Decision of the Complaints Committee 17509-17 Evans v Daily Mail
Summary of complaint
1. Andrew Evans complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Most Remainers now backing a hard 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. The article explained that respondents were offered choices between what a “soft” or “hard” Brexit and no deal would mean in practice, “avoiding any emotional attachment to the labels”. Based on this poll, the article reported that “of those who voted Remain, when given the choice of the two options, 53% preferred a ‘hard’ to a ‘soft’ Brexit - suggesting they do not want continued single market membership, ongoing payments to Brussels, free movement, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ)”. It also reported that “when offered the choice between a ‘hard’ Brexit and no deal, 59% of Remain voters opted for [a hard Brexit]”.
3. The article included the survey author’s comments that “when offered the choice between a soft, a hard Brexit and no deal, a majority of people preferred the harder alternative”; that “the results suggest Remain voters are not as opposed to some of the harder Brexit positions as might be expected”; and that “even Remain voters are not that favourable towards certain aspects of EU membership”.
4. The article was published online in substantively the same format, headlined “Even Remainers now back a ‘hard’ Brexit: Most Brits want to regain full control of our borders and to become free of meddling EU judges, survey reveals”. The online article also made claims about specific policy positions, namely that “around 54% of Remainers and Leavers would support paying £10 billion to Brussels”, and that “some 44% of Leave voters and 48.6% of Remainers would agree to continue paying £12 billion a year for access to EU markets”.
5. The complainant said that the article had misinterpreted the survey findings. 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. The complainant therefore said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that voters supported particular policy stances, and to express this in terms of percentages.
6. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to report that “the majority of Remain voters now back a hard Brexit”. He 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. The complainant said that the survey’s, and therefore the article’s, characterisation of the bundles as hard and soft was inaccurate because they did not represent the government’s official policy.
7. The complainant provided a summary of the original survey, written by its authors, which included a link to the survey findings. He said that the survey authors had said that “what we caution readers to avoid, however, is looking at these numbers as raw measures of support for particular features”. The complainant also said that the survey authors had said that “[Remainers] also agree with Leave voters that trade terms with fewer barriers and lower tariffs, than a “no deal” scenario would bring, are preferable to a hard break from the common market".
8. The newspaper did not accept that there had been a breach of the Code. It said that the reported figures were based on an email written by the survey’s author, which it had obtained prior to publication. The newspaper also said that its reporter had contacted one of the survey’s author’s prior to publication, to ensure that it had accurately interpreted the data. His comments were included in the article.
9. The newspaper said that the subject matter and methodology of the survey was complex, and that therefore, it was necessary to summarise the data in an understandable manner. It said that throughout the article, it was made clear that the respondents had been offered choices of two options comprised of different elements, from which they had to select their preferred option, and that the comments made by the survey author supported the conclusions outlined in the article. The newspaper said that although the respondents did not directly express their preference for these individual elements, these preferences were – as the report stated – revealed by the respondents’ choices. It made reference to an excerpt from the findings of the survey, in which the authors had stated that this method allowed them “to make comparisons between respondents’ evaluations of different bundles in order to detect the relative importance of individual features…and to reveal the acceptability of different features”.
10. The survey authors had confirmed in correspondence with another newspaper 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.
11. In order to resolve the complaint, the newspaper offered to publish the following clarification in the Clarifications and Corrections column on page 2 of the newspaper:
“An article on 12 August (‘Most Remainers now backing a hard Brexit’) reported the results of a survey about various types of Brexit. We are happy to clarify that respondents were asked to make choices between pairs of possible outcomes, for example between a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit. At no point were respondents asked to evaluate individual elements or outcomes in isolation”.
12. It offered to publish the following clarification as a footnote to the online article:
”Since this article was published we have been asked to make clear that at no point were respondents asked to evaluate individual features, rather they were asked to make judgments on bundles of outcomes from which their preferences were revealed”.
13. The newspaper also offered to publish the following standalone clarification online:
“An article on 11 August reported the results of a study conducted by Sara Hobolt and Thomas Leeper of the London School of Economics, and James Tilley of Oxford University, intended to reveal respondents’ preferences in relation to potential Brexit outcomes. The article said the following: that ‘most [of those] polled want the UK to become free of EU judges and full border control’, that ‘around 54 per cent of Remainers and Leavers would support paying £10 billion to Brussels’, and that ‘some 44 per cent of Leave voters and 48.6 per cent of Remainers would agree to continue paying £12 billion a year for access to EU markets’. We are happy to clarify that while the survey did reveal respondents’ preferences for such policies, it was not possible to establish these percentages from the survey results”.
14. In addition, the newspaper offered to remove the references to percentage statistics in regards to specific policy proposals, from the online article.
Relevant Code Provisions
15. 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
16. In reporting the survey results, the newspaper had relied on specific information and figures provided by the survey’s authors. It had also contacted one of the authors, 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. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i). Furthermore, the newspaper was entitled to characterise the groups of options presented to the respondents as “hard”, “soft” and “no deal”, as recorded in the survey results; the article made clear which policies had been ascribed the “hard” label, such as the discontinuation of “single market membership, ongoing payments to Brussels, free movement, and the jurisdiction of the ECJ”. The article included comment made by the survey’s author and 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 willingness to further clarify the complex data, and in particular to remove the mistaken use of percentages in relation to specific policy proposals in the online version of the article, and to publish a clarification in print and online.
17. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 13/08/2017
Date decision issued: 30/11/2017