Decision of the Complaints Committee 04527-19 Portes v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of complaint
1. Jonathan Portes complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "The one move that will transform the life chances of a generation", published on 3 June 2019.
2. The article was a comment piece, in which the columnist called for the Conservative party to address disparities in the UK education system. The first paragraph reported that "It is an extraordinary fact that this country is forecast in our lifetimes to become the largest and most prosperous economy in this hemisphere".
3. The article also appeared online in much the same format under the headline "Conservatives must address our country's shocking educational disparities", published on 2 June 2019.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate. He said that no forecasts predicted that the UK economy will be the largest and most prosperous economy in our hemisphere, or any hemisphere in our lifetime. The UK economy was not forecast to overtake the United States of America, the largest economy in the Western Hemisphere and Northern Hemisphere, or China, the largest economy in the Eastern Hemisphere.
5. The publication accepted that the article should have stated that the UK was forecast to become the largest and most prosperous economy in Europe and not "this hemisphere". It said that that this claim was based on an extrapolation of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) forecast of real GDP from 2020-2060, which, despite placing the UK behind Germany in 2060, showed the UK overtaking Germany to become Europe's largest economy at some point around 2065-2070, based on trends. It said that by their nature, any GDP forecast is an extrapolation of highly variable and unpredictable economic and social indices and the OECD had simply made a prediction. It said that an extrapolation beyond the forecast is no more or less valid than the forecast itself; it could be reasonably inferred that the UK's GDP would overtake Germany's and this did not represent a significant inaccuracy.
6. The publication emphasised that "prosperous" is a subjective term and does not exclusively invoke any one index. Therefore, the writer was entitled to interpret real GDP as a measure of prosperity and that the UK was forecast to be the most prosperous economy in Europe. The publication also emphasised that the article should be considered in the context of it being a comment piece. The columnist made an exposition of a particular and subjective point of view and was making an argument; he was not setting out facts in the same way as would be associated with a news story.
7. Notwithstanding its position that there was no breach of the Code, the publication amended the online article and published a footnote correction two weeks after the matter had been referred by IPSO. The publication offered to publish the same wording in print in its Corrections and Clarifications column. It published the following wording online:
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the UK is forecast to become the largest economy "in this hemisphere". This was based on OECD data, which in fact predict the UK becoming the largest GDP in Europe. We are happy to clarify.
8. The publication then offered to amend the above to include that "the UK is forecast to become the largest and most prosperous economy in this hemisphere".
9. During IPSO's investigation the publication offered to publish the following wording:
A 3 June article stating that the UK is forecast to become the largest and most prosperous economy "in this hemisphere" should have said 'Europe' rather than 'this hemisphere'. It was based on an extrapolation from an OECD forecast which - though it offers no data beyond 2060 - suggests the UK's GDP will surpass Germany's not long after that date.
10. The complainant rejected the publication's offers. He said that OECD forecasts could not be extrapolated beyond the period for which they are valid; they are based on detailed methodologies and extrapolating into a time period not forecast by the OECD to claim that they suggest anything based on trends was inaccurate. Further, the offered remedies did not adequately address the claim that the UK was due to become the most prosperous economy; there was no forecast which made this claim and no definition under which the UK is forecast to become the most prosperous economy in Europe. The complainant said that the publication's justification, that prosperity could be defined by real GDP, was flawed; this logic would imply that Ethiopia was more prosperous than Iceland.
11. The complainant also highlighted that the publication's position that the claim was a personal exposition of a subjective point of view as part of a comment piece did not correlate with its position that the columnist had based this claim on an extrapolation of an OECD forecast.
Relevant Code Provisions
12. 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
13. The article stated that the UK was forecast to become the largest and most prosperous economy in this hemisphere, when by the publication's own admission this should have referred to Europe; this represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1(i). In circumstances where the article appeared to claim that the UK was forecast to become the world's largest economy, this represented a significant inaccuracy and required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
14. The Committee noted the publication's position that the claim that the UK was forecast to become the largest and most prosperous economy in Europe was based on an extrapolation of an OECD forecast, and that forecasts are by their nature predictive and not definitive. The Committee did not consider that stating that the UK was due to be the most prosperous economy as a result of it having the largest real GDP was misleading; real GDP could legitimately be considered as one of several measures of an economy's prosperity. However, the article did not make clear that the columnist extrapolated outside the time range of an official forecast, based on trends within that forecast. The publication had published a prominent claim in the opening paragraph which had given a significantly inaccurate impression that the UK was forecast to become the largest and most prosperous economy in our lifetimes, when the forecast supplied by the publication to substantiate this claim, made by an intergovernmental economic organisation, did not make this prediction. While the columnist was entitled to speculate on the size and prosperity of the UK economy based on economic trends, by not making clear that this was the columnist's own extrapolation of the data, the publication had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information. Further, by prefacing this prominent assertion with “It is an extraordinary fact…” the reader, who might usually be sceptical of claims within a comment piece, was invited to accept this information as “fact”. Where there was no data to support this position, this represented a failure to take care over the presentation of this claim. A correction was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
15. The publication accepted that the article's claim that the UK economy would become the largest economy in this hemisphere, was inaccurate. The publication published a correction on this point within two weeks of referring the complaint and it offered to further amend this wording soon after; this was sufficiently prompt under the terms of Clause 1(ii). Further, the Committee considered that a correction published in print in the newspaper's Corrections and Clarifications column on page two, and with the online article as a footnote, represented sufficiently prominent positions in which to address the inaccuracies.
16. However, the Committee did not consider that the publication's proposed wording was sufficient to address the specific inaccuracies in the article and did not make the correct position clear. The wording provided by the publication stated that the forecast had "suggested" that the UK would become the biggest economy in Europe, however, where there was no data beyond 2060, the Committee did not find that there was sufficient grounds to report that the forecast suggested that UK GDP would surpass Germany's as the largest in Europe. In fact, this was the columnist's own extrapolation beyond the time frame covered by the forecast data, which the wording of the article did not make clear. The offered wording was not sufficient to correct the misleading impression created by the article and there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).
17. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i) and Clause 1(ii).
Remedial action required
18. Having upheld the complaint, 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 adjudication. The nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.
19. The publication had offered to publish a correction in a prominent position and sufficiently promptly as to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii). Where the article, a comment piece, was commenting on disparities in the UK education system and not economics, and where the inaccurate claim was not the central claim of the article, the Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction.
20. The correction should appear with the prominence of the publication’s original offer (on page two and as a footnote to the online article), and should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance.
Date complaint received: 03/06/2019
Date complaint concluded: 07/10/2019