Decision of the Complaints Committee – 29211-20 Hanney v express.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Jon Hanney complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that express.co.uk breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Car tax changes could force drivers to 'see their families less' due to heavy costs”, published on 21 November 2020.
2. The article, which only appeared online, reported on potential changes to the current system of road vehicle taxation. It included comments made by a named individual, who was identified as being the director of an electric car firm, and was described within the article as an “expert.” He stated that, while it was “unclear” what the per mile charge would be, the cost of car tax changes “could be around 75p per mile which would see a 400-mile trip costing over £500.” The article also contained a further quote from the expert, stating that “[f]uel duty is charged at 57.95p a litre on petrol and diesel vehicles.”
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He first said that a 75 per mile charge would equate to a 400-mile trip costing £300 , not £500 as stated by the article. He also said that, by stating that the suggested charges “may be around the same as fuel duty for a similar mileage meaning a 75 pence per mile charge” readers may have been misled into believing that current fuel duty rates are around 75p per mile. The complainant noted that this was contradicted within the article itself, which stated that fuel duty is 57.95 pence per litre. He acknowledged that the errors may have been the error of the quoted expert rather than the publication, but said that the publication should have taken steps to verify the information, particularly as, on the face of it, the information was incorrect and contradictory. The complainant said that he wished for a correction to be printed, to put the correct position on record.
4. The publication said it did not accept that Clause 1 had been breached by the article. It said that the expert quoted in the article had been quoted accurately, and provided a press release which it said the article was based on; all disputed points of accuracy identified by the complainant were taken, verbatim, from the press release. It also noted that none of the quoted experts were presented as fact, with the article making clear that such charges “could sit around 75p per mile” and that it was “unclear” what the charges may be.
5. The publication also said that the article made clear that fuel duty was 57.95 pence per litre, therefore readers would not be misled into believing it was 75 pence per mile. It said that the latter figure was intended to be read within the context of the article as a whole, and the comparison to fuel duty rates was intended to highlight the similarity of the proposed charge to one drivers would already be aware of.
6. The publication accepted that a 75 pence per mile charge would not result in “a 400-mile trip costing £300.” It said that the figure provided to the publication by the expert had been £533, and that this included costs beyond a potential 75 pence per mile charge, including a 17 pence per mile charge for electricity, and “additional charges coming from a proportion of the standard fees that the government are said to be bringing in on top of this per mile charge.” It said that, since the article’s publication, another motoring expert had said that potential new taxes could be anywhere between 2 pence and £1.50 per mile, and noted that the 75 pence figure was in the middle of these two estimates.
7. While the publication did not accept that the Code had been breached, it offered to amend the article to make clear that the cost of a 400-mile journey “could” result in a 400-mile trip costing “up to” £500, when “other fees” were included. The amendments would be accompanied by a clarification, which would read:
An earlier version of this article did not make clear that the £500 cost for a 400 mile round trip included other fees. We are happy to clarify this.
8. The complainant said that, regardless of the fact that the figures quoted in the article came from an “expert” it was the role of the newspaper to fact-check information prior to publication to ensure the accuracy of its articles. He noted that the publication had not provided a basis for the 75 pence per mile figure, nor explained what additional fees would lead to a 400-mile trip costing an additional £200. He said that electricity charges were not charges from the government, which was the focus of the article; as such he was confused why the publication had said that these were included as part of their expert’s estimate. He also said, regardless of the article presenting the charges as possible charges rather than definite ones, the figures provided in the article were inaccurate.
9. The complainant also said that the publication’s proposed amendment would not address their concerns, as it did not make clear what “other fees” were included. He said that he would be willing to resolve his complaint should the publication set out exactly how it had reached the figures in the article.
10. The publication amended its proposed clarification, and offered to instead print the following wording:
In respect of [the named expert]'s estimated calculation of £533 for the cost of a 400 mile round trip, we are happy to make clear that this figure includes his predicted figure of 75p per mile, plus the cost of the electricity at 17p per mile, and a proportion of the standard fees that the government are said to bringing in on top of this per mile charge.
