Ruling

00368-22 Thompson v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      9th June 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00368-22 Thompson v The Daily Telegraph

Summary of Complaint

1. Karen Thompson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Sturgeon: Scots face having to wear mask for years / Sturgeon pressed to bring an end to restrictions ‘this week’”, published on 11 January 2022.

2. The article reported on comments made by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during an interview with “STV’s Scotland Tonight”. The article opened by stating that “Scots will be forced to wear face coverings in public places for years to come under Nicola Sturgeon’s long term strategy for ‘living with’ Covid, she indicated last night”. It went on to report that: “The First Minister said Scotland will have to ask itself ‘what adaptations to pre-pandemic life’ might be needed so the country can live with the virus. Citing the continued wearing of face coverings as an example, she said they ‘might be required in the longer-term to enable us to live with it with far fewer protective measures’.”

3. The article went on to include Ms Sturgeon’s quote in full: “’Sometimes when you hear people talk about learning to live with Covid, what seems to be suggested is that one morning we’ll wake up and not have to worry about it anymore, and not have to do anything to try to contain and control it,’ Ms Sturgeon said. ‘That’s not what I mean when I say ‘learning to live with it’. Instead, we will have to ask ourselves what adaptations to pre-pandemic life – face coverings, for example – might be required in the longer term to enable us to live with it with far fewer protective measures’.”

4. The article also reported more generally on the Covid-19 pandemic in Scotland, and the response to restrictions. It stated that the Scottish government’s “figures show[ed] Scotland has a higher Covid rate than England”, and that, according to a survey conducted by the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce, “[t]hree in four businesses (76 per cent) said they did not think Ms Sturgeon was correctly balancing health and economic harms when drafting policy and almost two-thirds (65 per cent) thought the restrictions were not proportionate to the risk posed by omicron.”

5. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “Scots could wear face masks for years under Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for living with Covid”. The online version of the article opened with: “Scots will be have to wear face coverings [sic] in public places for years to come under Nicola Sturgeon's long-term strategy for living with Covid, she has indicated.” The online article also referred to “government figures showing that Scotland has a higher Covid rate than England”, rather than referring specifically to figures from the Scottish government.

6. The online version of the article also included a cartoon, showing a queue of cars leaving Scotland. The cartoon showed a sign, with a Scottish flag and a picture of Nicola Sturgeon; the sign read:

Welcome to Free Scotland*

Where every Covid rule is pointlessly stricter than England’s

*Twinned with Wales

7. The complainant said that the article included several alleged inaccuracies, in breach of Clause 1. She first said that the headline was not supported by the text of the article, where the print and online headlines both included references to people in Scotland wearing face-coverings “for years”. The complainant said that this was not borne out by what Ms Sturgeon had said during the STV interview, where she referred only to the “longer term”. In addition, she noted that the online version of the headline referred to “Nicola Sturgeon’s plan”, which she did not consider to be an accurate characterisation or summary of comments made by her during the television interview; the complainant considered that this reference suggested that a “solid framework” was in place, rather than it being an inference on the part of the publication.

8. The complainant then said that she believed that the article had “cherry-picked data” in reporting that the Scottish government’s “figures show[ed] Scotland has a higher Covid rate than England”. She said that this was a matter of ongoing debate and investigation, and was also at odds with data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which showed that Covid rates had been higher in England at that time.

9. The complainant then said that the figures which the publication provided to support its assertion that “figures show[ed] Scotland has a higher Covid rate than England” were taken out of context and were incomplete, where they did not refer to the fact that the 7th of January figures showed that the PCR-positivity percentage figure was lower in Scotland than in England (27% and 30% respectively). The complainant believed the publication had “cherry-picked” its data to show the Scottish government in the worst possible light. She said that this was also her concern with regards to the publication only reporting on a survey from a single area.

10. The complainant then said that statements on the impact that restrictions had had on Scottish businesses had been taken from “Scotland's one and only Conservative stronghold”, and they did not necessarily reflect the views of business owners across Scotland as a whole.

11. The complainant also expressed concern that the cartoon which appeared in the online version of the article was politically biased, in breach of Clause 1. She considered that stating that in Scotland “every Covid rule is pointlessly stricter than England’s” was a matter of opinion, but that the restrictions were in line with the rest of Europe and that it would appear that Scotland had “overall less Covid cases, hospitalisations, and deaths per 100k than England”.

