07966-19 Water UK v The Times

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of correction

Decision of the Complaints Committee -- 07966-19 Water UK v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Water UK complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in:

  • an article headlined “No river safe for bathing” published on 3 August 2019
  • an article headlined “Filthy Business” published on 3 August 2019
  • an article headlined “Behind the story” published on 3 August 2019.

2. The three articles under complaint appeared as part of a series of articles, including news reports and opinion pieces, on pollution in Britain’s waterways.

3. The first article appeared on the front page in print under the sub-headline “Watchdog ‘leaves water companies free to pollute’” and reported that dangerous pollutants had reached their highest levels in English rivers since modern testing began, with no river “now certified as safe for swimmers”. The article also reported that the number of rivers that fell short of EU standards had risen from 75% a decade ago to 86% now and that “half of all stretches of river monitored by the Environment Agency exceeded permitted limits of at least one hazardous pollutant last year, including toxic heavy metals and pesticides.” It also said that prosecution of companies which run Britain’s sewage systems had fallen “to three last year from thirty in 2014” and that in some cases the Environment Agency was allowing water companies to “suggest their own penalties”. The article contained a quote from an official spokesperson of the Angling Trust who stated: “We’re going backwards — our rivers are getting worse”. Additionally, it published claims that toxic metals and insecticides are regularly exceeding EU limits and that those who swim in infected waters face danger from bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella and listeria, leptospirosis, septicaemia and hepatitis A, and that almost 10% of tests for hazardous pollutants returned a result above its “maximum allowable limit”, the highest since testing began. The article reported that “Under EU rules, the government is committed to ensuring that all rivers are of a good ecological standard by 2027” and that a named water company had been fined “£127 million”. The article also said that the number of significant pollution incidents had risen to 493, missing a target of 400, and that a former director of the Environment Agency had said: “Cutting budgets absolutely has an effect: fewer policemen means less testing and less enforcement — and as we’ve seen with some of the water companies, people will take advantage of lax enforcement”. In addition the article reported that sewage was being dumped in rivers via emergency outflows and that parents in West Yorkshire had no idea that sewage outflows were likely to have poured raw waste into the river their children were playing in. It reported scientists’ views that the agency’s testing regime is not fit to deal with the pollutants flushed away by households, industry and agriculture.

4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form under the headline “Pollution: no river in England is safe for swimming”. It was published on 2 August 2019.

5. The second article was an opinion piece. It repeated several statements from the first article, including that no English river can be certified as safe for swimming; that prosecutions had dropped from thirty in 2014 to three in 2018 ; and that almost 10% per cent of the tests carried out by the Environment Agency for hazardous pollutants returned a result above its “maximum allowable limit, the highest proportion recorded since testing began 20 years ago.” It also reported that England’s rivers were among the most polluted in Europe and that there is no equivalent “blue-flag system” to inform swimmers of water quality in rivers as there is on beaches. It said that “Much of the blame for this miserable record lies with the water companies”. It reported that “The companies claim they have improved 3,000 miles of waterways and have plans to cut pollution by 90 per cent by 2027” but that “capital expenditure has fallen over the past decade, bills have risen and shareholders have helped themselves to big dividends”.

6. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form under the headline “The Times view on pollution in Britain’s rivers: Filthy Business”. It was published on 3 August 2019.

7. The third article appeared as part of a two-page spread on the same topic and reported on the effects of water pollution, as well as its various sources. It reported that “More than 500,000 kilograms a year of metals are released through waste water” and that the previous year lead levels at points on the River Teign in Devon were found to be 100 times the safe limit. The article also said that the European Environment Agency had raised concerns that waste water was being treated by sewage plants unable to deal with metal contaminated water and it discussed the pollutant cypermethrion and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

8. The third article also appeared online in substantially the same form under the headline “What are the effects of river pollution?”. It was published on 3 August 2019. It also reported that lead levels in the “River Teign in Cornwall were found to be 100 times the safe limit” and characterised the 500,000 kilograms of metals released through waste water as “heavy metals”.

9. The complainant, the trade association which represents the major water companies in the UK, said that all of these articles gave a misleading impression of the degree to which water companies were responsible for pollution in the UK’s rivers. It said that 72% of pollution comes from other sources, and this was not made clear in any of the articles.

10. The complainant said that the first article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. It said that the claim in the subheading that “Watchdog ‘leaves water companies free to pollute’” was inaccurate and was contradicted in the text of the article which later stated that Ofwat had imposed a fine of £127 million. It also said it was inaccurate not to provide the source of the quote.

