Decision of the Complaints Committee – 28580-20 Portes v Metro
Summary of Complaint
1. Jonathan Portes complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Metro breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “DEATH TOLLS SOAR ... NOT FROM COVID”, published on 20 October 2020.
2. The frontpage headline was followed by a standfirst detailing the percentage increases in the number of deaths from various diseases in the last six months: “DIABETES VICTIMS UP 86% IN JUST SIX MONTHS; PROSTATE CANCER UP 53%; PARKINSON’S UP 79%; BREAST CANCER UP 47%; BOWL CANCER UP 46%”. The opening paragraph reported that “the number of people dying at home from illnesses other than Covid-19 has rocketed since lockdown”. It stated that figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for March to September 2020 revealed that almost 1000 deaths were being recorded every week, an increase of 26,000 on the same period in the previous year. The article continued from the front page on to page six of the newspaper, where the following comment from a statistician was included: “Most of these deaths would normally have occurred in hospital, and people have either been reluctant to go, discouraged from attending or the services have been disrupted”.
3. The complainant said the headline and standfirst were significantly misleading as they gave the false impression that non-Covid deaths from a variety of diseases had risen very sharply. In fact, the ONS figures on which the article was based did not show there were extra deaths from these causes. The statistics cited in the standfirst related only to deaths at home, and the article failed to mention that deaths in other settings, such as hospitals, had fallen sharply. The complainant said that deaths had, in effect, moved from hospitals to homes, resulting in no overall excess deaths from these causes. While he acknowledged the opening paragraph did refer to the increase in the number of people “dying at home”, in the absence of information about the corresponding decrease in deaths in other settings, readers would be left with the impression that overall deaths from these causes had increased.
4. The complainant also said that the claim that deaths were “up 26,000 on the same period last year” was inaccurate. The increase cited was against the five-year average, not figures from the preceding year.
5. The publication did not accept that the article breached the Editors’ Code. It did not consider the headline to be significantly misleading, as it said it was supported and clarified by the text of the article, which made clear that the headline referred to deaths “at home”, rather than overall deaths. It said this was further supported by the comments included in the article, such as those of the statistician which appeared on page 6, which referred to the displacement of deaths from hospitals to homes. The publication accepted that the data published by the ONS showed that deaths at home were up 26,000 against the five-year average, rather than the previous year’s figures. Whilst the publication accepted that this represented an inaccuracy, it did not consider this was significant as the number of excess home deaths were “broadly the same” whether compared with last year’s figures or the five-year average. Further analysis by the publication during IPSOs investigation estimated that deaths at home in England alone from April to December 2020 had increased by 23,544 on the same period in 2019. Notwithstanding this, the newspaper offered to publish a correction addressing this particular point when it first corresponded with the complainant. At the start of IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper proposed to publish the following correction, in their Corrections and Clarification column on page 2:
“A front-page article on October 20 (‘Death Tolls Soar… not from Covid’) about the increase in the number of deaths that had taken place at home rather than in hospital from March to September this year as a result of the pandemic said that, according to the Office for National Statistics, home deaths were up 26,000 ‘on the same period last year’. In fact, the statistics showed that deaths at home were up 26,000 on the five-year average. We apologise for the error.”
6. The publication said its established Corrections and Clarification column was the most appropriate location for a correction to appear as its location was familiar to its readership and as such was suitably prominent. It noted the requirement of the Code for due prominence, rather than equal prominence. Given this, and the relatively “insignificance of the error”, it argued that a front-page correction, as requested by the complainant, was inappropriate.
7. The complainant said that the publication’s offer was inadequate, as it failed to acknowledge and address the main point of his complaint: that the headline and article would mislead readers into understanding that there had been a significant overall increase in the number of deaths from the identified causes compared to previous years. Any correction would need to be published on the front-page, given the prominence of the misleading headline and significance of the subject.
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.
Findings of the Committee
8. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the accurate reporting and presentation of statistics is vital to keeping the public well-informed.
