Ruling

00640-22 Longstaff v The Northern Echo

    • Date complaint received

      6th July 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00640-22 Longstaff v The Northern Echo

Summary of Complaint

1. Lee Longstaff complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Northern Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The North East MPs that have claimed their TV licence back on expenses”, published on 22 January 2022.

2. The article, which was published online, reported that “a TOTAL of 12 North East and North Yorkshire MPs have been found to claim back their TV licence fee on expenses”, following a Government announcement that it would undertake a review of the BBC’s funding model. It reported that “through an investigation into the expenses and finances of MPs across the region”, the publication had “identified the local representatives who have asked to be reimbursed out of the public purse for their [TV] license”. It stated that according to data provided by Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), 192 MPs across the UK and 12 in the North East were “found to claim back the licence under ‘office supplies’ in their parliamentary offices”. The article identified the 12 MPs “that have claimed back a £159 TV licence on expenses” and stated that the publication had “contacted them for comment”, noting that “so far, most MPs that have responded have clarified that the licence fee is just for their constituency office” and quoted the responses of three identified MPs. The article said that the annual BBC licence fee was required by “any household” consuming BBC television channels, radio and online programmes and services. It then stated that while the practice of MP’s claiming a TV licence back on expenses was not “illegal”, some have described it as a “double standard”. It also said that “on a political scale, most North East MPs have stayed quiet in the House of Commons on the issue of TV licences”. The article included the responses of readers to a recent poll by the publication on the subject of TV licences and was accompanied by a series of images. These included the exteriors of Broadcasting House and the Houses of Parliament as well as portraits of the 12 MPs captioned “These are the MPs that claimed back the fee for their TV licence” and “The MPs who claimed back their TV licence fee through expenses”.

3. The complainant said that the headline was inaccurate and misleading, in breach of Clause 1. He said that it gave the misleading impression that MPs were claiming TV licences on expenses for their personal use and suggested wrongdoing; IPSA only allows MPs to claim a TV licence for their constituency office, not for personal use. While the complainant acknowledged that the text of the article included the rebuttal from some of the MPs – which made clear that the “licence fee is just for their constituency office” – he did not consider that this mitigated the inaccurate and misleading impression given by the headline and noted that this appeared only at the end of the article.

4. The complainant also said that the article misleadingly suggested that the publication had revealed “hidden” information about MPs, rather than accessing and publishing publicly available information. In addition, he was concerned with the use of quotation marks around the term “office supplies”; this was not a term used by IPSA (which instead used the term “Office Costs”) and the quotation marks served to cast doubt on the honesty of this categorisation, further compounding the misleading impression given by the article. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate to report that North East MPs have “stayed quiet” on the subject of licence fees; he noted that several the MPs identified in the article had, in fact, spoken on the issue. Though he accepted that some MPs from the region had not done so in recent times, this was likely due to their positions within Government, the Opposition Party, or membership of Parliamentary Select Committees.

5. The publication did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that the headline was supported and clarified by the text of the article, which set out exactly what the MPs listed had claimed on expenses: TV licences for their constituency offices. It said that the article clearly detailed where this information had been sourced, made no suggestion of wrongdoing, and gave every MP identified the opportunity to respond. It said that what elected representatives chose to claim under expenses was a matter of great public interest, particularly in the context of ongoing discussions about the future funding of the BBC, within which licensing was a contentious issue – a point outlined in the text of the article. It added that the disputed statement about the MPs staying “quiet” sat within this context and readers would not be misled on this point, noting that the article included a short summary of some of the discussions in the House of Commons in the wake of the Government’s announcement.

6. The publication did not consider that the other points identified by the complainant raised a breach of Clause 1. It did not accept that the article misrepresented or misreported the journalistic process undertaken by its reporter; the publication had conducted an investigation into publicly available information. Nor did the publication consider that the use of quotation marks around “office supplies” rendered the article inaccurate or misleading; this referenced the category under which IPSA recorded this particular expense.

7. In order to resolve his complaint, the complainant proposed a series of amendments to the online article. The publication did not consider these amendments to be necessary or appropriate. As such, the matter was passed to the Committee for adjudication.

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 publication was fully entitled to report on MPs’ expenses claims and to report on criticism of those claims. However, in doing so it was obliged to take care not to publish misleading information.

9. In the view of the Committee, the references in the article, taken together, suggested that the named MPs had claimed their own personal TV licences on expenses. The headline of the article, the opening paragraphs, and the captions of the accompanying images, all used the term “their” to describe the licence fees being claimed on expenses. The text of the article referred to representatives asking to be reimbursed “out of the public purse” for “their license”; explained that the BBC licence was “required by any household” consuming BBC programmes and services; and included the observations of a reader who commented on the programmes watched by him and his children, thereby reinforcing the impression that the article concerned domestic TV licences. The publication did not seek to argue that the named MPs had claimed their personal TV licences on expenses and the article, therefore, published misleading information.