11. The complainant also said that it was misleading to claim that “Dangerous pollutants in England’s waterways have reached their highest levels since modern testing began” because the Environment Agency had found that several pollutants had been cut since the 1990s. It also noted that the tests were not for “dangerous” pollutants and the tests cannot be used as an average as they deliberately tested at “hot-spots” and at-risk areas.

12. The coverage stated that “no river in the country [is] now certified as safe for swimming”. The complainant said that this was misleading because there was no certification that states whether a body of water was “safe for swimming”. It said that the Government could give a “designated bathing water status”, however this was not the same thing as a “safe to swim” certification. There were many other requirements under this designation that had nothing to do with pollutants (such as lifeguards, public toilets etcetera). It also said that the fact no rivers have designated bathing status was due to concern over currents and changing water levels rather than water quality. It further said this was misleading because water company performance was excellent, which was not mentioned in the article, because health risks derived from open water swimming come from many sources, not just sewage. The complainant also said that the word “now” insinuated that rivers had been certified as safe in the past, but had lost the certification.

13. The complainant also said that reporting that “Eighty-six per cent [of rivers] fall short of the EU’s ecological standard – the minimum threshold for a healthy waterway – up from 75 per cent a decade ago” was misleading as the basis for measurement had changed over the decade;. the measurement system changed in 2014, and if the previous method of measurement was still used, the proportion of rivers which would achieve good or better ecological status would have risen from 22% in 2009 to 23% in 2016.

14. The first article reported that “half of all stretches of river monitored by the Environment Agency exceeded permitted limits of at least one hazardous pollutant last year, including toxic heavy metals and pesticides.” The complainant said it was misleading to not properly attribute the sources of this pollution – such as mining and industrial wastes, vehicle emissions, and fertilisers – as it gave the misleading impression that water companies were solely responsible. It also said that the definition of “hazardous” went beyond what was recognised.

15. The first article reported that “Despite serious pollution incidents frequently exceeding the limits, prosecutions by the agency against the regional monopolies that run Britain’s sewage systems have declined — to three last year from thirty in 2014.” The complainant said that this was inaccurate as in 2018 there were five prosecutions against water companies. It also said that it was misleading because there were reasons why the number of prosecutions had fallen including a fall in the most serious prosecutions and because a mechanism called Enforcement Undertakings had replaced prosecutions in less serious cases, of which there had been 15 in 2018.

16. The complainant also said that the claim that water companies could “suggest their own penalties” was inaccurate as an assessment was made against specified criteria to establish the penalty.

17. The complainant said that the quote from an official spokesperson of the Angling Trust which stated “We’re going backwards — our rivers are getting worse” was also inaccurate because certain data showed that rivers were improving and, since 2015, 3100 miles of surface water had achieved “good” status.

18. The complainant also said that reporting that “In rivers across the country, toxic metals such as lead and mercury, as well as insecticides, are regularly exceeding limits that should never be breached under EU rules that were championed by Britain” was misleading as these substances mostly do not originate from sewers.

19. The first and second articles said that swimming in polluted water can expose people to bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella and listeria, and put them at risk of diseases such as leptospirosis, septicaemia and hepatitis A. The complainant said that this was misleading as even if all sewage was removed from rivers, these microbes would still be present. It also said that leptospirosis comes from rats, rather than sewage.

20. The first and second article said that “Almost 10 per cent of the tests carried out by the Environment Agency for hazardous pollutants returned a result above its “maximum allowable limit” — the highest proportion recorded since testing began 20 years ago.” The complainant said this was misleading as many tests completed by the Environment Agency were not for “hazardous pollutants” and the article did not name further sources of pollution other than sewage.

21. It was reported that “Under EU rules, the government is committed to ensuring that all rivers are of a good ecological standard by 2027.” The complainant said that this was inaccurate as the Government had stated that it was not aiming for 100% compliance and that the Secretary of State had said in May 2018 that around a quarter of water bodies in the UK would fail to meet “good” status. He also said that the EU Member States would find this difficult to meet.

22. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to report that a fine of “£127 million” had been imposed on a water company as, rather than a fine, they had to invest £126 million in updating systems. It also said that the article was unbalanced for failing to mention that a third of the water company’s management had moved on.

