Decision of the Complaints Committee 18520-17 Rowlands v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of complaint
1. Iain Rowlands complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “My vision for a bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit”, published in print and online on 16 September 2017.
2. The article was a comment piece written by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, in which he discussed his vision of the future of the United Kingdom after Brexit. In the article, he expressed the view that “once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week. It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.” The article was accompanied by a photograph of the author addressing a crowd during the referendum campaign beside a campaign bus with the phrase “We send the EU £350 million let’s fund our NHS instead” printed on its side. The online article was substantially the same as the print article.
3. The complainant said that it was misleading for the article to claim that the UK would “take back control” of £350 million per week. He said that in the run up to the referendum, the claim that the UK directly sent £350 million to the EU each week had been widely cited. He said that in these circumstances, the claim would be understood by readers as implying that the UK sent £350 million a week to the EU, which he said was inaccurate, as the UK’s direct contribution equated to approximately £199 million a week in 2016. He also said that the figure of £350 million was inaccurate, as although the UK’s membership contribution was set at £17 billion in 2016, the UK received an automatic rebate of approximately £4 billion. He said that in these circumstances, the figure of £350 million did not represent either the gross or net weekly contribution by the UK to the EU.
4. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the sum of £350 million included money sent to the EU directly, the rebate the UK receives from the EU and other subsidies and payments the UK makes to the EU. It said that while some of this money does come back into the UK as EU funding, the UK does not control this. It also said that the amount of a rebate the UK receives varies each year and is decided by the EU, and is therefore outside the UK’s control. The newspaper said that the author had derived his “roughly” figure from Treasury statistics, which showed that the UK’s gross contribution amounted to £19.5 billion in 2015, equating to approximately £375 million a week. In these circumstances it did not consider that stating this equated to “roughly £350 million” per week represented a significant inaccuracy, in the context of the comment piece.
5. It said that the words “take back control” did not assert
that £350 million was sent to the EU each week, but made clear that once the UK
leaves the EU, the UK will then have complete control of its funding and
expenditure. It provided the author’s response to the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, in which he
explained the use of the term “take back control” and provided his explanation
for his view that this figure amounted to roughly £350 million per week.
6. The newspaper said that the photograph used in the print article was illustrative, and was an iconic image of the author during the campaign. It said the author’s use of the “Brexit bus” was a memorable highlight of the run-up to the referendum of June 2016, and stated the image was chosen only to remind the reader of the author’s status as a consistent and prominent Brexit campaigner. It said the statement shown on the bus was clarified in the body of the article, and did not accept that the inclusion of this image created a misleading impression of what the author meant by “take back control.”
Relevant Code Provisions
7. 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. During the referendum campaign, the claim that if the UK left the EU, it would have an extra £350 million a week that could be spent on the NHS was widely cited and criticised. While the Committee was aware of the controversy surrounding this claim, it was not making a decision on the validity of this political statement, but was instead asked to consider whether the newspaper had taken care in reporting a distinct claim; the columnist’s view that the UK would take back control of “roughly £350 million a week.”
9. The UK’s membership fee before the rebate is applied, varies from each year, but it in 2015 equated to £19.5 billion, approximately £375 million per week. It was not significantly inaccurate to characterise this as “roughly £350 million.”
10. The Committee next considered whether it was accurate to state that the UK would “take back control” of this amount after the UK left the EU. The article had not focused on the cost to the UK of EU membership. To “take back control” has a different meaning. In circumstances where the rebate is not solely controlled by the UK, and where the cost of membership in 2015, leaving aside the rebate, was £375 million per week, the Committee did not consider that the claim under complaint was inaccurate. In the context of this article, the phrase “control” referred to the ability to decide how this money may be spent, which in relation to the EU, extends beyond the money it directly receives from the UK. In these circumstances, the use of the term “take back control” did not represent a breach of Clause 1.
11. The photograph that accompanied the print article showed an iconic image of the author’s involvement in the referendum campaign. The Committee considered that given the widespread publication of this image previously, and where the article had not repeated the phrasing used in the image, but clearly distinguished its claims from that shown, the use of this image did not create a significantly misleading impression of the meaning of the term “take back control.” The article was not misleading in breach of Clause 1.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action required
Date complaint received: 17/09/2017
Date decision issued: 22/12/2017
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