Decision of the Complaints Committee 07507-18 McDermott v The Spectator
Summary of complaint
1. John McDermott complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Spectator breached Clause 1(Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "Irish troubles: Leo Varadkar has done his absolute best to damage Brexit" published on 24 November 2018.
2. The article was a comment piece in which the columnist discussed the Republic of Ireland's relationship with the EU and the UK as a result of Brexit. It discussed the "British Incompetence" which had damaged the Brexit process and claimed that Ireland had also contributed. The article discussed the economic ties between the two countries and claimed that "the UK accounts for €1 billion of Irish trade each week and one in ten jobs". The article then analysed how decisions taken by Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had "damaged" the UK's position on Brexit.
3. The article appeared online under the headline "Leo Varadkar has done his absolute best to damage Brexit" published on 24 November 2018. The online article appeared in much the same format as the print version.
4. The complainant said the article was inaccurate because it had over-exaggerated the extent to which Leo Varadkar had damaged the UK position, and overstated Ireland's dependence on the UK. He said the article had inaccurately claimed that the value of weekly exports from Ireland to the UK was €1 billion, when Ireland had only exported US$18 billion to the UK in the whole of 2017. He said that the Central Statistics Office of Ireland had totalled goods exports to the UK at €14.454 billion and even when including service exports the total was only €40.72 billion annually. The complainant said that the article had failed to report that Ireland was the fifth largest destination for UK exports ahead of China, and failed to note that the UK had exported US$25 billion to The Republic of Ireland in 2017. He also claimed that the article had overstated the importance of land bridge exports and omitted that Ireland had recently invested in two new ferries that would bypass the land bridge. The complainant also disputed the article's claim that "one in ten jobs" were dependent on Irish trade as this would equate to some 2.7 million UK private sector jobs, which seemed too high.
5. The complainant also raised concerns that there were racist and homophobic comments in the comments section of the online article.
6. The publication denied any breach of the Code. It said that the €1 billion figure included the value of both imports and exports of goods and services. Similar figures had been used by Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs and the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce. It said that the House of Commons had quoted Office for National Statistics figures which put this figure at £55.8 billion in 2017; at the December 2018 exchange rate, this amounted to €1.2 billion a week. The publication said that when taking into account import and export figures of goods and services, the Irish Central Statistics Office put this figure at €1.5 billion.
7. The publication said that the reference to one in ten jobs being dependent on UK-Irish trade related to Irish jobs, not UK jobs. It said this figure originated from the Director General of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, who stated that this two-way trade accounted for 400,000 jobs spread evenly between the two countries; 200,000 amounted to one tenth of Ireland's 2.2 million working population.
8. The complainant
said the article was still inaccurate as the publication did not make clear
that the reference to "one in ten" jobs referred to Irish jobs; this
was inconsistent with the €1 billion trade claim, which encompassed two-way
figures. He said the publication arrived at its totals using 2018 exchange
rates, the figures when accounting for 2017 rates would be €1.23 billion and
€1.65 billion respectively. Therefore the €1 billion total was still
Relevant Code Provisions
9. 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
10. The basis for the article's claim that trade between the two nations was worth €1 billion originated from government sources. The publication was entitled to rely on them; this did not constitute a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information. The exact value was contested due to disparities between sources and fluctuating exchange rates. However, where the quoted values ranged from €1.2 billion to €1.6 billion, it was not significantly misleading in the context of a comment piece to report €1 billion as a broad approximation; there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
11. The columnist was commenting on the value of UK-Irish
trade to Ireland. The Committee considered that both imports and exports
represent value in a trade relationship. To not identify that the article
referred to two-way trade was not significantly misleading in this context;
there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. The publication provided a
sufficient basis for its claim that one in ten jobs depended on UK-Irish trade.
Where the article discussed Ireland's alleged dependency on the UK, it was not
significantly misleading to not explicitly state that this only related to
Irish jobs; there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
12. It was not misleading to omit that Ireland was the fifth
largest destination for UK exports or that the Irish government had invested in
two new ferries. The selection of material for publication is considered by
IPSO to be a matter for discretion by individual editors, so long as the Editors’
Code of Practice has not otherwise been breached. There was no breach of Clause
1 on this point.
13. IPSO is able to consider complaints about user generated
content posted on a newspaper's website which has been reviewed or moderated by
the newspaper. The complainant had reported the comments under complaint, and
they were removed by the publication. Therefore this issue fell outside IPSO's
14. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 25/11/2018
Date decision issued: 21/02/2019
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