Decision of the Complaints Committee 17507-17 Evans v The Sun
Summary of complaint
1. Andrew Evans complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “GIVE IT US HARD Pro-EU vote shifts away from ‘soft Brexit’ “, published on 12 August 2017.
2. The article reported on the findings of a survey which examined public opinion and attitudes towards the possible outcomes of Brexit negotiations, and Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Based on this poll, the article reported that 68% of British people backed a “hard” Brexit over a “soft” one. It reported that “more than half of those who voted Remain…support taking back control of our borders – and leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, and that Remain voters “felt that preserving free movement and full access to the single market wouldn’t respect last year’s referendum result”.
3. The article also made a series of claims about specific policy positions, asserting that 57.5% of Leave voters and 51.3% of Remain voters wanted “control over EU immigration and lower levels of EU immigration”; that 56.5% of Leave voters and 52.2% of Remain voters wanted the “UK to adopt some EU laws but not be subject to European Court of Justice decisions”; and that 56.9% of Leave voters and 54.7% of Remain voters supported paying no “divorce” settlement to the EU.
4. The article was published online in substantively the same format, headlined “GIVE IT US HARD Majority of Brits including Remainers now back a ‘hard’ Brexit with full border controls, says study”.
5. The complainant said that the article had inaccurately interpreted the findings of the survey. He said that, in the poll, respondents had been presented with “bundles” of policy proposals, and had to either accept or reject the whole bundle. He said that the use of the percentage statistics in support of particular policy proposals was incorrect: these percentages did not refer to the percentage of people backing a certain policy; instead, they referred to how often voters would accept a whole bundle of policy proposals containing this specific proposal. He therefore said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that Remain or Leave voters supported particular policy stances. The complainant also said that the respondents were not asked whether they preferred a hard or a soft Brexit, rather they were presented with a particular set of preferences which were later assigned the hard and soft labels by the surveyors. He said that the survey’s, and therefore the article’s, characterisation of the bundles as hard and soft was inaccurate.
6. The complainant provided a summary of the original survey, written by its authors, which included a link to the survey findings. The summary stated that “what we caution readers to avoid, is looking at these numbers as raw measures of support for particular features…at no point did we ask respondents to evaluate individual features”. The findings stated that respondents were presented with a choice between hard Brexit and soft Brexit, and that “67.9% chose hard Brexit over soft Brexit, and that this result reflects the bundling of features; while individuals may prefer individual features of a soft Brexit, it appears that as a complete set, harder rather than softer options win the most public support”.
7. The newspaper said that the figures were based on the original survey report. Its journalist had contacted one of the researchers prior to publication, to ensure that it had accurately interpreted the data. It said that the article could not have reported the full details and circumstances of a complex survey, but nevertheless, the article had interpreted the results in an accurate and understandable manner. The newspaper said that it was made clear in the article that the statistics had not been derived from direct polling, but that respondents had been presented with “various scenarios relating to Brexit” from which to choose. The newspaper also provided post-publication correspondence with the researchers to support its position that the article was an accurate report of the survey; the survey authors had confirmed in correspondence with the publication that whilst the statistics quoted, and the way that they had been interpreted, lacked context as constrained preferences from a discrete choice task, they were not incorrect.
8. While the newspaper did not accept that there had been a breach of the Code, it offered to publish a letter from the complainant giving him the opportunity to explain his position.
Relevant Code Provisions
9. 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.
Findings of the Committee
10. The newspaper was entitled to report on the survey findings and had contacted one of the researchers, prior to publication, to ensure that it had correctly interpreted the information in the survey. This demonstrated that the newspaper had taken care to ensure the accuracy of the article, when reporting preferences for particular policy outcomes. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i). Furthermore, the nespaper was entitled to characterise the groups of options presented to the respondents as “hard” and “soft”, as recorded in the survey results; the article made clear which policies had been ascribed the “hard” label, such as “taking back support of our borders and leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, and which policies had been ascribed the “soft” label, such as “free movement and ongoing budget payments”. The Committee also noted that the survey author’s had said that although the article did not explicitly refer to the context of the survey, it had not misinterpreted the survey results. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii). Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper's offer to publish a letter from the complainant outlining his position.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
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