Decision of the Complaints Committee – 12549-21 Mitchison v express.co.uk
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 “Brexit Britain to unshackle itself from stifling EU laws – Raab to unveil new blueprint”, published on 11th December 2021.
2. The article reported that the Justice Secretary was seeking to “overhaul […] the Human Rights Act (HRA) in a bid to prevent UK institutions and courts from being ‘dictated to’ by European judges”. It said that the Secretary wanted to “protect UK laws and traditions from ‘undue interference’ while continuing to obey laws within the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)”. The article stated the Justice Secretary wanted to implement a “mechanism that would allow Parliament to ‘correct’ case law that it did not agree with ‘in a specific or special way, and the right for UK courts not to abide by Strasbourg case law”.
3. The complainant said the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, because it reported on plans to change the UK’s relationship with the ECHR, yet the headline referred to “stifling EU laws”. The complainant said that the ECHR was separate from the EU and so describing case law by the ECHR as “stifling EU laws” was inaccurate.
4. The publication stated that the headline had been changed the day after publication to: “Brexit Britain plans to overhaul Human Rights Act – Raab to unveil new blueprint”. Four days after the referral period began, on the 27th December 2021, the publication also published a footnote that said:
“The original version of this article was headlined 'Brexit Britain to unshackle itself from stifling EU laws – Raab to unveil new blueprint'. However, the European Convention on Human Rights is not part of the European Union. We are happy to make this clear.”
5. The complainant said that, whilst he accepted the correction made clear the correct position, he said it had not been offered sufficiently promptly, and that this was the only part of his complaint he wanted IPSO to investigate. He said he had made his complaint directly to the newspaper on the day the article was published but had received no response. He explained he also wrote to IPSO on that date and noted that IPSO had passed over the complaint to the publication, notifying it that the article may raise a breach of the Code, on 23rd December. The complainant said the article had not been amended until 4th January 2022. He did not think that this was sufficiently prompt to address the original inaccuracy.
6. The publication did not accept that the footnote correction had been insufficiently prompt. It said the headline had been amended the day after publication and that the footnote had been added, making clear the original inaccuracy and the correct position, 16 days after it the complainant had tried to complain to the publication directly. It had contacted the complainant on 4th of January to inform him of the change, due to the Christmas period. The publication stated that the correction had been implemented with due promptness, in line with the requirements of Clause 1 (ii). It said that the complaint that had been made by the complainant directly to the publication had been sent to an unmonitored email account, which was why the publication had not responded to the complainant. It said the correction had been published as the article was significantly inaccurate and needed correcting.
7. The complainant said the publication’s website provided this email address as a way to complain on the “How to complain” webpage as a way to report third party accuracy concerns and so the publication could not claim that it was not a functioning inbox.
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
8. The publication accepted that it had published a significant inaccuracy, which had been corrected. The Committee understood that the complainant wished only for IPSO to consider an alleged breach of Clause 1 (ii) arising from the footnote correction on the online, which he considered had not been published promptly. The Committee therefore wished to make clear that it would only make a finding on this aspect of the complaint. However, it noted that – to make a finding on whether the correction was prompt – it must consider factors beyond its timing, such as the seriousness of the alleged inaccuracy identified by the complainant.
9. When considering whether a correction has been offered promptly, the Committee considered the seriousness of the breach, where in the article the alleged inaccuracy appeared, what actions the publication had already taken to address the breach, and the mitigating circumstances put forward by the publication regarding the time frame for publishing the correction. In this case, the Committee noted that the complaint concerned a report about proposed changes to the ECHR and its relationship with UK law. The inaccuracy had appeared in the headline, which had referred to “stifling EU laws”; the body of the article, which made clear the nature of proposals and that they related to the ECHR, was not under complaint.
10. The complainant had used an email address provided by the publication on its website for reporting inaccuracies that did not relate to the person complaining. The Committee noted that this email address remained on this webpage at the conclusion of IPSO’s investigation, despite apparently no longer being operational. While the article had been amended shortly after publication, the correction had not been appended until 16 days after it was published, 15 days after the publication had first been notified of the inaccuracy via the defunct email address, and 4 days after the complaint was referred to the publication by IPSO. Where the correction was published more than two weeks after the complainant tried to raise the complaint via a channel advertised on the publication’s website, and taking into account the factors noted above, including the nature of the inaccuracy, the Committee concluded this did not satisfy the requirement for promptness. There was, therefore, a breach of Clause 1 (ii).
11. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial Action Required
12. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In coming to a view on the appropriate remedy in this case, the Committee considered the seriousness and extent of the breach of the Editors’ Code, and the full circumstances of the complaint. It also noted that the steps taken by the publication, both prior to and during IPSO’s investigation, to address and correct the inaccuracies.
Date complaint received: 12/12/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 29/06/2022