Ruling

00721-23 Hammond v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      7th September 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00721-23 Hammond v The Daily Telegraph


Summary of Complaint

1. Martyn Hammond complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “We are all paying the terrible price for lockdown”, published on 19 November 2022.

2. The article was an opinion piece that set out the writer’s critical view of the impact of the UK’s Covid-19 lockdowns. It contained a comparison between the amounts spent on Covid support by the United Kingdom and by Sweden, which the writer considered to have less strict and more effective Covid-prevention measures. The article reported: “Sweden operated a largely voluntary system and refused to lock down. Pandemic-related measures cost 60 billion kronor in 2020 and 2021, according to government figures. This works out at about £460 a head, less than a tenth of the UK figure”. The article also reported that the UK National Audit Office (NAO) estimate that the total cost associated with the pandemic in the UK was “£376 billion, or £5,492 for every man, woman and child in the land”. The writer said this demonstrated that most of the UK’s Covid-prevention “expenditure was not in fact caused by the pandemic, but by the government’s decision to respond by locking the population down. Less than a quarter of the NAO’s figure represents the extra cost of health and social care. Most of the rest is the cost of supporting people prevented from working and businesses prevented from operating”.

3. A similar article appeared online under the headline, “We’re all now paying the terrible price for lockdown”.

4. On the date of the article’s publications – prior to contacting IPSO – the complainant contacted the publication directly to set out his concerns regarding the article. He said the data in the article was different to the figures given by the Swedish government. He provided information from the Swedish government website to support his position, which said “in all, the economic measures taken are worth almost SEK 400 billion for 2020 and 2021”. He then asked for an explanation for the discrepancy between the publication’s figures and the ones which he had located.

5. Nine days later, on 28 November, the publication responded to the complainant, stating it was satisfied the article was accurate and providing the source for the 60 billion kroner figure, an article published on the Radio Sweden website. The source reported on “the bill for state financial support to companies during the Covid-19 pandemic” and said that “[t]he support packages cost roughly SEK 60 billion during 2020 and 2021”. The publication noted that Sweden had several schemes designed to reduce the impact of the pandemic to counter a recession, and said there was no direct equivalent of these schemes in the UK. It said that the 60 billion kronor figure cited in the article represented the cost of support to companies to avoid redundancies. The publication said this was the closest equivalent to the UK furlough support scheme.

6. The complainant responded to the publication’s message on the same day. He said the article, when reporting on the two sets of figures, clearly used the term “pandemic-related measures” to refer to the Swedish figures. In fact, the complainant said, the article’s figures related to a sub-set of pandemic spending (specifically, support for businesses), rather than spending on all pandemic measures – which was what the UK figures related to. Therefore the article was not comparing like-for-like, as the “£376 billion” figure covered a broader range of spending than the Swedish “60 billion kronor” figure; he also said that it was clear from the publication’s response that the comparison was not like-for-like, where the source provided by the publication itself made clear that the 60 billion kroner figure related only to a subset of the total expenditure – i.e. “the bill for state financial support to companies during the Covid-19 pandemic”. He said he was surprised the publication did not accept that the comparison was misleading and requested that the newspaper provide him with details of the press regulator.

7. The publication did not respond to this message.

8. Around three weeks later, on 22 December 2022, the complainant made a complaint to IPSO, and on 5 January 2023, IPSO made the publication aware that the article raised a possible breach of the Editors’ Code, and referred it to the publication as part of its usual process. The email making the publication aware of this decision requested that the publication “contact the complainant in writing, promptly, to respond to their concerns”.

9. On 2 February, four weeks after being contacted by IPSO in relation to the matter and on the final day given to the publication to communicate directly with the complainant on the matter, the publication wrote to the complainant. It said it understood the complainant believed that the true figure for the economic support package put in place by Sweden to be 400 billion kroner – but this figure had been reached using a different methodology to the UK figures and could not, therefore, be compared with the UK’s “£376 billion” figure. It said the UK’s figure consisted of direct, immediate support when the pandemic was at its worst, in 2020 and 2021, and was composed of various financial support schemes such as the furlough scheme and business loans. However, it argued that the figure did not cover further steps taken by the government to rebuild the UK economy after the downturn caused by the pandemic. As such, the publication considered the comparative figure for Sweden to be the 60 billion kroner figure used in the article.

