Decision of the Complaints Committee – 12355-20 Coleman v The Spectator
Summary of Complaint
1. Vernon Coleman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Spectator breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “In an age of science, why are face masks a matter of opinion?”, published on 25 July 2020.
2. The article was an opinion piece, published on page 19, in which the columnist outlined concerns that face coverings had not been subjected to proper human transmission trials. In the course of the article the columnist mentioned that Covid-19 was “killing millions worldwide” and threatening to overwhelm health provisions.
3. The article also appeared online in the same form and with the same headline.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate to claim that Covid-19 was “killing millions”. The global number of Covid-19 deaths stood at just over half a million at the time of publication.
5. The publication accepted that this figure was incorrect and consequently published the following statement in a piece by a separate columnist, on page 23, on 8 August
"Our very own Matthew Parris (many of whose columns I admire) is not immune to Covid Hyperbole Syndrome. His last column alludes to this virus 'killing millions worldwide', a phrase that sailed unmolested past pernickety editors and factcheckers at this magazine. But the true worldwide death toll at the time was about 650,000.”
6. The publication also amended the online version of the article on 11 September to clarify that Covid-19 was “killing hundreds of thousands worldwide”. On the same day, the following footnote was published at the bottom of the article.
“An earlier version of this article said Covid-19 was killing ‘millions’. While projections for Covid deaths range up to several million, there were around 650,000 at the time of publication – which Lionel Shriver pointed out in a later column.”
7. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. Whilst it conceded that the “true worldwide death toll at the time [of publication] was about 650,000”, it did not consider the claim that Covid-19 was “killing millions” was significantly inaccurate or misleading. It said that the columnist was using a “figure of speech rather than making a headline claim about a specific number of deaths”. The publication also noted that the columnist stated Covid-19 was “killing millions”, rather than it had “killed millions”. The reported death toll had, at the time of correspondence in October, already exceeded one million and it had been widely reported that this was an underestimation – the publication quoted estimates of between 2 and 3.5 million as the likely death toll. The publication also noted that the specific number of global Covid-19 deaths was provided in another article in the same issue of the printed edition (‘Portrait of the Week’, on 25 July).
8. The complainant did not consider that the steps taken by the publication were sufficient, noting that the correction should have appeared in the columnist’s own column rather than in that of another.
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
9. The Committee acknowledged that there was some dispute over the total number of global deaths resulting from Covid-19; however, the magazine itself has cited the figure of “604,455 [deaths] by the beginning of the week” in the same edition that contained the disputed claim that the virus was “killing millions worldwide”. While the reference to “millions” was somewhat vague, the Committee considered that it gave the clear implication that the global death toll, at the time of publication, stood in the millions. It had not been presented as a projection of the ultimate death toll of the virus but rather a contemporaneous record of fatalities. As such, there was a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, and a breach of Clause 1(i).
10. The Committee considered the difference between “millions” and the recorded death toll figures at the time of publication, which was below one million, to be significant. As such, a correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). The online article had been amended and a footnote published recording the error and correcting it, following direct correspondence with the complainant. The Committee considered that the inaccuracy had been corrected promptly and with due prominence. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1 (ii) in regard to the online article.
11. In relation to the print edition of the article, the Committee noted that the error had been acknowledged two weeks after the inaccuracy had been published. However, it did not consider that this fulfilled the necessary criteria in order to be recognised as a correction under the Editors’ Code. Whilst the Committee appreciated that corrections and clarifications may take different forms, it must be clear to readers that it is, in fact a formal correction and should be easily located by those who had seen the original inaccuracy. As such, the Committee did not consider that a different columnist referencing the mistake as part of their column constituted a correction. The Committee was also concerned that this acknowledgment appeared on page 23, when the original article had appeared on page 19 and therefore did not constitute due prominence. Given this, the Committee found publication’s remedial actions for the print article did not comply with the requirements of Clause 1 (ii).
12. The complaint was upheld in part.
Remedial Action Required
13. 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.
14. The Committee considered that the publication had failed to take necessary care over the claim that “millions worldwide” were being killed by Covid-19 and that the inaccuracy had not been appropriately corrected in relation to the print article. The appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record.
15. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. The original article appeared on page 19 and as such, the correction should appear on page 19 or further forward in the publication. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position of the correction should be agreed with IPSO in advance.
Date complaint received: 11/08/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 10/12/2020Back to ruling listing