Decision of the Complaints Committee – 29919-20 Hall v Express.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Duncan Hall complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Express.co.uk breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “French fisherman’s threat to HANG British naval officer exposed amid Brexit fishing row”, published on 5 March 2020 and an article headlined “EU unmasked as outrageous letters show Belgian trawlers fishing off Brighton Pier”, published on 15 December 2020.
2. The headline of the first article reported that a French fisherman’s threat to hang a British naval officer had been “exposed amid” ongoing Brexit negotiations over fisheries. The sub-headline noted that a document detailing this particular “maritime dispute” had been “unearthed” by the publication and suggested that Brexit meant the UK had the opportunity “to take back control of its fishing waters”. The article went on to note that “in the past, there have been numerous disputes over fishing between the UK and its neighbours, especially during the Cod Wars of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies”. It then stated that after “one incident in the early Eighties, when a naval officer found evidence of illegal activity on a French boat, things escalated at an alarming rate”. Details of this incident, including the threat made by a “French trawlerman to hang a Newark naval officer”, were further outlined in the article and attributed to documents obtained by the publication from the National Archives and a newspaper article published at the time of the incident. The article suggested this particular incident in 1981 went to “show the level of animosity that is displayed on the seas over fishing.”
3. The headline of the second article was followed by a sub-heading that stated with Brexit success hanging in the balance and fishing proving to be “major sticking point” documents showed that “Belgian trawlers have gone as far as to fish off Brighton pier”. The online article reported that “even before the Common Fisheries Policy” was introduced, “boats from European countries used to flout the UK’s fishing limit” with “persistent breaches” by trawlers off the Sussex coast in the “early Seventies”. It noted that “one particularly flagrant example was when two watchmen allegedly caught multiple Belgian trawlers fishing off Brighton Pier in 1972”, with the issue raised by the Conservative MP for Brighton Kemptown “at the time” in Parliament. The article then suggested that “this history of confirmed and alleged breaches by foreign trawlers show that” deploying the Royal Navy to patrol UK waters in the event of a no deal “may be necessary”.
4. The complainant said that the two online articles were misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). He said both headlines gave the misleading impression that the events in question were contemporary, rather than, in fact, historic, occurring in 1981 and 1972 respectively, and were in some way linked to current Brexit negotiation. He said the headlines were offensive and sensationalist and sought to inflame public tensions. The complainant also expressed a concern that the articles could possibly incite violence and hatred towards EU citizens.
5. The publication did not accept that the two articles breached the Code, maintaining that the text of the articles supported and clarified the headlines, making clear that the events in question were historic. Nevertheless, upon receipt of the complaint, the publication amended the headlines of both articles to “'French fisherman threatened to HANG British naval officer in 1981” and “Historic letters show Belgian trawlers fished off Brighton Pier” respectively in order to clarify this. The publication also published the following wording as a clarification footnote to both articles:
“Clarification: The headline of this article has been changed to make clear that the threat was not made recently.”
6. The complainant considered that the remedial actions offered by the publication were inadequate, as they were not sufficiently prominent, and did not acknowledge or apologise for the alleged racial hatred towards EU citizens.
7. During IPSOs investigation, the publication updated the clarifications which appeared at the foot of both articles in a further effort to resolve the complaint.
Clarification: A previous version of this article was headlined 'French fisherman's threat to HANG British naval officer exposed amid Brexit fishing row". In fact, this threat was made in 1981 and the headline has been amended to make this clear.
Clarification: A previous version of this article was headlined ' EU unmasked as outrageous letters show Belgian trawlers fishing off Brighton Pier ' In fact, this happened in 1972 and the headline has been amended to make this clear.
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. The terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code are explicit in their requirement that headline statements should be supported by the text of the article. The Committee emphasised that this should not be interpreted to mean that the body of the article can be relied upon to correct an actively misleading impression given by a headline.
9. In this instance, both headlines gave the misleading impression that the events reported on were contemporary rather than historic. Whilst the Committee noted that that the text of the articles provided context to the headlines and when the events in question had occurred, this was not deemed on balance to be sufficient in order to rectify the already misleading impression created by the headlines. In the first article, to report in the headline that the event had been exposed “…amid Brexit fishing row” suggested that the reported event was contemporaneous with issues concerning Brexit, and the report in the present tense in the headline to the second article that letters "...show Belgian trawlers fishing off Brighton pier” suggested that these activities were occurring at the time of publication. In such circumstances, the publication of these headlines amounted to a failure by the newspaper to take care not to publish misleading or distorted information, raising a breach of Clause 1(i). The Committee noted that this misleading impression was given at a delicate moment in the UK-EU relationship and was inflammatory, when the issue of fisheries was a significant point of contention between the two sides. As such, it was significant and required correction under Clause 1(ii) of the Editors’ Code.
10. The publication had offered to amend both online articles on receipt of the complaint and, during IPSO’s investigation, to add a further, more detailed, footnote recording the change. The Committee considered that the amendment and the final footnote clarification together made the correct position clear that the previous versions of the two headlines had been inaccurate, and the change that had been made. For all of these reasons, the requirements of Clause 1(ii) were met and there was not a further breach of Clause 1.
11. The Committee also noted that any concerns about racial hatred and incitement were outside the parameters of the Editors’ Code, its own remit and a matter for the police to consider. As such, the Committee made no ruling in regard to this.
12. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (i).
Remedial Action Required
13. The newspaper had published a clarification, which identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. No further action was required.
Date complaint received: 15/12/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 14/04/2020Back to ruling listing