11. The complainant said that he was not willing to resolve his complaint on this basis, as the proposed clarification did not make clear exactly what fees resulted in the £533 figure, nor did it his address his concerns regarding the use of the 75 pence figure.
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
12. The Committee was satisfied that the newspaper had accurately reported the original press release from the named “expert.” What was in dispute was whether the publication had, prior to publication, taken care over the accuracy of the information provided by him. It noted that the article made clear that the points of accuracy under dispute were conjecture by the businessman, and they were clearly presented as such by the use of quotation marks and by prefacing the conjecture with phrases such as “could be.” Newspapers are entitled under the terms of Clause 1 (iv) to publish such conjecture. However, within the quoted individual’s conjecture were claims of fact – regarding the price of fuel duty and what cost a 400 mile trip would incur should each mile be charged at a rate of 75 pence per mile - and the newspaper was required to take care over the accuracy of these claims under the terms of Clause 1 (i).
13. The Committee noted that, while he was described as “an expert” in the article, he was a business owner who was offering his opinion on potential vehicle tax charges. The individual’s position as a business owner did not mean that the publication had no obligation to verify information provided by him, where Clause 1 makes clear that the onus to take care over information included in articles lies with publications.
14. It was not in dispute that the actual cost of fuel duty was, at the time of publication, 57.95 pence per litre. The Committee noted that the article included this figure. However, it also noted that the article said that the new charge could “be around the same as fuel duty for a similar mileage, meaning a 75 pence per mile.” This clearly implied that the current fuel duty stood at “around” 75p per mile. These two assessments of fuel duty differed significantly and it followed that one of the two statements was inaccurate. The publication did not take any steps to verify the contradictory information, nor go back to the commentator to clarify what he meant by his statement that fuel duty was “around 75 pence per mile.” This resulted in the publication of inaccurate information. It had not taken care over the accuracy of this statement, and Clause 1 (i) was breached as a result, as the Committee considered that the statement could mislead readers into believing that the price of fuel duty was around 75 pence per mile. In the context of a report about changes to vehicle tax charges, the publication of contradictory information about current fuel duty charges represented a significant inaccuracy in need of correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
15. It was not in dispute that a “75p per mile [charge]” would lead to a journey of 400 miles costing £300 and not £500, as reported by the article. The Committee noted that the publication referred to other charges during the investigation which may lead to a trip costing up to £500, however the article itself did not make clear that the £500 figure included additional fees not referred to in the text, and that it included costs associated with running a car such as electricity. For this reason, the Committee found that the article included misleading information, as it did not explain to readers how the £500 figure had been reached. The newspaper had not taken care over the publication of this information: it could not demonstrate that it had taken steps to clarify the exact nature of the charges. Clause 1 (i) was breached on this point. The crux of the article under complaint was the potential impact changes to vehicle taxes may have on drivers. By not making clear how figures representing the impact of drivers had been reached, the article was rendered significantly misleading and in need of correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
16. The publication had offered to amend the article and print a clarification making clear that the £500 had been reached by including “[the named individual’s] predicted figure of 75p per mile, plus the cost of the electricity at 17p per mile, and a proportion of the standard fees that the government are said to bringing in on top of this per mile charge.” However, the proposed clarification did not address the inaccurate statement that fuel duty was “around 75 pence per mile”; as such, the proposed clarification did not address both breaches of Clause 1 (i), and there was further breach of Clause 1 (ii).
17. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial Action Required
18. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1(i) and Clause 1(ii), 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 terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO
19. The Committee considered that the publication had not taken care when reporting on a press release, and this had led to the publication of inaccurate and misleading information. While the publication had proposed to amend and clarify the article, the proposed clarification did not address each inaccuracy. As such, the Committee required that the wording of the proposed clarification should be amended to address each identified inaccuracy. A correction was considered to be sufficient, as the publication had already taken steps to put the correct position on the record and the article had not adopted the spokesperson’s statements as claims of fact.
20. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. It should appear as a footnote to the original online article, and should not only make clear that the £500 figure included other fees not specified in the article, but the actual cost of fuel duty. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position should be agreed with IPSO in advance.
Date complaint received: 22/11/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/05/21Back to ruling listing