23. The complainant also said that the report that “The agency missed its target for reducing the number of serious and significant pollution incidents to 400. The figure rose to 493” was misleading as only 14% of these incidents were due to waste companies. It also said that the claim that “more than a third of rivers are failing to meet ecological standards because of sewage associated with excess phosphorus” combined with the assertion that there were “16,000 sites across the country where water companies are legally permitted to spill untreated waste into rivers” was misleading. It said that water companies were responsible for 28% of river pollution, and only a small number of overflows had an impact on ecological status, and conflating the two things was misleading.

24. The complainant said that it was misleading to report that “Parents of young children who were playing in the River Wharfe in the spa town of Ilkley, West Yorkshire, during hot weather last month were unaware of how sewage outflows upstream were likely to have poured raw waste into the water after thunderstorms” as no sources were published in the article.

25. The complainant also said that the statements: “a former director of the agency, said: “Cutting budgets absolutely has an effect: fewer policemen means less testing and less enforcement — and as we’ve seen with some of the water companies, people will take advantage of lax enforcement”; and “The Times has also found evidence of raw sewage being dumped in rivers, including close to spots used by swimmers and anglers, via emergency outflows that should be used only in exceptional storm conditions” were unbalanced as they were not objective.

26. The complainant also said that the statements: “Experts say this leaves water companies feeling free to pollute rivers” and “Scientists say that the agency’s testing regime is not fit to deal with the pollutants flushed away by households, industry and agriculture” were inaccurate as the sources had not been disclosed.

27. The complainant said the second article contained several further inaccuracies. It said that reporting that England’s rivers were among the most polluted in Europe was misleading as the UK had an average number of rivers which achieved “good” status, and it did not include the context that makes it more difficult to achieve ecological status in the UK than in other European countries (such as high population density) and that data on this topic uses other measurements outside of just pollution.

28. The complainant said that it was misleading to report that there was no equivalent “blue-flag system” for water quality for swimmers in rivers as there was for beaches as only designated bathing waters have this.

29. The complainant said that reporting “Much of the blame for this miserable record lies with the water companies” was inaccurate as many of the criticisms in the article were not the responsibility of water companies. It gave the example of the Environment Agency reporting that agriculture was the main cause of rivers failing to achieve “good” status.

30. The complainant said that the report that “The companies claim they have improved 3,000 miles of waterways and have plans to cut pollution by 90 per cent by 2027” was inaccurate as the plan was to cut pollution by 90% by 2025, and 9,000 miles of waterways have been improved, not 3,000. It also said to label these as “claims” was disingenuous.

31. The complainant said that reporting “Yet capital expenditure has fallen over the past decade, bills have risen and shareholders have helped themselves to big dividends” was misleading and unbalanced. It noted that water sector investment was highly cyclical on a five-year basis and the UK had the highest level of water sector investment in Europe. It said that capital expenditure from 2007 to 2017 was £43.6 billion, whereas it was £38.9 billion the decade before, which showed it had increased. In addition, it said that while bills had risen after privatisation, this gave the misleading impression that bills had risen in the last decade when they had actually fallen in real terms.

32. The complainant also expressed concern that the third article contained several inaccuracies. It said that the claim that 500,000kg of metals were released through wastewater was inaccurate as it did not include a source. It also said that the online version was inaccurate as there was no definition of “heavy metal” and metals were found naturally in water so this was misleading. It also said reporting that lead appearing in rivers from industrial wastewater, abandoned mines and eroded lead piping was misleading as sewage was not a significant source of lead contamination. It said that reporting that lead had been found at 100 times the safety limit in the River Teign was misleading as it did not attribute this to the mines and could be attributed to wastewater. It also said it was inaccurate for the online article to describe the River Teign as being in Cornwall, when it in Devon.

33. The complainant also said that it was misleading to report, after discussing cadmium pollution, that a briefing had stated that industrial wastewater was being treated by sewage plants not designed for metal contaminated water, as sewage was not a significant source of cadmium pollution. It also said that this misreported the briefing, which stated that waste water treatment plants were responsible for less than half of heavy metal pollutants.

34. The complainant also said that the third article was misleading as it discussed the pollutant cypermethrion and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons but did not identify the sources of these pollutants, which gave the misleading impression that it was caused by water companies.

