Resolution Statement – 28680-20 Richardson v The Sun

Decision: Resolved - IPSO mediation

Resolution Statement – 28680-20 Richardson v The Sun

Summary of Complaint

1. Melissa Richardson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Act now Boris...or we'll give a sod off”, published on 26 October 2020.

2. The article under complaint was an opinion piece, focusing on the writer’s views regarding lockdown measures across the UK. It included the following statement from the writer to support their position that further lockdown measures were not needed: “What’s more, the so-called Second wave is actually following established pandemic trends and petering out.” The article also discussed the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, saying that: “People aren’t stupid. They know most people who died over the summer were very old, with only months to live.”

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “Put Christmas back on the agenda and scrap the 10pm curfew Boris Johnson… or we’ll tell you where you can go”.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. At the time of the article’s publication, she said that the second wave was not “petering out”; rather, cases were increasing. Moreover, she said that there was no evidence of “established pandemic trends” which demonstrated pandemics “petering out” during a second wave, and noted that the second wave of the Spanish Flu epidemic (1918-1920) was particularly devastating. While the complainant accepted that 4 out of 5 people who died in the UK during the first wave of the pandemic were over 70 years old, she did not accept that it followed that they were “very old” or that they had “only months to live.” She noted that it was not possible to ascertain the life expectancy of an amorphous group of people, and that there was not statistical evidence to demonstrate that “most people who died over the summer” had “only months to live.”

5. The complainant also said that the article discriminated against older people in breach of Clause 12.

6. The publication said it did not accept that the Code had been breached. It first noted that the article was an opinion piece, and presented as such; readers would not expect that every claim in the article would be a verified claim of fact. It also considered that the alleged inaccuracies under dispute were clearly presented as the writer’s opinion, and distinguished from fact. Notwithstanding these points, the publication said that all alleged inaccuracies identified by the complainant could be supported by data. It said that the article was making the point that pandemics often follow a trend of occurring in two waves and then fading away, and said that data from King’s College London and the ZOE symptom study supported the article’s view that the second wave was “petering out”. It also noted that whether or not a pandemic could be said to be “petering out” was clearly subjective to a point, and the newspaper said that it was not possible to say with any certainty whether or not the pandemic was indeed “petering out”. The publication then noted that the average age of those who died during the first wave of the pandemic was 80.4, while the average life expectancy in the UK is 81.4. It also noted that many of those who died during the first wave had co-morbidities, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which shorten the average lifespan. For these reasons, the publication did not consider that it was inaccurate to state that “most people who died over the summer were very old, with only months to live.” It further said that, while it was subjective to an extent at what age a person can be considered “very old”, where the life expectancy in the UK is 81.4 and the average age of those who died during the pandemic was 80.4, it said there was sufficient basis for describing them as such.

7. The publication said that Clause 12 was not breached, as the terms of Clause 12 do not mention age, and they do not cover groups or categories of people. As such, concerns that the article discriminated against the elderly did not, according to the publication, engage the terms of the Clause.

8. The complainant said that she did not dispute that the article was on opinion piece. Nevertheless, she considered that the alleged inaccuracies that she had identified were presented as claims of fact, and not as the opinion of the article writer. She noted that the available data at the time of the article’s publication regarding the second wave of infections was not conclusive, with some figures showing an increase in infections after the article’s publication. She went on to note that any decline in cases may be attributed in part, or entirely, to government interventions rather than “established pandemic trends”; even if it was accepted that the second wave was “petering out”, it did not follow that the second wave following “established pandemic trends” in doing so. She also reiterated that, regardless of the average life expectancy at birth being 81.4, it was not possible to say with any certainty that those who died during the summer had “only months to live.”

9. The complainant accepted that the terms of Clause 12 were not engaged in this instance, and expressed concern that the terms of the Clause did not cover age-based discrimination.

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.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Mediated Outcome

10. The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter.

11. The newspaper offered to print the following correction in its regular Corrections and Clarifications column of the print edition:

A Oct 25 opinion article, "Act now Boris...or we’ll give a sod off", said the second wave of Covid was 'following established pandemic trends' and 'petering out'. We wish to clarify that although data from the ONS and the King's College ZOE Covid surveys suggest that second wave infections peaked within days of the article's publication date, it is not clearly established that pandemics invariably peter out following second waves. The article also gave the writer's opinion that most people who died of Covid were 'very old, with only months to live'. While the mean age of individuals who have died due to Covid is 80.4, and average UK life expectancy at birth is 81.4, it is also true that individuals aged 80 have a life expectancy of 89.

12. The complainant said that this would resolve the matter to her satisfaction.

13. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.

 

Date complaint received: 26/10/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 20/01/2020

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