10. While the Committee noted that the article acknowledged that no rules were alleged to have been broken and noted that “so far, most MPs that have responded [to the publication] have clarified that the licence fee is just for their constituency office”, this did not amount to a clear acknowledgment that the claims by each of the named MPs had been made in relation to television sets for constituency offices – information that was publicly available – and that none had been made in a personal capacity. In addition, reporting the response of some MPs carried the implication that the other MPs who had not responded to the publication’s request for comment may have claimed their own, personal TV licence on expenses. The Committee considered that the inclusion of the response of some of the named MPs was not sufficient to make clear that the MPs had used the expenses regime to claim reimbursement of TV licences for their consistency office, rather than for their domestic licences. As such, the Committee considered that the newspaper had failed to take care not to publish misleading information under Clause 1 (i).

11. The misleading impression was compounded by the publication’s characterisation of the report as its own investigation and the comment that MPs had “stayed quiet” on the subject of TV licence fees, which could suggest that they had done so out of self-interest and in order to avoid scrutiny. For these reasons, the Committee considered that the misleading information published – namely the suggestion that the named MPs had claimed their personal TV licences on expenses – was significant and required correction under Clause 1 (ii). Neither a correction  nor a clarification was offered by the publication. The Committee therefore found a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Remedial Action Required

12. Having upheld the complaint, 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 adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

13. In this instance, the overall misleading impression of the article was that the identified MPs had claimed their own personal TV licences on expenses; this impression formed the basis of criticism (or implied criticism) of the MPs concerned; and the newspaper had not taken any steps to mitigate this by offering to publish a clarification or correction. The appropriate remedy was, therefore, the publication of an upheld adjudication.

14. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against the Northern Echo and must refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed with IPSO in advance. The adjudication should be published in full on the publication’s website with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing on the top third of the newspaper’s homepage, for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. A link to the adjudication should also be published with the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication, and explaining the amendments that have been made.

15. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

Lee Longstaff complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Northern Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an online article headlined “The North East MPs that have claimed their TV licence back on expenses”, published on 22 January 2022.

The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required Northern Echo to publish this adjudication to remedy the breach of the Code.

The complainant said that the article gave the misleading impression that MPs were claiming TV licences for their personal use on expenses and suggested wrongdoing: the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) only allowed MPs to claim a TV licence for their constituency office, not for personal use. He said that this impression was further compounded by: the suggestion that the publication had in some way revealed hidden information about MPs through an “investigation”, rather than accessing and publishing publicly-available information; the inclusion of quotation marks around the term “office supplies” – a term not used by IPSA, with the quotation marks casting doubt on the honesty of this categorisation; and by reporting that North East MPs had “stayed quiet” on the subject of licence fees in the House of Commons.

The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It said that the headline was supported and clarified by the text of the article, which set out exactly what the 12 MPs had claimed on expenses: TV licences for their constituency offices. It said that the article clearly detailed where this information had been sourced and gave every MP identified the opportunity to respond.

In IPSO’s view, the references in the article, taken together, suggested that the named MPs had claimed their own personal TV licences on expenses. The headline of the article, the opening paragraphs, and the captions of the accompanying images, used the term “their” to describe the licence fees being claimed on expenses. The text of the article referred to representatives asking to be reimbursed “out of the public purse” for “their license”; explained that the BBC licence was “required by any household” consuming BBC programmes and services; and included the observations of a reader who commented on the programmes watched by him and his children, thereby reinforcing the impression that the article concerned domestic TV licences. The publication did not seek to argue that the named MPs had claimed their personal TV licences on expenses and the article, therefore, published misleading information.

While the article acknowledged that no rules were alleged have been broken and noted that “so far, most MPs that have responded [to the publication] have clarified that the licence fee is just for their constituency office”, this did not amount to a clear acknowledgment that the claims by each of the named MPs had been made in relation to television sets for constituency offices – information that was publicly available – and that none had been made in a personal capacity. In addition, reporting the response of some MPs carried the implication that the other MPs who had not responded to the publication’s request for comment may have claimed their own personal TV licence on expenses.

This misleading impression was compounded by the publication’s characterisation of the report as its own investigation and the comment that MPs had “stayed quiet” on the subject of TV licence fees, which could suggest that they had done so out of self-interest and in order to avoid scrutiny. For these reasons, the Committee found that the article provided a significantly misleading impression in regards to MPs expenses, and represented a failure to take care not publish misleading information in breach of Clause 1 (i). Neither a correction nor a clarification was offered by the publication. The Committee therefore found a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Date complaint received: 24/01/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 04/07/2022