35. The publication said it did not accept that the articles had breached the Editors’ Code. Before IPSO’s investigation, it had published the following correction as a footnote to the online articles and in print:

"There were five prosecutions against water companies over pollution incidents by the Environment Agency in 2018, not three. The fine imposed by Ofwat on Southern Water last month was £126m, not £127m. The River Teign is in Devon, not Cornwall. We said that "almost a third of the rivers are failing to meet ecological standards because of sewage"; Environment Agency analysis suggests that the water industries are responsible for 28 per cent failure. Water companies plan to cut pollution by 90 per cent by 2025, not 2027."

It also offered to publish a letter from the complainant putting their position on record as a letter to the Editor.

36. The publication said that the coverage had not misleadingly represented the extent to which water companies were responsible for pollution in UK rivers. It said it had carefully set out the different sources of river pollution, and that any reference to pollution by water companies was accurate.

37. The publication said that the subheading of the first article: “Watchdog ‘leaves water companies free to pollute’” included a paraphrase of remarks that were reported in the article and it was, therefore, supported by the text. There was no need to provide the source of the remarks within the headline.

38. The publication said that reporting that “Dangerous pollutants in England’s waterways have reached their highest levels since modern testing began” in the first article was not misleading as the Environment Agency had described the pollutants for which tests were undertaken as “hazardous”. It had used the word “dangerous” instead of “hazardous” and said that this alternative description did not represent a breach of Clause 1. It also said that pollutants had reached their highest level as the proportion of tests that had resulted in a breach was at its highest in 2018. The newspaper said that it had also approached the Environment Agency with its methodology and had given them an opportunity to reply, and they had not disputed this claim.

39. The publication said that it was not inaccurate to report that no river in Britain was “certified safe for swimmers”. It said that it had found that levels of pollution in the UK were so high, no river was safe to swim in. It said it had put this to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and they had not disputed it. It also said that “certification” referred to bathing water designation that no river in the UK currently holds, however Defra had confirmed that local authorities could apply for this status.

40. The publication said that reporting that 86% of waterways had fallen short of the EU’s ecological standard, and that this had risen from 75% a decade ago, was not misleading as it was based on available data and had been reported by the Rivers Trust. It said it had given the Environment Agency an opportunity to comment on this and they had not disputed it. It was not therefore misleading in the way suggested by the complainant.

41. The publication said that it had given the Environment Agency opportunity to comment on its report that “half of all stretches of river monitored by the Environment Agency exceeded permitted limits of at least one hazardous pollutant last year”. The definition of “hazardous pollutant” was the same as that used by the Agency, and it was therefore not inaccurate in the way suggested by the complainant.

42. The publication said that the report that there were three prosecutions against water companies in 2018 came from Environment Agency data and their report into the performance of water companies. Before IPSO’s investigation, it offered to amend this to five, and to clarify this in a print correction. It did not accept it was inaccurate to report that the number of prosecutions had fallen, even taking into account the “Enforcement Undertakings” mechanism.

43. The publication said that it was not inaccurate to report that water companies could “suggest their own penalties”. This was based on a briefing by the Environment Agency which said: “Businesses/offenders identify actions, they can offer to put right what went wrong and ensure future compliance as well as identify an appropriate environmental project to support. We check if the individual projects are suitable and relate to the regulations that were breached.”

44. The publication stated that a quote from an official spokesperson of the Angling Trust that “We’re going backwards — our rivers are getting worse” was not inaccurate as the claim was clearly sourced and the article distinguished comment and conjecture from fact.

45. The publication said that reporting that “In rivers across the country, toxic metals such as lead and mercury, as well as insecticides, are regularly exceeding limits that should never be breached under EU rules that were championed by Britain” was not misleading as the following paragraph specifically referred to cadmium leaching from landfill sites.

46. The publication said there was no inaccuracy in the claim that “Those who swim in infected waters face danger from bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella and listeria. Diseases such as leptospirosis, septicaemia and hepatitis A are also linked to sewage pollution and can be fatal.” It said that leptospirosis comes from rats, which live in sewers. It quoted Government advice on the dangers of leptospirosis which specifically referred to sewers: “The risk of Weil’s disease [leptospirosis] is linked to areas where rats are or have been present. Work is considered higher risk where there is evidence of rat infestation. This is most likely to be during refurbishment or demolition work. Other potential situations include work linked to canals, rivers or sewers.”

47. With regards to the statement that “Almost 10 per cent of the tests carried out by the Environment Agency for hazardous pollutants returned a result above its ‘maximum allowable limit’ — the highest proportion recorded since testing began 20 years ago”, the publication said it had filtered the tests to only include those for hazardous pollutants and river water. It had also sent the testing methodology to the Environment Agency for comment. It was therefore not misleading, and it had taken care with the accuracy.

