Ruling

01629-18 Champion v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      17th July 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01629-18 Champion v The Sun

1. Sarah Champion MP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Mum jibe at PM”, published on 16 February 2018.

2. The article reported that the complainant had “sparked fury…by suggesting that Theresa May doesn’t fully understand the issue of child abuse as she is not a mum”. It said that the complainant had told The House magazine that David Cameron “got it and I think he got it because I went to him as a dad rather than as a politician...so, we engaged with him on that level, which is why he then crusaded as a dad”. She had then said, “Theresa May was great when she was Home Secretary then as soon as she shifted to PM it’s dropped off the radar. It’s clearly not a priority for them”. The article under complaint said that female Conservatives had “demanded [the complainant] say sorry for smearing the PM”. The piece appeared with the sub-headline “Labour MP: Childless May doesn’t ‘get’ abuse of kids”.

3. The article was published in a similar form online with the headline “’Low blow’ Labour MP Sarah Champion says Theresa May ‘doesn’t fully understand child abuse’ because she’s not a mum”. One of the photo captions said that the complainant had “come under fire for saying the PM ‘doesn’t get child abuse as she’s not a mum’ in an interview…”.

4. The complainant said that the newspaper had inaccurately reported that she had criticised Theresa May for not being a mother. It had taken two unrelated statements, which she had made to The House magazine about David Cameron and Theresa May, and had made a wholly unsubstantiated inference and had attributed it to her.

5. The newspaper did not consider that its article had given a misleading impression of the complainant’s comments. It had based its article on a press release issued by The House magazine in relation to its interview with the complainant. The press release had emphasised the comparison the complainant had made between David Cameron “as a father” and Theresa May, who was not a parent. The press release had summarised the key points the complainant had made in the interview in bullet points. The relevant bullet point said:

  • Claims David Cameron understood the need to take on child sexual abuse because he is a father – and said the issue has dropped off Theresa May’s “radar”.

6. The newspaper considered that the interview had only one meaning: that the complainant believed that Mrs May was less committed to tackling child abuse than David Cameron, and this was because she did not have children herself.

7. The newspaper noted that in reference to David Cameron, the complainant had said:

I think he got it because I went to him as a dad rather than going to him as a politician... we engaged with him on that level, which is why he then crusaded as a dad, wanting it for other people’s children.

It said that the complainant had then commented that the issue of child abuse had “dropped off Mrs May’s radar”. It said that these comments had been accurately reported in the article to allow readers to fully understand what had been said.

8. The newspaper said that several MPs, who were quoted in the article, had interpreted the complainant’s comments in the same way, and had seen them as criticism of the Prime Minister’s understanding of the problem of child abuse, in direct comparison to David Cameron, who had reacted as a father. It also noted that several other publications had reported the interview in a similar way.

9. While it did not accept that the article was inaccurate or misleading, for the sake of clarity, the newspaper offered to amend the online headline to read “Child abuse has dropped off the PM’s radar”. It also offered to publish the following clarification online:

An article headlined “Low Blow" (16 Feb), reported comments made by Sarah Champion MP that the issue of child abuse had “dropped off the [government’s] radar”. Ms Champion has asked us to clarify that while she did say that David Cameron had “got” the issue of child abuse because he was a father and contrasted that to PM Theresa May's not prioritising the issue, she did not intend or expect people to understand from this that Mrs May was not prioritising child abuse because she is not a mother.

10. The complainant said that the press release to which the newspaper had referred included no reference to Theresa May as a mother; the only mention she had made of Theresa May during the interview was to praise the work she had done as Home Secretary. In the interview she had said:

  • Theresa May was great when she was Home Secretary and then as soon as she shifted to PM it’s dropped off the radar. It’s clearly not a priority for them. It’s someone else’s problem."

11. The complainant did not accept the newspaper’s offer as a resolution to her complaint as the newspaper had not apologised or accepted that it had attributed a comment to her which she had not made.

Relevant Code provisions

12. 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

13. During her interview with The House magazine, the complainant had said that David Cameron had understood the importance of tackling child abuse because he was a father, and she had drawn a contrast with Theresa May who, in the complainant’s view, had not prioritised the matter. The Committee understood that the newspaper had interpreted this as a criticism of Theresa May based on the fact she was not a mother. However, the complainant had not said that the issue had fallen off Theresa May’s “radar” because she was not a parent. In fact, she had not suggested any reason for Mrs May’s response to the matter, and she had noted that Mrs May had been “great” on the issue as Home Secretary.

14. The complainant’s comments had been accurately reported in the article. However, the print headline with its subheading had suggested that she had specifically insulted the Prime Minister in a way that related to her not being a parent. The headline to the online article went further and had directly attributed the comments to the complainant. This was also emphasised in one of the online captions, which had stated that the complainant had “come under fire for saying the PM ‘doesn’t get child abuse as she’s not a mum’ in an interview…”.

15. The Committee noted the newspaper’s position that other newspapers and MPs, including those quoted in the article, had interpreted the complainant’s comments as criticism of Theresa May based on the fact she was not a parent. It made clear that the newspaper had been entitled to publish these interpretations of the comments, as well as its own, provided that these views were clearly distinguished from fact. However, the headlines to the print and online articles had not been set out as interpretation or comment: they had claimed that the complainant had specifically criticised the Prime Minister on the grounds that she was not a parent.

16. The Committee concluded that the complainant’s comments had been distorted in the headlines; they were not supported by the text. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i). The headlines had given the significantly misleading impression that the complainant had made a very personal criticism of Theresa May. A correction was therefore required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

17. The newspaper had offered to amend the online headline, and to append a clarification. The wording offered set out the complainant’s position that her comments should not have been interpreted as criticism of Theresa May for not being a mother. However, the Committee did not consider that the wording had properly identified and corrected the inaccuracy: that the complainant had not attributed her concern that the issue of child abuse had fallen from the government’s “radar” to the fact that Theresa May had no children. In addition, the newspaper had failed to offer to publish a correction in print. This represented a breach of Clause 1(ii).

18. The Committee also considered whether the newspaper should have offered to publish an apology for the purposes of Clause 1(ii). It noted that the complainant’s comments had been made in a political context, and it did not wish to prevent publications from presenting their understanding or interpretation of political speech. It also noted that the newspaper’s interpretation of the comments had been shared by others; and that the full comment had been included in the article. While the Committee had ruled that in this instance the newspaper had gone too far and had misleadingly suggested that its interpretation of the comments had represented a literal summary of the complainant’s words, in these circumstances an apology was not appropriate.

Conclusion

19. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

20. 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.

21. The newspaper had offered to publish a clarification online, but the wording had not identified the inaccuracy and a correction had not been offered in print. This had breached Clause 1(ii).

22. The newspaper had been entitled to take a view on what the complainant had meant by her comments. While her actual words had been distorted in the headlines and in one of the online photo captions, they had been properly set out in the article itself.  The Committee did not consider that the inaccuracy was so significant that the newspaper should be required to publish an adjudication. The Committee concluded that the publication of a correction was appropriate.

23. This correction should appear in the Corrections column, which appears on page two of the newspaper, and at the top of the article as it appears online. The correction should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and it should make clear that the complainant had not said that the Prime Minister had not understood child abuse issues because she was not a parent. The full wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

Date complaint received: 16/02/2018

Date decision issued: 08/05/2018


Review

The publication complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.