12. The publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. Turning first to the headline, it said that it was an accurate summary of the quote from Nicola Sturgeon, which was included – in full – in the article. The publication said that, given the context of the quote given by Ms Sturgeon – where she referenced the question of “learning to live” with Covid, it considered that her use of the term “longer term” could be accurately translated as “years”. It further noted that the phrase “learning to live with” means adjusting to a new situation which will not change; it did not suggest that the change would be temporary or transitionary.

13. The publication next addressed the complainant’s concerns arising from the article’s claim that the Scottish government’s “figures show[ed] Scotland has a higher Covid rate than England”. It said that, at the time the article was written, the Scottish government had reported that – on average – Scotland had 2824 cases of Covid-19 per-million people, compared to 2615 per-million in England. The publication also provided a copy of the relevant statistics; in the accompanying document, it stated that: “Average daily cases in Scotland (2,824 per 1 million population) in the week to 6 January 2022 were above England but below Wales and Northern Ireland”.

14. Regarding the complainant’s concerns that the statements and surveys on the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on business did not represent views across Scotland, the publication said that it was not required to provide a comprehensive account of the views of every business in Scotland, and that the figures and statements reported were accurate and could not be said to be misleading, where the source of the information was made clear: a survey conducted by the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce.

15. The publication then said that the complainant’s concerns about the cartoon did not engage the terms of Clause 1.

16. The complainant said that she noted the reference within Ms Sturgeon’s quote to “longer term” measures, but said that where a specific timeframe was not referred to in the quote she did not accept that this supported the headlines’ claim that masks may be worn “for years”.

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

17. The Committee first noted that it was not in a position to make a finding on precisely what the First Minister meant in comments she made during the interview; it would first need Ms Sturgeon’s input, for example, as to what timeframe – if any – she had in mind when making her comments. The question for the Committee was whether the headline of the article could be said to be an inaccurate or misleading interpretation of what the First Minister had said during the interview, as reported more fully in the article.

18. The Committee noted that the First Minister had used the phrase “longer term” when referring to adaptations to pre-pandemic life, including facemasks, which might be needed to “enable us to live with” Covid. The Committee also noted the context in which the comment had been made, as reported in the article: Ms Sturgeon had pointed out that she did not consider that “one morning we’ll wake up and not have to worry about it anymore”. The Committee acknowledged that what is meant by “longer term” was open to interpretation but noted that Ms Sturgeon was speaking of “learning to live with [Covid]”, which indicated that she was not referencing measures which would only be needed in the short-term. As such, there was a basis for the publication interpreting Ms Sturgeon’s comments as indicating that face masks may have to be worn by Scots for some time; the headlines that Scots “face having to wear masks for years” or “could wear face masks for years” were therefore not inaccurate or misleading and were supported by the text of the article, which reported Ms Sturgeon’s position in full. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The Committee understood that the complainant had expressed concerns over the online headline’s reference to “Ms Sturgeon’s plan”, which the complainant did not consider to be an accurate description of what Ms Sturgeon had set out in the television interview. The Committee noted again that the article was reporting on the adaptations to pre pandemic life which Ms Sturgeon had said might be required in the future. The Committee considered that it was not inaccurate to describe the measures she mentioned as a “plan”, particularly where her comments were set out in the article in full for the benefit of readers. There was no breach of Clause 1.

20. The complainant had also expressed concerns that the article had “cherry-picked” data to support its position. In responding to the complaint, the publication had provided data on Covid cases in Scotland available at the time of publication, the accuracy of which was not disputed by the complainant, together with a document issued by the Scottish government which recorded that “[a]verage daily cases in Scotland […] in the week to 6 January 2022 were above England”. It was, therefore, not inaccurate or misleading for the article to report that “figures show[ed] Scotland has a higher Covid rate than England without also reporting on other available data.  There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. In reporting the results of a survey conducted by the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce, the publication had made clear who had carried out the survey; the article did not claim that the results were representative of business owners across Scotland. Taking this into account, and noting that the complainant did not dispute that the publication had accurately reported the results of the survey, the Committee did not consider that the article was inaccurate or misleading in breach of Clause 1 on this point.

22.  The complainant acknowledged that the cartoon conveyed the views of the publication on the subject of the article, rather than representing a claim of fact. Where Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code makes clear that publications can publish comment, distinguished as such, and the Code does not prohibit the publication of material which may be biased or partisan in nature, the complainant’s concerns on this point did not represent a breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion(s)

23. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

24. N/A


Date complaint received: 11/01/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 24/05/2022