Ruling

01524-22 Peberdy v The Sun on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      23rd June 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01524-22 Peberdy v The Sun on Sunday

Summary of Complaint

1. Matthew Peberdy complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “RUNAWAY DADS COUGH UP £1BN”, published on 6 February 2022.

2. The article, which appeared on page 30 of the newspaper, reported that “[a]bsent dads were made to pay a record £1billion for their children last year.” It then went on to report that “[t]he Child Maintenance Service had to intervene in thousands of cases, figures show”, before referring to specific case studies of such instances: “One father with £70,000 stashed in the bank had neglected to pay his fair share of support […] Another dad in denial stacked up nearly £11,000 in unpaid maintenance.” The article closed with a statement from the Work and Pensions Minister, who stated that: “In just 12 months, a record £1billion in payments was lined up.”

3. The article also appeared online, in substantially the same form, under the headline: “COUGH UP Absent dads made to pay record £1billion in child maintenance for the kids last year”.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, and that it was inaccurate to state, in the headline of the online version and in the article itself, that parents were “made to pay”, where another set of figures – which the complainant provided – showed that 65% of the payments recorded by CMS were direct pay arrangements. This is when the paying parent makes the payment directly to the other parent, and the complainant said that a significant number made such payments on a voluntary basis; not all parents, therefore, were “made to pay” child support payments. The complainant said that, on this basis, the phrase “cough up” was also inaccurate. The complainant then said that, upon reviewing the statistics from CMS, he considered that it was also inaccurate to refer to the paying parents as “absent” and “runaway”, where figures from the last quarter of 2021 showed that nearly a quarter of paying parents shared care of their children to at least some extent.

5. The complainant also said that the headline and article inaccurately referred to “dads” making child maintenance payments. According to figures he had obtained from the Child Maintenance Service [CMS], 93% of “paying parents” were recorded as male; therefore, not all parents who made such payments were “dads”. The complainant then said that, given these alleged inaccuracies, it followed that the £1billion figure was inaccurate, as it could not possibly be the case that “absent fathers were made to pay” this figure; from the complainant’s own calculations, only £189.1 million worth of payments were made in 2021 in cases were parents were “made to pay”.

6. The complainant also said that they also considered that the publication had breached Clause 1 by not using freely available data to fact-check statements made by the Work and Pensions Minister. The complainant also asked IPSO to determine whether the publication had been paid by either CMS or the Department for Work and Pensions, and said that – if this was the case – this should be declared in the article.

7. Finally, the complainant said that they wished for the newspaper to publish an apology, where he considered the article to be wholly inaccurate.

8. The publication said it did not accept that the article was in breach of Clause 1, as it did not consider that the headline or the article included any significant inaccuracies. Turning first to the “made to pay” point, the publication said that parents who did not pay voluntarily would be “made to pay” should they discontinue making payments. Therefore, it said, the total amount of money transferred to non-paying parents by paying parents could reasonably be characterised as the amount of money which parents are “made to pay”. It also considered the article’s use of the phrase “absent” to be fair and reasonable shorthand for non-custodial parents.

9. Turning next to the alleged inaccuracy regarding “dads”, the publication said that – where 93% of paying parents were male – it could not be significantly inaccurate to refer to them as such, where fathers made up the “overwhelming majority” of paying parents. It also said that, in a phone call with the DWP which the reporter had had prior to writing the article, non-paying fathers had been referred to repeatedly; there was, therefore, a basis for linking this figure with fathers.

10. To support its position, the publication provided a copy of the original press release upon which the article was based; the release was titled “Absent parents hit with £10,000 child maintenance bills”, and its main focus was two case studies involving fathers who had been pursued by CMS and subsequently made to pay the mothers of their children following legal action. The press release also said that the CMS had “lin[ed] up a total of £1billion in payments for children”.