10. The next day, the complainant responded to the publication’s email. He said that the source cited by the publication was explicit that the 60 billion SEK figure related only to "financial support to companies" in 2020/21, and that the NAO gave a total figure for pandemic support of £376 billion; of this, £147 billion was "support to businesses". In support of his position, the complainant also relied upon the information in the article itself, which referenced the fact that “less than a quarter” of the “£376 billion” figure represented “the extra cost of health and social care” and that “cost of the rest is the cost of supporting people prevented from working and businesses from operating”.

11. Twelve days later, on 16 February, the publication offered to publish a correction to the article, in print and online. It suggested the following correction for the print article, to appear in the newspaper’s regular Corrections and Clarifications column: “Our article ‘We are all paying the terrible price for lockdown’ (Nov, 19) reported that pandemic related measures in Sweden cost 60 billion kroner in 2020 and 2021 a tenth of the UK figure for Covid-related spending. This was incorrect. The 60 billion kroner related only to business support. We are happy to correct the record.”

12. It also suggested the following correction to be added as a footnote to the online article, which it said would be amended to remove the paragraph under complaint: “CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article reported that pandemic related measures in Sweden cost 60 billion kroner a year in 2020 and 2021, a tenth of the UK figure for Covid spending. This was incorrect. The 60 billion kroner related only to business support. We are happy to correct the record.”

13. The complainant did not consider this to be a satisfactory resolution to his complaint because, although he was satisfied with the wording itself, he was unhappy with how long it had taken. The publication had not responded and had overrun deadlines put in place by both IPSO and itself.

Relevant Clause 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

14. The Committee first considered whether it was misleading for the article to compare the amount spent by the Swedish government on business support and the amount spent by the UK government on pandemic support measures. While there will always be discrepancies between ways of measuring public support, these were different figures (and the more comparable figures relating to UK expenditure on business support were included in the NAO document that contained the figures on UK total expenditure cited in the article). As such, the Committee found the comparison to be significantly misleading.

15. Where the total amount spent by Sweden appeared in the same document as the figure about business support, and that document also demonstrated the fact that the NAO figures not only related to business support but also health and social care, this amounted to a clear failure to take care not to print misleading information by the publication – the correct figures were available to the newspaper prior to the article’s publication, and it had not included these in the article. As such, the Committee found a breach of Clause 1(i).

16. As the figure was used to support the overall thrust of the article – that the lockdowns in the United Kingdom had severely damaged the economy and Sweden’s lighter approach was more effective – the Committee considered the misleading nature of this point to be significant and therefore in need of correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

17. Where the Committee found that the article included significantly misleading information, it turned to the question of whether the publication had corrected the piece of misleading information sufficiently, promptly and prominently to fulfil its obligations under Clause 1(ii). The correction had identified the piece of misleading information and put the correct position on the record in a sufficiently prominent position. However, the publication had taken three months to offer a correction after being made aware of the significantly misleading information in the email from the complainant where he specifically explained that the comparison did not work, which the publication did not reply to. The Committee did not consider this correction to be sufficiently prompt, and therefore found a breach of Clause 1(ii).

Conclusions

18. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

19. 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 an adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

20. The Committee considered that the publication had not taken care to report on the lockdown expenditure accurately: the economic measures taken in Sweden were worth almost SEK 400 billion for 2020 and 2021, which was not less than a tenth of the United Kingdom’s spending over the same period, as reported by the article. This represented a failure to take care where the information had been available from an easily available, publicly accessible source. However, the Committee noted the fact that the wording of the correction proposed by the publication – as well as its prominence – was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii); the remedial action had fallen short only on the grounds of promptness. In this specific scenario, the Committee did not consider an adjudication to be appropriate given the steps the newspaper had taken to resolve the complaint – notwithstanding that the corrective action was not offered promptly.

21. As such, the Committee considered that a correction was the appropriate remedial action. However, given the correction was not offered sufficiently promptly, the Committee ruled the publication should publish a correction of greater prominence than it would normally require for an error that appeared in the text of an article rather than the headline.

22. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. Given the article had appeared on page 24 of the print edition, and the publication’s Corrections and Clarifications column appeared on page 2, the Committee ruled that the placement proposed by the publication for the correction appearing in the column was duly prominent given the circumstances of the complaint. This correction was duly prominent even when the lack of promptness to offer remedial action was taken into account.

23. However, the Committee considered that – taking into account the fact that the proposed remedial action was not sufficiently prompt – the online position of the correction proposed by the publication was not sufficiently prominent. Therefore, the online version of correction should also appear as a standalone correction, and should appear on the top half of the homepage for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way. In addition, a correction should be added to the article and published beneath the headline. The wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.  

 

Date complaint received:  03/01/2023  

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  20/06/2023