Decision of the Complaints Committee 09062-19 Various v The Sun
Summary of Complaint
1. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) received various complaints that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Corb’s tax bombshell would cost the average Sun reader an extra... £2,400”, published on 12 November 2019.
2. The article reported on Conservative Party claims that Labour’s spending plans would cost the “average Sun reader” an extra £2,400 a year in tax. It went on to explain that the Conservative Party’s analysis came to this figure by assessing Labour’s day-to-day spending commitments and finding that £374 billion was un-costed and, according to Labour Party policy, would have to be raised through taxation.
3. Towards the end of the article it stated that “The median annual wage in Britain is £24,908 a year. The average British worker already has to pay around £11,000 a year in tax to the state, which is more than 40 per cent of average earnings, or £30 a day. Almost half of that tax bill — nearly £5,000 — is made up by indirect taxes such as VAT, fuel duty and council tax. The rest — more than £6,000 — comes from income tax and National Insurance contributions”. The article then stated that the Labour Party’s plans “would push the average worker’s total tax bill from direct and indirect levies to £13,400 a year, which is more than half their annual wage packet”.
4. The article appeared in much the same format online under the headline: “LABOUR TAX THREAT Jeremy Corbyn’s tax bombshell would cost the average Sun reader an extra £2,400 a year”. This was published on 11 November 2019.
5. IPSO received 57 complaints about this article. Complainants said that the article claimed that a worker earning £24,908 a year paid £11,000 a year in tax – which they said was incorrect. They also said that, as Labour’s Manifesto had not yet been released, one could not accurately assess their spending plans. They said that the headline was misleading as the article did not clarify what was meant by the “average Sun reader”. They also said that, as Labour aimed to levy additional tax increases on those earning over £80,000, Labour’s proposed spending plans would likely cost nothing to the “average” Sun reader.
6. The publication did not accept that the article breached the Code. It said that the reference to the “median annual wage” and the claim about what the “average British worker pays” in tax were separate and that the “median” and “average” were distinctly different statistical concepts. Therefore, the claim that the average worker already has to pay £11,000 in tax to the state, of which “more than £6,000” comprised income tax and national insurance contributions, did not refer to someone on the median annual wage. The publication said that it had relied on a 2016 article by another national newspaper which reported on a study by an insurance firm for the claims about what the “average British worker” already pays in tax to the state, although this was not cited in the article. The publication was unable to provide this study or offer any explanation as to how the study had reached its conclusions.
Relevant Code Provisions
7. 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 correction, promptly and with due prominence, and –where appropriate- an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
Findings of the Committee
8. The claim about what “the average British worker already has to pay…in tax to the state” was ambiguous as to who it applied to. However, immediately before this claim, the article made a standalone reference to “the median annual wage in Britain [being] £24,908 a year”. In addition, the article claimed that the new “total tax bill” for the average worker would comprise over “half their annual wage packet” when adding “Labour’s new tax bombshell”. Altogether, this suggested that the figures on what “the average British worker” already pays in tax to the state referred to someone on the median annual wage. Whilst the publication said that it had relied on a report that made these claims and they did not apply to someone on the median annual wage, this was not clarified in the article. The failure to clarify that the claims about what the average worker pays in tax did not refer to someone on the median wage constituted a failure to take care not to publish misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i).
9. This failure to take care not to publish misleading information gave rise to a significantly inaccurate suggestion that someone on the median annual wage (£24,908) paid “£11,000 a year in tax” of which “more than £6,000” came from income tax and national insurance contributions. This inaccuracy was significant because it gave an incorrect account of what someone on the median annual wage pays in income tax and national insurance. As the publication did not offer to correct this significant inaccuracy, there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).
10. The article made clear that the references to Brits having to “pay an extra £2,400” under Jeremy Corbyn came from “research by the Conservatives” and provided background on how the Conservative Party came to this figure. The article was entitled to report the findings of the Conservative Party notwithstanding that the Labour Party’s manifesto had not been published or that Labour Party policy appeared to suggest otherwise. Where the article had done so accurately and clearly attributed the figure to Conservative Party research, there was no breach of Clause 1.
11. Finally, the reference to the “average Sun reader” having to “pay an extra £2,400” under Jeremy Corbyn was not inaccurate. The “average Sun reader” was undefined in the headline, but was clarified by the text. In the context of having to “pay an extra £2,400” under Labour, the “average Sun reader” was clearly a reference to the subject of the Conservative Party’s research. This was elsewhere referred to as the “average Brit” or “average worker”. Where the article made clear what the “average Sun reader” referred to and this was simply another way of describing the “average Brit” or “taxpayer”, there was no breach of Clause 1.
12. These complaints were upheld under Clause 1(i) and 1(ii).
Remedial Action Required
13. 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.
14. The Committee considered that the article gave a misleading account of what someone on the median annual wage paid in income tax and national insurance contributions by using the term “average worker” in the context it did and without further clarification to readers. However, this inaccuracy did not affect the main thrust of the article, which was reporting on the Conservative Party’s research about the cost of a Corbyn government. In light of these considerations, the Committee concluded that a correction was the appropriate remedy.
15. This correction should appear in print on page 2 and added to the online article. It should also appear as a standalone correction on the publication’s homepage and then archived in the usual way. This wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, the correction on the article should be published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the correction should published as a footnote which explains the amendments that have been made.
Date complaint received: 12/11/2019
Date decision issued: 05/02/2020
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