48. The publication said that reporting “Under EU rules, the government is committed to ensuring that all rivers are of a good ecological standard by 2027” was not inaccurate and noted that a European Commission document made clear that the objective of the Water Framework Directive was to “achieve good status for all water bodies”, and had a final deadline of 2027.

49. The publication acknowledged the complainant’s position that a fine of “£127 million” had not been imposed on a water company and offered to correct the figure to £126 million.

50. The publication said that “The agency missed its target for reducing the number of serious and significant pollution incidents to 400. The figure rose to 493” was not misleading and, in any event, was a reflection on the Environment Agency rather than water companies.

51. The publication recognised the complainant’s concern that the article had reported that “the agency says that more than a third of rivers are failing to meet ecological standards because of sewage”, when water companies were actually responsible for 28% of river pollution. It offered to correct this to “almost a third”.

52. The publication also said that a quote from a named source: “Cutting budgets absolutely has an effect: fewer policemen means less testing and less enforcement — and as we’ve seen with some of the water companies, people will take advantage of lax enforcement” was not inaccurate as the claims were clearly sourced and the article distinguished comment and conjecture from fact. It said that the source was a former head of the Environment Agency, was for seven years chief inspector for HM Inspectorate of Pollution, and a science policy advisor to the Welsh Assembly and that therefore the relevance of his experience and expertise was a matter of opinion. 

53. The newspaper also said that it was not unbalanced to report that parents of young children who were playing in the River Wharfe had been “unaware of how sewage outflows upstream were likely to have poured raw waste into the water after thunderstorms”, or that it had “found evidence of raw sewage being dumped in rivers, including close to spots used by swimmers and anglers, via emergency outflows that should be used only in exceptional storm conditions”. These statements were based on interviews with more than a dozen members of the public in Ilkley whose children were swimming or paddling in the river, none of whom were aware that there was a sewage outlet close by. Furthermore, Yorkshire Water had admitted in an interview that there was a problem with emergency outflows.

54. The publication also said that the statements “Experts say this leaves water companies feeling free to pollute rivers” and “Scientists say that the agency’s testing regime is not fit to deal with the pollutants flushed away by households, industry and agriculture” were not inaccurate. It had distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact, and there was no need to disclose exactly which scientists had expressed these views.

55. The publication said that the second article was an opinion piece and there was no inaccuracy in these statements: that England’s rivers were among the most polluted in Europe; that that there was no equivalent “blue-flag system” for water quality for swimmers in rivers; and that “Much of the blame for this miserable record lies with the water companies”.

56. The publication noted that the complainant said that water companies plan to cut pollution by 90% by 2025, not by 2027 as stated in the second article, and it offered to correct this. It also noted that 9,000 miles of waterways have been improved, not 3,000. It said that in the report a spokesperson for Water UK was accurately reported as saying “water companies had invested in improving about 10,000 miles of rivers.” It offered to correct the figure from 3,000 to 9,000.

57. The publication said that reporting “Yet capital expenditure has fallen over the past decade, bills have risen and shareholders have helped themselves to big dividends” was not inaccurate and came from water company accounts, which were public record. It produced many sources that stated that bills had risen over the past decade, even if they had begun to fall in the last five years. It also provided the findings of a study by University of Greenwich that said that capital expenditure had fallen over the last decade. It said that the complainant was simply using a different approach to measurement and it invited the complainant to write a letter setting out the industry’s commitment to investment, which would be published as a letter to the Editor.

58. The publication said it was not inaccurate to report in the third article that 500,000kg of metals are released through wastewater, including “heavy metals” as published in the online article. The source was the publicly available European Pollution Transfers and Releases database and a European Environment Agency (EEA) briefing.

59. The publication said that it was not misleading to report that lead “gets into rivers from industrial waste water as well as run-off from eroded lead piping and abandoned mines” as it had not attributed lead breaches to sewage pollution, and the article had not attempted to profile pollutants coming specifically from sewage. Instead it had looked at the most common pollutants, of which lead was the most common hazardous one. The publication said that the first line of the third article had made clear that sewage was not the biggest pollutant as it said: “Sewage may be the best known pollutant in Britain’s rivers but it is not the only threat to the freshwater ecosystem or the people that use it.”