11. While the publication did not consider that the article required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii), it made the following amendments to the online version of the article 11 days after publication, and 6 days after being made aware of the complainant’s concerns: It changed the headline from “COUGH UP Absent dads made to pay record £1billion in child maintenance for their kids last year” to “COUGH UP Absent parents paid record £1billion in child maintenance for their kids last year”; it amended the first line of the article, so that instead of reading “ABSENT dads were made to pay a record £1billion for their children last year”, it read “Non-custodial parents paid a record £1billion for their children last year”; and it added the following footnote to the article:

This article, now amended, originally said that 'absent dads' were 'made to pay £1 billion' for their children last year. This is in fact the total paid in child maintenance and largely comprises payments made voluntarily by non-custodial parents, some of whom share care of their children to some extent. We are happy to clarify.

12. The publication also proposed to publish the following wording in its usual ‘Corrections and Clarifications’ column on page 2 of the newspaper:

A 6 Feb article said that 'runaway dads' were 'made to pay £1 billion' for their children last year. This is in fact the total paid in child maintenance and largely comprises payments made voluntarily by non-custodial parents, some of whom share care of their children to some extent. We are happy to clarify.

13. The publication also said that it would be content to amend the published and proposed clarifications to make clear that, in referring to non-custodial parents, both mothers and fathers were included.

14. The complainant said that “absent” may be reasonable shorthand for non-custodial parents; however, as figures he had provided showed, 23% of parents whose payments were reasonably characterised as either non-custodial or “absent”. He also said that the publication’s position – that parents who did not pay voluntarily would be “made to pay” should they discontinue making payments – did not make sense.

15. The complainant also said that he was not satisfied with the publication’s amendments and proposed clarification, as he did not consider they addressed the points he had raised or address the consequences arising from the alleged inaccuracies. He also raised concerns that parts of the article seemed to have been taken, verbatim, from the press release provided by the DWP, and asked whether the journalist who wrote the article had undertaken any investigation or research to corroborate the claims made by the DWP. He then said that he wished for the online article to be retracted “in its entirety” and a full apology offered. The complainant then proposed the following wording amended wording for standalone print and online corrections:

Print

We got it wrong about CMS.

A 6 Feb article titled "Runaway Dads Cough up £1bn" about the Child Maintenance service was wrong. We recognise that the article, based on a press release from the office of [the Work and Pensions Minister], was not supported factually. We had no evidence to suggest that the parents had "runaway" or that they were "made to pay" or "cough up" £1bn. The article referred to parents as "absent" when we are happy to correct that nearly 25% of parents paying maintenance are actively involved in shared care of their children. We also recognise that 80% of child maintenance is paid voluntarily by parents and the CMS were only involved in collection of £189m of maintenance in the last year. We wrongly suggested that we had seen figures that supported our article, but this was not correct. We recognise that some parents making maintenance payments allege they are alienated from their children because of the service and we in particular wish to extend our unreserved apologies to those parents.

Online

We got it wrong about CMS.

A 6 Feb article titled "COUGH UP Absent dads made to pay record £1billion in child maintenance for their kids last year," was wrong. We recognise that the article, based on a press release from the office of [the Work and Pensions Minister],was not supported factually. We had no evidence to suggest that the parents were "made to pay" or "cough up" £1bn. The article referred to parents as "absent" when we are happy to correct that nearly 25% of parents paying maintenance are actively involved in shared care of their children. We also recognise that 80% of child maintenance is paid voluntarily by parents and the CMS were only involved in collection of £189m of maintenance in the last year. We wrongly suggested that we had seen figures that supported our article, but this was not correct. We recognise that some parents making maintenance payments allege they are alienated from their children because of the service and we in particular wish to extend our unreserved apologies to those parents.

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

16. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate to suggest that parents had been “made to pay” £1bn, where this was – according to the press release upon which the article was based – the total amount of payments recorded by CMS for the year, and included voluntary payments. The publication defended the accuracy of the reference to parents being “made to pay” on the basis that parents were effectively required to pay, because if they did not pay voluntarily, they would be pursued by the CMS.

