09166-20 MacGregor v The Scotsman

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09166-20 MacGregor v The Scotsman

Summary of Complaint

1. David MacGregor complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Scotsman breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Scottish death rate third in world as care home testing row intensifies” published on 11 June 2020.

2. The article reported that statistics from the National Records of Scotland, which included deaths where coronavirus was suspected but not confirmed as no test was carried out, placed Scotland third worst in the world for the number of Covid-19 deaths for every million people. It said that the rate of coronavirus deaths in Scotland had reached 733 for every million people, behind England on 767 and Belgium on 842. The rest of the article reported on criticism of the Scottish government and its response, and comments on testing for coronavirus and infection rates in care homes.

3. The article also appeared online in a shorter form with the headline “Scotland coronavirus death rate third worst in the world”. It repeated the claim regarding the death rate in Scotland compared to other countries around the world.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that the number of deaths announced by the UK government counted only those deaths which had occurred in hospitals and care homes and had been confirmed by test to have been due to Covid-19. He said that Scotland however counted all deaths which had been confirmed via testing to have been due to Covid-19, as well as deaths where the doctor signing the death certificate had mentioned Covid-19 as being the main or suspected cause of death. He said that by this second calculation, Scotland had a death rate of 727 per million people, whilst the rest of the UK had a rate of 1003 per million people by the same calculation. He said that the two countries used different methods to report the death rates, and in comparing them, the newspaper was not comparing like for like. As such, the article was misleading as to the difference between Scotland and England.

5. The newspaper did not accept that the article was inaccurate, or that it had compared statistics arrived at by different methods. It said that since late April, the UK government used the same, more robust method of reporting deaths as that originally adopted by the National Records of Scotland. It said that in calculating the Scottish figures, it used sums which covered all cases where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, as well as confirmed in a laboratory test. It said that it used this figure rather that the figure given at Scottish Government briefings which only included the lab test deaths. It said that in relation to the English figures, these were taken from Public Health England, which included figures which reported on deaths where there had been no lab test result but where Covid-19 has been recorded on the death certificate as an underlying cause, as well as those where Covid-19 had detected via a lab result. It said that therefore, in comparing the two countries, it not only used the same method but also used the more robust measure of counting Covid-19 deaths. It said that it relied on two independent statistical websites to obtain the death rates for the UK, and then used the calculation set out above to split this rate between Scotland and England.

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 first acknowledged that the use of different methodologies to define what constitutes a Covid-related death has made comparative reporting of statistics during the pandemic an area of widespread contention. The newspaper had arrived at the claim that Scotland’s death rate was third worst in the world via its own calculations, based on statistics showing the UK death rate. It was able to explain how these individual rates had been calculated, and that the rates between Scotland and England had been calculated using comparable measures – both deaths verified with a lab test, and deaths where Covid-19 had been listed as an underlying cause. As such, there was a basis to report that Scotland’s death rate was 733 per million people compared with 767 per million in England, and as such, that Scotland death rate was the third worst in the world. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, and not significant inaccuracy requiring correction. There was no breach of Clause 1.


8. The complaint was not upheld

Remedial Action Required

9. N/A


Date complaint received: 12/06/20

Date decision issued: 17/12/20

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