60. The publication accepted that. in the third online article, the River Teign was described as being in Cornwall when it was in Devon; this had been correctly reported in the print version, and corrected online once noticed. It said that the statistic regarding how much lead was in the river was accurate and relevant as the samples were marked as flowing river water, not mine water. It said it had recognised in the article the role of abandoned lead mines in causing lead pollution in rivers and had not claimed that lead breaches in the River Teign were due to sewage pollution.

61. The publication said that it was not misleading to report that a briefing had stated that industrial waste water was being treated by sewage plants not designed for metal contaminated water after discussing cadmium pollution. It said that the article had not attributed cadmium breaches to sewage pollution. It said that the EEA briefing stated that “Many industries now rely on urban waste water treatment plants to purify water effluent. However, remediating heavy metals in urban waste water was not the main focus of such plants. As a result, waste water treatment plants appear to have been responsible for almost half of the environmental pressure in 2016. However, these plants merely concentrate the pollution originating from facilities in the surrounding area.” The article accurately reflected this quote.

62. The publication said that the article had not attributed either cypermethrion or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons breaches to sewage pollution and therefore there was no inaccuracy. It had stated, however, that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons do concentrate in sewage sludge owing to their low biodegradability.

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

63. The Committee noted the complainant’s general concern that the articles had given the misleading impression that water companies were responsible for the majority of pollution in British rivers. However, under the terms of the Code, the newspaper was entitled to focus its coverage on the pollution caused by water companies, as long as the reports did not contain any significantly misleading information.

64. The Committee acknowledged that the first article had focused on the responsibility of water companies and the Environment Agency; however, it also referred to pollution caused by “toxic heavy metals and pesticides” and stated that the “sources of pollution in England’s rivers include industry, agricultural run-off and legacy contamination from mines”. In the second piece, a leader article, the newspaper expressed its opinion that “much of the blame” for the pollution lay with water companies and it set out the basis for this opinion: the routine use of sewage overflows; insufficient spending on improving waterways; and ineffective regulation. The publication was entitled to express this opinion which it had clearly distinguished as comment; the article had not reported, as fact, that water companies were responsible for most of the pollution in England’s rivers. Similarly, the third article did not state that water companies were responsible for most water pollution. It said that “sewage may be a well-known pollutant in Britain’s rivers, but it is not the only threat...measurements by the EA show a raft of pollutants – including metals, pesticides and industrial waste”. There was no breach of the Code on this point.

65. The Committee noted that there was a process by which a landowner or local authority could apply for a river to be given “designated bathing water status”, and that no river in England had that status. However, the newspaper had asserted, in the first article, that “Dangerous pollutants…have reached their highest levels…with no river in the country now certified as safe for swimmers” and, in the second article, that “Not one river in England can be certified as safe for swimmers” which suggested that the certification was given to rivers if the quality of the water made the river safe for swimming and that no rivers were certified because of being unsafe due to pollution. The certification took into account factors other than pollution, such as the provision of life guards and toilets and not having “designated bathing water status” did not necessarily indicate that the water was unsafe for swimming because of pollution, as suggested by the first and second articles. The newspaper had failed to take care not to publish misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i). The misleading information was significant and required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). The publication had not offered to correct it and there was therefore a breach of Clause 1(ii).

66. The Committee found that the sub headline to the first article, “Watchdog ‘leaves water companies free to pollute’”, was a paraphrasing of remarks which were reported in the article, as indicated by the use of inverted commas. The remarks included the reported comment of the named MP who had said “treating fines as the cost of doing business, rather than seeing them as a serious deterrent…The Environment Agency needs to step up”. The sub headline was, therefore, supported by the text and there was no a breach of Clause 1 on this point.

67. It was not misleading to use the term “dangerous” in the first article instead of “hazardous” to refer to pollutants which have been tested for in England’s waterways. In addition, as the proportion of tests for hazardous pollutants that had resulted in a breach was at its highest in 2018 compared to other periods of testing, it was not inaccurate for the newspaper to have reported that they had “reached their highest levels since modern testing began”. The fact that some pollutants had reduced over the period did not make the report inaccurate. The newspaper had also put this point to the Environment Agency and it had not disputed it. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

68. The Committee noted that the complainant disputed that it was accurate for the first and second articles to report that 86% of waterways fell short of the EU’s ecological standard, which was “up from 75% a decade ago”, because the standards had changed in 2014. However, it was accepted by the complainant that 86% of waterways now fell short of this standard and, in the context of an article which was focussed on the current situation, the Committee did not consider that the percentage which had fallen short of the standard a decade ago was significant. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