17. While the Committee understood that the phrase “made to pay” could have a range of meanings, the article referred to “runaway” and “absent” fathers, and quoted two specific cases in which non-paying fathers had avoided paying maintenance. In the view of the Committee, this created a clear impression that this figure was linked to non-payment and therefore parents who had been “made to pay” through action by the CMS. The basis of this claim was the DWP press release, which did not link compulsory payments with the £1 billion figure, and did not include statistics for the proportion of the funds that had been obtained by the CMS through direct action against “delinquent” or “absent” parents. There was therefore a failure to take care over the accuracy of this claim.

18. In the view of the Committee, the inaccuracy was significant, where the focus of the article was the £1billion figure, and was an inaccurate representation of official statistics. The inaccuracy therefore required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

19. The Committee further considered that the publication had not taken care over the accuracy of the headlines’ references to “absent” and “runaway” parents, in circumstances where publicly available figures demonstrated that nearly a quarter of paying-parents shared caring responsibilities for their children to some extent, and the press release upon which the article was based did not link the £1 billion figure with parents who had no caring responsibilities for their children. The Committee again considered this inaccuracy to be significant and therefore in need of correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii), where it appeared prominently in both versions of the headline and the correct position was clearly in the public domain.

20. It was not in dispute that the £1 billion figure had been paid by mothers and fathers, as opposed to just fathers, as reported by both versions of the headline and the article itself.  The publication had therefore not taken care over the accuracy of this information, in circumstances where the fact that it was not solely fathers who had made CMS payments in 2021 was information which was easily accessible and was in the public domain. There was therefore a breach of Clause 1 (i). The publication’s view was that, where the “vast majority” — 93% — of paying-parents were men, the inaccuracy could not be significant. However, where the inaccuracy appeared in both versions of the headline, related to the reporting of readily available statistics, and it did not follow that a vast majority of paying parents being male could be accurately reported as all paying parents being “fathers”, the Committee considered it significant and there was therefore a requirement – under the terms of Clause 1 (ii) – to correct the information.

21. However, the Committee did not consider that the £1billion figure itself was, in and of itself, inaccurate – this was the figure given by the DWP in its press release, and there was therefore a clear basis for including this figure and including it in the article did not render it inaccurate, misleading, or distorted; rather, it was linking this figure to “absent” and “runaway” ”dads” being “made to pay” that represented significant inaccuracies.

22. Having established that the article included significant inaccuracies in need of correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii), the Committee turned next to the question of whether the action undertaken and proposed by the publication was sufficient to meet the terms of the sub-clause. Reviewing the proposed clarification, which would refer to both mothers and fathers, the Committee noted that each significant inaccuracy was addressed, where it was made clear that: both mothers and fathers were included in the figures; the £1billion figure was the total paid in child maintenance payments in 2021, and included voluntary payments; and some of the parents who made the payments shared care of their children to some extent. The proposed clarification also clearly set out the original inaccuracies, and was offered promptly – with the first offer made 6 days after the publication was made aware of the complaint. The proposed location of the print clarification was also sufficiently prominent, where the original article appeared on page 30 and the proposed clarification would appear on page 2. The footnote clarification on the online version of the article was also sufficiently prominent, in circumstances where the online article had been amended.  There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

23.  The Committee did not consider the use of the phrase “cough up” to be inaccurate, misleading, or distorted, where the phrase could simply refer to paying money – it did not follow that, by stating that parents had “cough[ed] up”, the article was stating that they had been forced to pay. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. No failure to take care over the accuracy of the article arose from the publication relying on the press release as the basis of its reporting – notwithstanding that the publication had breached Clause 1 by including information not supported by the content of the press release – and therefore no breach of Clause 1 arose from the publication quoting verbatim from the press release.

25.  While the Committee understood that the complainant had concerns that the publication may have been paid by the DWP to publish the article, it noted that the terms of Clause 1 do not relate to such concerns. The Committee further noted that the complainant had not provided any basis for his position on this point, and that there was no evidence to suggest that the publication had been paid for its coverage. Therefore, the Committee considered that the terms of Clause 1 did not relate to the complainant’s concerns on this point, and there was no breach.

Conclusion(s)

26. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1 (i).

Remedial Action Required

27. The clarification which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.


Date complaint received: 07/02/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 26/05/2022