Decision of the Complaints Committee – 08136-20 Mitchison
Summary of Complaint
1. Neil Mitchison 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 "Lib Dems admit Brexit policy a 'high speed car crash' in humiliating secret memo”, published on 16 May 2020.
2. The article reported that the Liberal Democrat’s “disastrous general election campaign had been compared to a “’high-speed car crash’, according to a damning internal party enquiry”. The article went on to report that “the party review polled 20,000 members", and that “one section of the analysis was headlined: The election: a high-speed car crash”. The article went on to state that the report had said that “beyond stopping Brexit”, the Party’s “other policies and messages struggled to cut through”. The article featured a comment from the acting leader, who said: “I’m proud we published it. Many other political parties wouldn’t, but we have shown real courage “.
3. The complainant said that the article’s headline was inaccurate. Firstly, the complainant said that it was inaccurate to refer to the report as “secret”, as it had been voluntarily published on the Party’s website and therefore could not legitimately be considered to be secret. Secondly, he said that the report referenced the article did not describe the Party’s Brexit policy as a “high speed car crash”, rather it described it’s 2019 election campaign as that; the publication could not make this admission on behalf of the Party, where the report did not make this declaration about the policy.
4. The publication denied a breach of Clause 1. It said that it was not inaccurate to refer to the report as “secret” in the headline; the Party was secretive about publishing it as it had not shared it on its official social media channels, despite there being six other articles shared on its official Twitter account that day and four further articles the following day. The publication said that the Party had chosen to not make the report widely publicised and accessible and therefore it did not accept that it was inaccurate to report that the memo was “secret” in the circumstances.
5. The publication said that it was not inaccurate to report that the party had said its Brexit Policy was a “High speed car crash”. The publication said that the article itself made clear that the report stated that beyond stopping Brexit, the party’s “other policies and messages had failed to cut through”. The publication also noted that “Stop Brexit” was the party’s main policy and the only named policy in the memo, therefore it was not inaccurate to report that the Party had admitted to it being a “high speed car crash”. Nevertheless, it said that the article’s sub-headline immediately clarified that the Party had said its election campaign had been compared to a “high speed car crash”.
Relevant Code Provisions
6. 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
7. The Committee considered that where the report had been voluntarily put into the public domain by the Liberal Democrats by virtue of publication on its website, it was misleading for the headline to report that it was “secret”, and where the body of the article had gone on to report that it was a published memo, the publication had failed to take care not to publish headlines not supported by the text in breach of Clause 1(i). Where readers would have understood from the headline that the party had concealed this information, whereas the body of the article explained that this information was, in fact, publicly available on the party’s website, the Committee considered the headline to be significantly inaccurate. This inaccuracy was significant because it alleged that the party was failing to be transparent when that was not the position and as such required correction under Clause 1 (ii).
8. Whilst the internal inquiry of the party had expressly compared the election campaign to a “high speed car crash”, it was not inaccurate or misleading for the article to report that the party had admitted that its Brexit policy had been a “high speed car crash” in circumstances where the party had campaigned on a manifesto to prevent Britain leaving the EU and had conceded that its other polices and messages had made little impact upon the electorate.
9. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i) and Clause 1(ii).
Remedial Action Required
10. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, 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 an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.
11. The Committee considered that the publication had failed to take care to publish a headline supported by the text and ruled that a correction should be published and the headline amended to reflect that the memo was not secret in order to put the correct position on record.
12. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. It should appear as a standalone in the publication’s corrections and clarifications column and also as a footnote to the article. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position should be agreed with IPSO in advance.
Date complaint received: 06/06/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 03/12/2020
The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.
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