69. The Committee did not consider that by reporting that “half of all stretches of river…exceeded permitted limits of at least one hazardous pollutant last year, including toxic heavy metals and pesticides” the article had attributed responsibility for the situation to the water companies. Whilst the article focused on pollution by water companies, it also referred to pollution of varying types and identified the sources of these other types of pollution, such as “industry, agricultural run-off and legacy contamination from mines”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

70. The publication had accepted that in the first and second articles it had inaccurately reported that there had been three prosecutions against water companies in 2018, when in fact there had been five. However, given that the number of prosecutions had fallen significantly from thirty in 2014, whether it had dropped to three or five was not significant. The Committee nevertheless welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification on this point. The Committee did not consider that it was misleading to omit that enforcement undertakings had replaced some prosecutions, given that it was accepted that the number of prosecutions had nevertheless fallen since 2014. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

71. The complainant had accepted that water companies could propose actions they would take in response to issues or failings identified by the Environment Agency. It was not inaccurate to characterise this as water companies being able to “suggest their own penalties” in the first article. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

72. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that it was inaccurate for the first article to have included a quote from a representative of the Angling Trust who had said “We’re going backwards — our rivers are getting worse” in circumstances where there were areas where rivers had improved. However, this was clearly presented as the opinion of the individual quoted, which the newspaper was entitled to report. The newspaper had distinguished comment from fact in accordance with Clause 1(iv) and therefore reporting this quote was not misleading.

73. The Committee did not consider that the first article was inaccurate by suggesting that sewers were the source of metal pollution or insecticides. The article had not stated the source of this pollution; the omission was not misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

74. The Committee found that stating in the first article that leptospirosis was linked to sewage pollution was not inaccurate as it was associated with rats, and government advice had stated that sewers were an environment in which the risk of leptospirosis was higher. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

75. The publication explained that it had analysed data on tests for hazardous pollutants which had been carried out by the Environment Agency and had found that almost 10 per cent of the tests had returned a result above its “maximum allowable limit”. It had put its findings to the Environment Agency which had not disputed them. The newspaper had not failed to take care over the accuracy of the report of its analysis of the test results in the first and second articles. While the assertion that almost 10 per cent of tests had found hazardous pollutants above the “maximum allowable limit” had followed a reference to pollution from sewage in the first article, the analysis of the tests was provided in a separate paragraph and did not suggest that sewage was solely responsible for these test results. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

76. It was not inaccurate to report in the first article that “Under EU rules, the government is committed to ensuring that all rivers are of a good ecological standard by 2027”. The publication had provided a document from the European Commission which demonstrated that the government was committed to achieving this standard; the article had not reported that the government was aiming for 100% compliance. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

77. The Committee noted that the first article had said that a fine of “£127 million” had been imposed on a named water company, when the correct figure was £126 million; however, in the context of this article, the inaccuracy was not significant. Furthermore, whether the £126 million had to be invested by the water company or paid to the Environment Agency was not significant, given that the company had been ordered by the Environment Agency to spend the money. The Committee nevertheless welcomed the clarification offered by the publication to address this point. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

78. The Committee did not find that it was inaccurate to report in the first article that the Environment Agency had missed its target to reduce the number of significant pollution incidents, without specifically stating how many of those incidents were attributable to water companies. The article had not inaccurately reported that this was the fault of water companies. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

79. The first article had reported that “over a third” of river pollution was due to sewage, when the actual figure was 28%; however, the difference between the two figures did not represent a significant inaccuracy. The Committee nevertheless welcomed the correction as published by the newspaper. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

80. The newspaper had been entitled to publish the opinion of a former director of the Environment Agency, in the first article, that “Cutting budgets absolutely has an effect: fewer policemen means less testing and less enforcement — and as we’ve seen with some of the water companies, people will take advantage of lax enforcement”. This was clearly distinguished as the comment of the former director; it was not an assertion of fact. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

81. The Committee also found that it was not misleading to report in the first and second articles that parents of young children had been unaware that their children were swimming in water polluted by sewage outflows upstream. This had been based on interviews with members of the public, and the complainant had no basis upon which to question this. Moreover, it was not in dispute that sewage was entering the water via overflows upstream, as reported. The newspaper had not reported that the water company’s use of overflows was illegal. Similarly, the report in the second article that the newspaper had “found evidence of raw sewage being dumped in rivers” had not suggested that a water company had acted illegally or that sewage was being discharged in concentrated quantities. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

