offered to publish a link to the standalone clarification on its Facebook and Twitter feeds, under the same headline as the standalone clarification.
8. The publication denied that it was misleading for the article to refer to a “con” in relation to the petition: it said that this had been a reference to the actions of those who were sharing their home postcodes to allow those ineligible to access the petition to do so; these actions had been set out in the article.
9. The complainant said that the offered clarification was insufficient, because it did not acknowledge that the publication had used the petition data incorrectly.
Relevant Code Provisions
10. 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. Prior to the publication of the article, concerns had been reported that the petition in question was subject to fraudulent activity of the type this article also referred to. It was not in dispute that, at the time of publication, the country-level data on the petition website was not updating correctly, and this had been confirmed by the responsible department. The publication was entitled to expect that the ‘front page’ total figure and the country-level figure provided for the UK were correct. In circumstances where the country-level figure was approximately half of the total figure at the time of the publication, as a result of the lag in the data, it was reasonable for the publication to infer that the difference between the two figures was accounted for by signatories from outside the UK. There was no failure to take care over the article’s claim that more than half the signatories came from outside the UK, and no breach of Clause 1(i). Nevertheless, the claim was inaccurate, on the basis of the information provided by HoCMRT on the day of publication, and the publication was obliged to correct this inaccuracy with sufficient prominence and promptness, in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).
12. HoCMRT had provided the correct percentage of signatories from the UK to the publication on the day the article was published. In response to this information, and to a concern raised outside the IPSO process, the article’s headline and text had been amended promptly, to remove the reference to “over half” of signatories coming from overseas. The Committee noted that it would not always be necessary to add a footnote to an article to detail such an amendment; however, in this instance, the erroneous claim had been central to the article, and it would have been good practice for the publication to immediately footnote this change. Nevertheless, the publication had made an offer of clarification in its first substantive response to the complaint raised under the IPSO process. While this initial offered wording did not make the correct position clear, it had been offered in an attempt to resolve the matter; once IPSO began investigation into the complaint, a clarification was offered which set out the correct position with respect to the proportion of signatories coming from overseas. The Committee was concerned that this response had not been received until over a month after the complaint was passed by IPSO to the publication, in circumstances where it appeared that the correct position had been made known to the journalist on the day of publication. However, it noted that the publication had indicated to the complainant that a response would be delayed due to staff absences which prevented the thorough investigation of the matter. In these circumstances, and where the inaccurate claim had been removed promptly from the article, the offer of clarification met the terms of Clause 1(ii); its wording made the correct position clear, and it was offered with sufficient prominence, where the original article had only appeared for approximately 3 hours. The original headline had also appeared in the Facebook and Twitter trails for the article, and the publication had offered to publish links to the standalone clarification on these media. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii). In order to avoid any such breach, the publication should now publish the clarifications as offered.
13. The article made clear the publication’s position that some individuals were sharing their postcodes online in an attempt to allow ineligible individuals to sign the petition; the complainant did not dispute that this practice was taking place. In these circumstances, there was no failure to take care over the use of the term “con”, and its meaning was made clear in the article, such that no misleading impression was created. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
14. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
15. The offered clarification was sufficient to avoid any breach of Clause 1(ii), for the reasons outlined above, and should now be published.
Date complaint received: 22/03/2019
Date decision issued: 07/08/2019
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