Ruling

03125-15 Portes v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      11th June 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03125-15 Portes v The Times

Summary of complaint 

1. Jonathan Portes complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Labour’s £1,000 tax on families”, published on 24 April 2015. 

2. The article, published on the front page of the print newspaper, reported on an Institute of Fiscal Studies analysis of the main political parties’ tax proposals, in advance of the General Election. 

3. The complainant said that the headline and the claim in the opening sentence of the article, that “Ed Miliband would saddle every working family with extra taxes equivalent to more than £1,000,” were inaccurate. The taxes and levies proposed by the Labour Party would primarily be raised from companies and the richest individuals; not only would they not affect all families equally, many families would not be materially affected by the taxes at all. Furthermore, the calculation was misleading because it related only to “working households”, a statistical term for households in which all individuals of working age are in work. Spread across all households in which at least one adult was in work, the figure was approximately £600 per family. 

4. The newspaper accepted that the passages complained of were inaccurate. Labour planned to raise an additional £12 billion for the Exchequer, and the newspaper had tried to make this figure more relevant to its readers by showing the amount per “working family”, as defined by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). However, in doing so it had inadvertently stated that each family would face a £1,000 additional tax burden, which was untrue. The newspaper said that the error was a regrettable one, and that staff had been reminded by a senior editor of the dangers of misinterpreting statistics. 

5. The newspaper published the following correction in its Corrections & Clarifications column on its Letters page (page 24 in the relevant edition) on 2 May: 

We said that ‘Ed Miliband would saddle every working family with extra taxes equivalent to more than £1,000’ (Labour’s £1,000 tax on families, April 24). This was inaccurate. The calculation assumes that the extra taxes are shared equally among what the Office of National Statistics defines as ‘working households’ (where all those over the age of 16 are working). In fact, as was explained elsewhere in our article, ‘the bulk of Labour’s tax rises will come from a raid on the richest pension pots, a ‘mansion tax’ on properties worth more than £2 million, the re-introduction of the 50p rate and additional levies on banks and tobacco firms’. Some of these taxes and levies will only apply to companies, and the others will affect a small minority of families, not “every working family”, as we reported. 

6. It also amended the online article and added the correction as a footnote. 

7. The complainant was satisfied with the text of the correction, but not with its prominence. He said that the appropriate placement was the same as the original, inaccurate article. The newspaper should publish the headline “Correction: Labour’s £1,000 tax on families” on its front page in the same font size as the original headline, with the text of the correction below. 

8. The complainant said that corrections should reach all readers of the original inaccuracy, to the greatest extent possible. “Due prominence” does not always mean “equal prominence”, but the only way of correcting a prominent front-page headline is with a front-page correction. While a correction in a column on the Letters page was acceptable in many instances, this was an exceptional case because of the nature of the inaccuracy and the timing: in the run-up to an election. 

9. The newspaper said that it had established its Corrections & Clarifications column in 2013 on one of the most important and most-read pages of the newspaper, the Letters page. It listed a number of benefits of the column: it demonstrates the newspaper’s firm commitment to correcting errors; makes corrections easy to find in a place which readers will go to; allows readers to see what has been corrected from day to day; makes it easy for staff to check daily for published corrections and so avoid repeating errors; helps to ensure that corrections, once agreed, will appear in the newspaper in the approved form; and is accompanied daily by the newspaper’s complaints policy and procedures. For these reasons, this position gave corrections more prominence than they might otherwise have on a page further forward in the newspaper, the exact position of which could be variable depending on each day’s layout. 

10. The newspaper rejected any assertion that the column’s positioning suggested that it was “hiding away” its corrections. It said that the Letters page has long been one of the best-read in the newspaper and that page, along with the Comment section, is the heart of the newspaper and sets it apart from its rivals. Historically, a letter to the editor was the primary way of complaining to a newspaper, and the newspaper observed that many requests for corrections and clarifications still arrive in this format today; there is an intrinsic link between corrections and letters. This link is recognised by a number of publications that choose to publish their corrections in this location. The newspaper said that the inaccuracy in this case had caused no personal harm to an individual, and the article was not wholly inaccurate, as the text of the article had set out the correct position. 

Relevant Code Provisions

11. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. 

Findings of the Committee

12. While per-household or per-capita sums may be useful in some instances for illustrative purposes, the headline and first sentence of the article had gone further, suggesting that the Labour tax plan would directly impose additional taxes on “every working family”. In fact, none of the additional taxes listed in the article would directly affect all working families. Some would affect a subset, and some were directed at corporations. The correct information in this case was in the public domain and easily accessible, and the headline and first paragraph of the article were clearly inconsistent with the detail included in the remainder of the article. The way in which the newspaper characterised the findings of the IFS report represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, resulting in a significant inaccuracy requiring correction. 

13. Front pages are of particular importance to newspapers as they provide a publication with an opportunity to communicate with potential new readers. They are therefore valuable both commercially and editorially, as a means of expression. Further, front pages generally inform readers, using limited space, of the main news stories of that day. 

14. There are circumstances in which a front-page correction may be required by the Editors’ Code, regardless of the existence of an established Corrections and Clarifications column. In deciding whether to require such a correction, the Committee must act proportionately; front-page corrections are generally reserved for the most serious cases. 

15. The Committee considered whether this was one such case. In assessing the requirement for “due prominence,” the Committee takes into account both the prominence of the original article and the seriousness of the breach. In general, the Committee welcomes established corrections columns as an effective way of demonstrating a commitment to correcting errors when they occur. 

16. The Committee recognised the value of publishing the correction in the newspaper’s established column; choosing to place some corrections in another part of the newspaper could undermine the advantages of having a consistent position for corrections. However, the Committee was concerned that the newspaper had prominently published material which was so plainly inaccurate. Given the nature and prominence of the original breach, the prominence of the correction was not sufficient and therefore the requirements of Clause 1 (ii) had not been met. 

Conclusions

17. The complaint was upheld. 

Remedial Action Required

18. The inaccuracy which had been established required a correction to remedy it. The newspaper had already published a correction, amended the online article, and appended the correction as a footnote. The Committee acknowledged that the newspaper had acted in good faith, attempting to remedy the inaccuracy in a way which it believed complied with the terms of the Code, and ensuring publication prior to the imminent General Election. However, the Committee had determined that this correction was not duly prominent; it therefore required further action in order to remedy the established breach of the Code. 

19. The correction should now be republished in the Corrections and Clarifications column, with a reference to the correction on the front page. The front-page reference should include the word “correction” and refer to IPSO’s upheld ruling. It should make clear the subject matter of the original article, and direct readers to the page on which the correction could be found; it should be agreed with IPSO in advance. The correction itself should include an acknowledgement that the correction was being republished with a front-page reference following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. 

20. The Committee welcomed the amendments which the newspaper had made to the online article; however, a stand-alone correction should now also be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link on the homepage. The link should remain on the homepage for a minimum of 48 hours; thereafter, the correction should be archived in the usual way. This correction should link to the amended article and make clear that it has been published following a ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. 

Date complaint received: 23/04/2015

Date decision issued: 11/06/2015