82. The newspaper had reported in the first article that “Experts say this leaves water companies feeling free to pollute rivers” and that “Scientists say that the agency’s testing regime is not fit to deal with the pollutants flushed away by households, industry and agriculture”. While these opinions were not attributed to named individuals, they were clearly presented as comments and not statements of fact. The Committee also noted that the article had included quotations attributed to a former director of the Environment Agency who had said that “people will take advantage of lax enforcement”, and to a representative of the Environmental Change Research Centre that there “should be much stricter controls on the companies”. As such, there was a basis for the newspaper’s reporting that “experts” and “scientists” had expressed these opinions. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

83. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the second article had stated that England’s rivers were among the most polluted in Europe. However, it was clear from the article that this was based on the newspaper’s own analysis of water quality tests undertaken by the Environment Agency from 2000 to 2019, and the fact that 86% of England’s rivers fell below the European Union’s ecological standard. While the complainant had referred to data to support its position that the UK was “about average” in terms of river pollution, this did not mean that the article was misleading for reporting alternative data. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

84. The newspaper had reported in the second article that there was no “blue-flag system” to indicate the water quality of rivers, and this was accepted by the complainant. There was no suggestion in the article that water companies were responsible for this. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

85. The Committee noted that the second article reported that water companies planned to cut pollution by 90% by 2027, rather than by 2025. It also noted that the original article had stated that 3,000 miles of waterways had been improved, when the true figure was 9,000. In the overall context of the article, however, the Committee did not find that these points represented significant inaccuracies; however it welcomed the correction the newspaper had published in response to the complaint. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

86. The Committee noted the dispute between the publication and the complainant as to whether capital expenditure had fallen and bills had risen over the past decade, as stated in the second article. The newspaper had based its report that bills had risen on water company accounts, and it had provided information from Full Fact and from Water UK’s own promotional material to support this assertion. While the complainant had noted that bills had in fact decreased in the last five years, it was not misleading for the newspaper to have reported that they had increased over the last decade. In addition, the newspaper had provided a report from the University of Greenwich which indicated that expenditure had fallen over the last decade. There was no breach of the Code on these points.

87. It was not inaccurate to report that 500,000kg of metals are released through wastewater in the third article in print, and also by referring to “heavy metals” in the online version. The publication had relied on the European Pollution Transfers and Releases database, as well as an EEA briefing. The fact that metals are also found naturally in water did not render the article inaccurate on this point. The article had also clearly stated that the sources of lead pollution in rivers were industrial wastewater, abandoned mines and eroded lead piping; it had not given the significantly misleading impression that sewage was to blame for the majority of lead in rivers. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

88. The Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to clarify that the River Teign was in Devon, and not Cornwall as originally stated in the online version of the third article. It did not, however, find this to be a significant inaccuracy. Furthermore, it did not consider that the article had misleadingly suggested that lead in the river Teign was due to wastewater. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

89. The Committee found that it was not misleading to report in the third article that an EEA briefing had stated that industrial wastewater was being treated by sewage plants not designed for metal contaminated water. The article had not claimed that sewage was a source of cadmium, instead the statement concerned treatment plants being unable to treat water which was already polluted with cadmium. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

90. Finally, the Committee noted the complainant’s concerns in relation to the third article that neither cypermethrion nor polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) breaches were caused by sewage pollution. However, the article had not claimed that sewage was a key source of these chemicals Instead, it made clear that a source of cypermethrin was agriculture by stating it was “a toxic pesticide used to protect crops and livestock” and “PAHs enter rivers though wastewater from manufacturing and power plants, as well as run-off of car emission particles from roads”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

91. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1(i) and Clause 1(ii).

Remedial Action Required

92. 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.

93. The publication had misleadingly reported that as a result of water pollution, no river in England had been certified as safe for swimming, when this was a designated status that had to be applied for. The misleading information had appeared on the front page, and in a leader article, published on page 23. While the misleading information was significant, it was not a central point of the coverage which discussed more generally pollution levels in rivers and whether the Environment Agency was effective in tackling the problem. In light of this, the Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction.

94. The correction should appear in the newspaper’s corrections and clarifications column and as a footnote to the relevant online articles, 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: 14/10/2019

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 21/04/2020

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