9. The article started on the newspaper’s front page, on which the headline, standfirst and opening text of the article reported dramatic claims that the “death toll” from illnesses other than Covid had “soared” during lockdown and that “the number of people dying at home from illnesses other than Covid-19 ha[d] rocketed”; the standfirst quoted figures for a number of illnesses. A comment quoted on the front page said that “Covid-19 kills…but so does lockdown". This gave the strong impression that overall deaths had increased dramatically, which was inaccurate; it was accepted by both parties that the ONS data showed that there had not been a dramatic increase in overall deaths, but that the deaths had been redistributed between locations.
10. Whilst the front-page article included the phrase “deaths at home”, it was not until the continuation on page 6 that the article made reference to the displacement of deaths from hospital settings to home by quoting a statistician. In such circumstances, the Committee considered that the way in which the figures were presented gave the impression that there had been an increase in overall deaths; the comment from the statistician, on an inside page, was not sufficient to correct the misimpression created by the headline and standfirst. As such, the Committee considered that the newspaper had failed to take care not to publish misleading information under Clause 1 (i). Given the nature of the subject matter and the potential for concern caused to readers, this was significant and as such required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
11. The Committee also found that the article had incorrectly reported home deaths were up 26,000 “on the same period last year”, with the newspaper accepting that this was, in fact, based on the five-year average. This represented a further failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1 (i). This was significant. It misrepresented the number of deaths at home during a specific time period, information that was publicly available and accessible at the time of publication. As such, it required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
12. Though the newspaper had promptly offered to publish a partial correction, the proposed wording focused solely on the statistical error and did not acknowledge the significantly misleading impression given by the headline and the article as a whole, or adequately correct it. The Committee therefore found a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).
13. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial Action Required
14. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.
15. The Committee considered that there was a serious breach of Clause 1 (i). The article was misleading on a matter of great significance during a global public health emergency. In light of the newspaper's failure to take care over the article's accuracy, and its failure to correct the highly misleading headline in line with its obligations under Clause 1(ii), the Committee concluded that an adjudication was the appropriate remedy.
16. Given the prominence of the original article, and the nature of the breach, a reference to the upheld ruling should be published on the front page of newspaper. The headline of this must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, refer to the subject matter and be agreed with IPSO in advance of publication. This should direct readers to page two, where the adjudication should be published in full, and be clearly distinguished from other editorial content.
17. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:
Jonathan Portes complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Metro breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “DEATH TOLLS SOAR ... NOT FROM COVID”, published on 20 October 2020.
IPSO upheld the complaint and has ordered the Metro to publish its decision as a remedy.
The frontpage headline was followed by a standfirst detailing the percentage increases in the number of deaths from various diseases in the last six months.
The complainant said the headline and standfirst gave the false impression that non-Covid deaths had risen very sharply. In fact, the ONS figures, on which the article was based, did not show there were extra deaths from these causes but that there had, in effect, been a displacement of deaths from hospital settings to home as a likely consequence of lockdown.
The newspaper said that readers would have known the article referred to deaths at home as it is in the very first line of the article. It also pointed out that the article contained a long quote from an academic who says quite clearly that most of these deaths would normally have occurred in hospital. But it accepted that the data published by the ONS showed that deaths at home were up 26,000 against the five-year average, rather than the previous year’s figures as initially reported.
In IPSOs view, the need for reliable, accurate journalism during the Covid-19 pandemic is paramount. The accurate reporting and presentation of statistics, particularly those relating to deaths, is vital to keeping the public well-informed. In this instance, it found the article made eye-catching categorical claims without qualification of sufficient prominence and gave the highly misleading impression that deaths had soared. As such, the headline was not supported by the text of the article, providing a significantly misleading impression on a matter of great significance and represented a clear failure to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information in breach of Clause 1 (i).
Though the publication had promptly offered to publish a correction, this focused solely on the statistical error and did not acknowledge the significantly misleading impression given by the headline and the article as a whole or adequately correct it. The Committee therefore found a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).
The complaint under Clause 1 was upheld.
Date complaint received: 20/10/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 10/03/2021Back to ruling listing