Decision of the Complaints Committee – 18301-23 Taylor v The Herald on Sunday
Summary of Complaint
1. Sam Taylor complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Herald on Sunday breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Scots now set to pay £1,000 more than the rest of UK for energy bills/ Parts of Scotland may even have to fork out double UK Gov’s £2,500 price guarantee – with 300k now struggling to pay”, published on 5 March 2023.
2. The article reported on rising energy costs and claimed, in its headline, that energy bills in Scotland were expected to be £1000-a-year more than the rest of the UK. It reported that a “typical Scots household will still be forking out close to £3500 a year in energy bills”, despite the UK Government’s energy price guarantee remaining at £2500.
3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline: “Scots set to pay £1000 more than rest of UK on energy bills”.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that the headline claim - that Scottish households would pay £1000 more than households in the rest of the UK for energy bills - was false. He said the correct position was that there was no material difference between energy consumption between Scotland, and England and Wales. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 1 as it stated that the headline figure was based on “new analysis”; he believed this was inaccurate because the article did not cite the source of this analysis.
5. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. Firstly, the publication said that the £2500 figure, it reported as the average UK household bill, was based on the energy price gap guarantee – which, it said, was based on the “average UK bill”.
6. The publication then stated that the £3500 figure it reported for the average bill of Scottish households was calculated from a spreadsheet – this was publicly available and compiled by the Scottish Government – which showed the average bills in each Scottish local authority. It said that this spreadsheet had originally estimated the average bill as £1409 in 2020, a figure calculated against the energy price guarantee at that time. The publication stated that the £1409 figure was then used as a baseline from which, by regularly updating the spreadsheet with changes to the energy price guarantee, “independent researchers at the Scottish Government” could estimate the current average price for each Scottish local authority. It said relying on these figures represented taking care not to publish inaccurate information.
7. The publication said that, extrapolated from the 2020 baseline figure, the average cost of energy bills in Scotland was £3385 when the energy price guarantee of £2500 was introduced in October 2022. It said that, owing to the Energy Bills Support Scheme in place at the time, which provided a £400 rebate, the average bill in October 2022 was estimated to be £2,985. However, at the time of the article’s publication, the scheme was projected to end in March 2023, and the publication therefore said the spreadsheet evidenced that the average bill would increase by 20% to roughly £3500 – the figure reported in the article. The publication did recognise that the Energy Bill Support Scheme had not ultimately been scrapped. However, it stated that this move had been “widely expected” prior to the article’s publication, and was therefore accurate at the time of publication.
8. During correspondence with IPSO, the complainant was provided with the publicly available data compiled by the Scottish government, however, he maintained that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. Firstly, the complainant said that the publication had incorrectly utilised and reported the data in question. He said that the publication had calculated its average bill for Scottish households (£3500) based on the mean consumption across the 32 local authorities provided on the spreadsheet. However, he said that the average household bill for the UK - the method by which the energy price guarantee is calculated, and which gave the figure of £2500 – was based on the median consumption of UK households. He said a more accurate comparison would be to look at the mean average for Scotland, and the mean average for England and Wales and compare these two figures. Such a calculation would show, he said, that households in Scotland, England, and Wales paid around the same energy costs, on average. In these circumstances, the complainant suggested that to compare the two figures was not a like-for-like comparison – rendering the claim, “Scots now set to pay £1,000 more than the rest of UK for energy bills”, inaccurate.
9. Secondly, the complainant said that the underlying data used to calculate the average bills, namely the baseline figure calculated in 2020, was now outdated – because the Scottish government had republished the data in 2021, and more recent figures had since become available. He also said the data was originally published by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. The complaint stated that, by not using the most recent available data, the publication had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article.
Relevant Clause 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
10. The headline reported that Scottish households were “now set to pay £1,000 more than the rest of UK for energy bills”. This claim was clearly presented as a statement of fact, justified by the “new analysis” the article referenced.
11. The Committee recognised that the data the publication had used to calculate the average energy bills for Scottish households had originated from an official government source – and that the publication was therefore entitled to rely upon its accuracy. However, the publication had used the data as the basis of a further calculation The publication therefore had a responsibility to ensure the data was presented in a way that was not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted.
12. The Committee recognised that the Scottish figure was calculated as the mean bill across Scotland, derived from the 2020 data from Scottish local authorities, and noted that this was not the most recent data available. The Committee was of the view that where the UK figure was calculated from the energy price guarantee – the median consumption of UK household bills which also included Scottish prices - there was a substantial difference between how the publication had arrived at these two figures. The Committee considered the two figures were sufficiently different that the two were not a like-for-like comparison – and the article’s headline had presented them as such. The Committee also noted that the article had not clarified to readers how the figures had been calculated, and that the headline had stated, as fact rather than as the opinion of the publication, that there would be a £1000 difference in prices. In these circumstances, the Committee considered the headline claim that Scottish households were “now set to pay £1,000 more than the rest of UK for energy bills” was misleading, and unsupported by the article, in breach of Clause 1 (i).
13. The Committee recognised that the accurate reporting and presentation of statistics was important in keeping the public well-informed. The Committee also recognised that the distinction between the two figures was fundamental to the headline claim. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that the headline was significantly misleading. No correction had been offered, and so the Committee also found a breach of Clause 1 (ii).
14. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.
Remedial action required
15. Having upheld the complaint, 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 nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.
16. The Committee considered that the headline of the article – which reported Scottish households were “now set to pay £1,000 more than the rest of UK for energy bills” –was misleading. However, the Committee recognised that the publication had a factual basis for this claim – namely, the spreadsheet from a government department –, albeit if insufficient care was taken to ensure its accuracy in the presentation of the article. The Committee also recognised that a large part of the thrust of the article – that energy prices in Scotland are increasing despite the Energy Price Guarantee – did appear to be true, irrespective of the comparison to prices in the UK as a whole. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record.
17. The correction should acknowledge that the figure the publication used to represent the average energy bill for a Scottish household had been calculated in a different manner to the figure used to represent the average energy bill for UK households, and that the article’s headline had presented the two figures as being directly comparable. The wording of the correction should also acknowledge that, at the time of the article’s publication, the newspaper did not have sufficient evidence to support the claim that Scottish households would have to pay £1,000 more than the rest of the UK. The wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
17. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. In regard to the print version, the inaccuracy had appeared on the front page, and so the correction should be published in the Corrections and Clarifications column. As the original inaccuracy appeared as a headline to a front page article, the Committee also required a reference to the correction on the front page, to direct readers. The front-page reference should include the word “correction” and refer to IPSO’s upheld ruling. It should make clear the subject matter of the original article, and direct readers to the page on which the correction could be found; it should be agreed with IPSO in advance.
18. In regard to the online article, as the inaccuracy appeared in the headline to the article, the correction should appear as a standalone correction and a link should be published on the homepage for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way. In addition, if the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, a correction should be added to the article and published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, this correction should be published as a footnote.
Date complaint received: 02/05/2023
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 07/09/2023
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