Decision of the Complaints Committee 20193-17 Versi v The Spectator
Summary of complaint
1. Miqdaad Versi complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Spectator breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Accept this as the new normal? Never”, published on 23 September 2017.
2. The article was a comment piece describing the author’s view that we should not “keep calm and carry on” in response to terrorist acts. It argued that politicians had not taken sufficient action in response to these attacks, and said that “Meanwhile, there are an estimated 32,000 Muslims eager to commit the next terror atrocity – with another 100,000 prepared to give them moral support”. The article was published online in the same form under the headline “We can never accept terrorism as the new normal”.
3. The complainant said that the claim that 32,000 Muslims were “eager to commit the next terror atrocity” had no basis. MI5 and the Metropolitan Police had released figures regarding individuals posing a terrorist threat, which indicated that 3000 individuals posed the biggest threat, with another 20,000 that they “continue to be concerned about”. He also said that there was no basis for the claim that all of these 23,000 individuals were Muslims, or for the claim that 100,000 Muslims were willing to give “moral support” to terrorists. He speculated that polling data had been used erroneously to make assumptions about Muslims’ support for terrorism and said that this represented a misinterpretation of this data.
4. The publication admitted that the 32,000 figure was incorrect, and had been included in error, and that this represented a significant inaccuracy. It amended the online article to read “Meanwhile, there are an estimated 3, 000 Muslims who pose an ‘active’ terror threat, and security services reckon another 20,000 pose a ‘residual risk’.” The publication said the claim that these individuals were Muslims was based on comments made by the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, who said, as part of a discussion about “jihadis” in Europe, that the UK “has identified from 20,000 to 25,000 radicals. Of these 3,000 are worrisome for MI5, and 500 of them are under special and constant attention”. The publication said that the claim that this number of individuals was “eager to commit” terrorist acts was not supported, and a clarification was added to the online article which read “‘This article originally stated: “there are an estimated 32,000 Muslims eager to commit the next terror atrocity”. This was incorrect, and we apologise for the error. [The author] wrote a correction in a subsequent column [hyperlink].’” The publication included a print correction in the author’s own column on 6 January, which read as follows:
“My main resolution in 2018 is to avoid again upsetting Miqdaad Versi, ever-vigilant assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain. Versi quite rightly wishes to draw attention to an egregious error in one of my 2017 Spectator pieces. After a careless misreading, I claimed that ‘there are an estimated 32,000 Muslims eager to commit the next terror atrocity, with another 100,000 prepared to give them moral support’. I would like to apologise unreservedly. The current figure, according to EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove, is that there are only up to 25,000 Islamist extremists in Britain, 3,000 of whom are worrying to MI5 — 500 of them so worrying that they are under constant and special attention.”
The publication argued that the placement of this correction – in a widely-read column, rather than on a corrections or letters page – meant that it was very prominent, in line with its obligations under Clause 1 (ii). The correction was also added as a footnote to the online article.
5. The publication said that the claim that 100,000 Muslims were “prepared to give [terrorists] moral support” was based on extrapolations of the findings of a number of polls to the whole Muslim population of the UK, which it estimated at 2.7 million. For instance, in a 2016 ICM poll, 4% of Muslims were found to “completely sympathise” with “people who take part in suicide bombings”, and in a 2006 GfK poll, 22% agreed that the 7/7 bombings “were justified because of British support for the war on terror”. When extrapolated to the UK’s Muslim population as a whole, these percentages would give figures in excess of 100,000. The publication therefore denied that this figure was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, but removed it from the article to avoid confusion.
6. The complainant said that the publication’s print correction was sarcastic, and that therefore it was not adequate to address the inaccuracy. He also argued that the publication should have included an independent correction on its corrections page, tweeted the correction, and apologised for the error.
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.
v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.
Findings of the Committee
7. The publication had based its claim that a number of Muslims were “eager to commit the next terror atrocity” on widely-reported Metropolitan Police data, and on the words of Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Commissioner. Mr de Kerchove had, in the context of speaking about “jihadis”, stated that the UK had identified “20,000 to 25,000 radicals”, of whom 3,000 were a concern for MI5, and 500 were under constant supervision. In the context of these comments, where Mr de Kerchove had been asked about “jihadis” specifically, the publication was entitled to report that the individuals concerned were Muslim. Equally, suggesting that these individuals were “eager to commit the next terror atrocity”, in the context of a comment piece, was not a breach of the Code, where they had been identified as “radicals”. However, where the correct number of individuals was freely available in the sources the publication relied on, reporting this figure as 32,000 represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1 (i). This inaccuracy was significant, in that it over-stated the potential threat posed by the group, and therefore required correction to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).
8. The publication amended the article to remove the inaccurate claim. The clarification to the article also made clear the inaccuracy in the original article. The print and online correction, by the author of the original piece, reiterated the correct position with respect to the statistics. Whilst the Committee noted the complainant’s view that the correction should have been placed in a standard corrections column, placing the correction in the author’s own column gave it considerable prominence and ensured that it would be widely read, in line with the publications obligations under Clause 1 (ii). The complainant was a third party complaining about a point of fact, and an apology was not required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The correction stated the true position accurately, and with sufficient prominence; the reference to the complainant in the correction was not pertinent to whether the correction was effective. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).
9. The publication provided a range of polling data to support its view that 100,000 Muslims were willing to offer “moral support” to terrorists; this figure was based on extrapolations of the data to the whole Muslim population. In the context of a comment piece, this represented a sufficient degree of care taken over the accuracy of the claim, and where the publication was able to use its extrapolated data to suggest that over 100,000 Muslims in the UK had expressed “sympathy” for the actions of terrorists, it was entitled to suggest that this number of individuals were willing to provide “moral support” to them. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point.
10. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 18/11/2017
Date decision issued: 16/02/2018
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