Ruling

01337-19 Siedenburg v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      16th May 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee

Summary of complaint

1. Jules Siedenburg complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Pressure mounts for EU President Donald Tusk to apologise to Brexiteers after the Eurocrat said there was 'a special place in hell' for the British voters who wanted rid of him”, published on 6 February 2019.

2. The article’s ‘bullet points’ reported that EU Council President Donald Tusk had ‘slammed’ “people who campaigned for Leave” by saying that he had been “wondering what the ‘special place in hell looks like’ for them”. The text went on to describe how Mr Tusk was under pressure to apologise after saying “leading Eurosceptics deserve a ‘special place in hell’”. It then quoted Mr Tusk’s comments about “senior Brexiteers” in full, reporting him as saying “’I’ve been wondering what that special place in Hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely’”. The article went on to report a range of reactions to Mr Tusk’s comments, including from an MP who was quoted as saying “He is saying that 17.4 million people are stupid and got it wrong”.

3. The complainant said that the headline was inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), because he said that Mr Tusk had clearly been criticising Brexit leaders who pushed for Brexit without having a plan, rather than Brexit voters themselves. He said that Mr Tusk had explicitly said that he sympathised with Brexit voters who had been misled. The complainant was concerned that the headline would stoke anger against the EU and EU nationals.

4. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said that it was not entirely clear who Mr Tusk had targeted in his comments, but there had been no intent to mislead; Mr Tusk’s full comment had been included in the article, and a prominent bullet point had noted that he had ‘slammed’ people “who campaigned for Leave”. The publication said that the article also made clear that Mr Tusk was referring to “leading Eurosceptics”. The publication said that it considered that Mr Tusk had been referring to Brexit campaigners generally, rather than merely to professional politicians; since these individuals were also highly likely to be “voters”, the headline was not significantly inaccurate. It denied that omitting reference, in the headline, to Mr Tusk’s reference to those who had failed to “plan” for Brexit, made the headline misleading; his statement had been viewed as provocative to Brexit voters irrespective of their political standing or power.

5. Nevertheless, the publication noted that it had amended the headline 12 hours after publication to read “Pressure mounts for EU President Donald Tusk to apologise after the Eurocrat said there was 'a special place in hell' for 'no-plan' Brexiteers”. The publication had also appended a footnote to the article which stated:

A previous version of this article, which appeared in the Daily Mail under a different headline, said that Donald Tusk had referred in his statement to ‘the British voters’ who battled to be rid of him. The headline has been amended to clarify that his comments, which were included in full within the article text, were directed toward those who had campaigned for Britain to leave the EU. We are happy to set the record straight.

6. In addition, the publication offered to publish the following standalone clarification on its News homepage, remaining there for 24 hours before being archived, whereupon it would remain searchable in perpetuity:

In an article published by Mail Online on 6th February, which appeared in the Daily Mail on 7th February under a different headline, we said that Donald Tusk had referred in a statement to there being a special place in hell for ‘the British voters’ who battled to be rid of him. The headline was amended shortly after publication to clarify that his comments, which were included in full within the article text, were directed toward those who had campaigned for Britain to leave the EU. We are happy to set the record straight.

7. The complainant said that this did not resolve the complaint to this satisfaction; he said that few people would see such a clarification, and that the headline formed part of a damaging anti-EU discourse.

8. The article had appeared on the publication’s homepage and News homepage, under the original headline, for a period of approximately 12 hours. The amended version, including the footnote, appeared in the same locations for a further 5 hours.

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

9. It was not possible to determine precisely which individuals Donald Tusk had been referring to in his comment: he had not referred explicitly to political leaders, but rather to those who ‘promoted’ Brexit without a plan. This comment had the potential to refer to a wide range of people, and it was clear, as reported in the article, that his comments had been interpreted in some quarters as an affront to Brexit voters generally. The use of the term “voters” was clearly the publication’s characterisation of Mr Tusk’s comments, presented as part of a headline summary of the events. The Committee considered that both Mr Tusk’s comments, and the headline’s reference to “voters”, contained an element of ambiguity as to their scope. The bullet point sub-headline immediately below the headline had noted that Mr Tusk had ‘slammed’ “people who campaigned for Leave”, which was supported by the comments he had made. The third paragraph of the article then quoted Mr Tusk’s comment in full, and his subsequent tweet — which repeated the claim he had made — was included below. Any ambiguity which the headline included was therefore immediately clarified by the article text, and the quotations from Mr Tusk. In circumstances where Mr Tusk’s comments were ambiguous, and where the reference to “voters” could refer to a broad range of individuals, there was no failure to take care over the presentation of the headline. Given the inclusion of the full quotation prominently in the article, no misleading impression of Mr Tusk’s comments was created that would require correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

10. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

11. N/A.

Date complaint received: 6 February 2019

Date decision issued: 16 May 2019