Ruling

05903-15 Shadforth v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      3rd December 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

·        Decision of the Complaints Committee 05903-15 Shadforth v The Daily Telegraph

Summary of complaint

1. Chris Shadforth, acting on behalf of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Schools raise fears over mistakes in A-level marks”, published in print and online on 8 August 2015.

2. The print article reported that thousands of students were expected to receive incorrect A-level results after the “government’s regulator” had said that an exam board “lacked understanding” of marking. It said, following the “disclosure”, independent schools had told students and teachers to challenge their grades if they felt that they had been awarded the wrong mark. The article was published in the same form online.

3. The complainant said the article had given the inaccurate impression that Ofqual believed that students were to receive the wrong marks because of a report that it had conducted. He said the report into the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA exam board (OCR), to which the article referred, was published in 2014, and did not concern 2015 marks; the article had not made this clear. It had also failed to make clear that a meeting between Ofqual and OCR on the issue had taken place in 2014. He said the newspaper had speculated on the number of students who would receive incorrect grades based on historical data, but had presented it as new information.

4. In addition, he said that the newspaper had failed to back up the article’s assertion that “this year’s results are expected to lead to thousands of successful appeals…”, and considered that it had misleadingly stated that “teachers are braced for a slew of ‘mega mistakes’…after evidence showed that exam boards are ‘guesstimating’ grades rather than actually marking them”. He said it was necessary every year to estimate grades in cases where scripts had gone missing or students had been unable to complete their papers due to illness; mistakes were not the result of this form of estimation.

5. Furthermore, the complainant said that Ofqual had not “raised concerns over the increasing number of inquiries about results”, as reported, and it had not forecast that there would be a “record number of appeals”, as implied by the article.

6. The complainant initially raised Ofqual’s immediate points of concern with the writer directly, and one change was made to the online piece. Dissatisfied with this response, the complainant followed up this conversation with an email to the writer and editor.

7. Ofqual’s Chair also submitted a letter for publication to the newspaper’s Letters team, which outlined Ofqual’s concerns, but she only received an automated response. The complainant sent a follow-up email, enquiring whether the letter would be published, and a further email making clear that he would contact IPSO should he not receive a reply. The newspaper’s Complaints department responded, apologising for the lack of reply, and explaining that the Letters team does not consider complaints about editorial content. It requested that the complainant set out his concerns on the newspaper’s complaints form, and confirmed that the letter submitted by Ofqual would not be published. The complainant considered that the newspaper’s delay in informing Ofqual of this position had been “excessive”.

8. The complainant followed the newspaper’s complaints process, setting out in full his concerns regarding the article’s accuracy, and proceeded to correspond with the Complaints department about amendments to the article online. At the end of the newspaper’s internal complaints process, the complainant acknowledged that the steps taken by the newspaper had corrected the report. However, Ofqual remained very concerned about the impact the original story could have had on A-level students, and considered that the newspaper had failed to respond promptly to all the concerns Ofqual had raised. As such, the complainant requested that IPSO proceed with consideration of the complaint.

9. The newspaper did not accept that any reasonable reader could infer from the article that Ofqual had conducted a report into the 2015 exam results. At the time of publication, the results were clearly not available and could not have been subject to any regulatory finding. It was clear that Ofqual’s comments had been made in 2014, and the expectation of mismarking in 2015 was conjecture based on previous years’ outcomes.

10. The newspaper also considered that the article had made clear that it was speculation that there would be a rise in the number of successful appeals in 2015, based on the well-documented rise in recent years. The article had stated that the “warnings follow cases in previous years in which students missed out on places after having been awarded a lower mark by mistake”.

11. The newspaper also did not agree that the article had given the impression that Ofqual had forecast an increase in numbers of appeals. Readers would have understood that this was conjecture based on the number of appeals in previous years. Nevertheless, for clarity, it amended this point in the online article.

12. During correspondence with the complainant, the newspaper also amended the online report to make clear that Ofqual had raised concerns about increasing numbers of inquiries about results in 2014, and that the meeting between OCR and Ofqual had also taken place in 2014. In addition, it offered to append a corrective “Update” to the online article.

13. Although the newspaper’s position remained that the first line of the article was not misleading, during further correspondence with the complainant, it amended the line to omit the statement that the “government’s regulator had said that an exam board had ‘lacked understanding’ of marking”. It also changed the headline of the online footnote to “Correction”, and offered to publish a print correction in the newspaper.

14. The newspaper considered that concerns had been expressed at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference about the practice of estimating grades. It accepted, however, that the article’s reference to “guesstimating” had been poorly worded and it removed the sentence from the online article. During IPSO’s investigation of the complaint, it offered to address this point – as well as the reference to “forecasting” appeals – in the online footnote and print correction. The suggested wording for publication in the newspaper’s Corrections box in print was as follows (a form of which would also appear as a footnote to the online article):

Ofqual

Following our report "Schools raise fears over mistakes in A-level marks" (Aug 8), we would like to make clear that the concerns Ofqual expressed in 2014 about the OCR examination board related to results from 2014 and were not a prediction of marking mistakes in 2015. Ofqual has also asked us to clarify that it did not forecast "a record number of appeals", as the article suggested. The article further referred to exam boards' "guesstimating" of grades. Ofqual has pointed out that estimating grades is necessary in a small number of cases and that there is no evidence that these estimates are significantly inaccurate, or that the practice could lead to a "slew of mega-mistakes" as the article suggested. We apologise for the contrary impressions given.

15. The newspaper did not consider that it had failed to respond promptly to the complaint, as contended by the complainant. The writer had promptly amended the online article when alerted to the complainant’s concerns, despite the fact that he did not agree that the article had given the misleading impression that Ofqual’s comments related to 2015 results. The newspaper had been under the impression that these amendments had resolved the matter, and the follow-up email had been sent by the complainant to confirm his position about the article.

16. The newspaper said its Letters page was not an appropriate forum for the ventilation of one-sided and uninvestigated complaints about the newspaper. The automated response received by Ofqual on submission of its letter made clear that complaints should be submitted using an online form, and provided a link to that form. Had Ofqual used the link, the Complaints department would have been alerted to the matter and would have responded accordingly.

17. The newspaper considered that the complaint became active when the complainant submitted his complaints form on 24 August 2015. The newspaper responded substantively two days later, explaining that some amendments would be made to the online article. Correspondence continued for eight working days, before the matter was referred to IPSO. The newspaper did not consider that the time taken had been unreasonable or excessive given the complex issues involved.

Relevant Code Provisions

18. 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. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.

iii.) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

19. It was not in dispute that in 2014, Ofqual had published a report into the OCR exam board, which raised concerns about the accuracy of its marking. However, the newspaper article, which had been published in the lead up to the release of the 2015 A-Level results, had not made clear that the report related to the 2014 results rather than the results that were shortly to be released.

20. The story was framed by its introduction, which stated that thousands of students were expected to receive incorrect A-level results “after” concerns were raised by the government’s regulator that an exam board had a poor understanding of marking; the following line had referred to this as a “disclosure”, which had “last night” pushed independent schools into action.

21. These opening statements had given the significantly misleading impression that the article was reporting on fresh concerns raised by the exam board regulator, and implied that the information that followed was a result of that new information. This included that teachers were braced for a “slew of ‘mega mistakes’”, which referred to the quote from Liz Coatman of the Good Schools Guide, included later in the piece, in which she had said there had been “mega mistakes in the past”; that “evidence” had shown that exam boards were “guesstimating” grades; and that Ofqual had forecast an increase in the number of appeals from students.

22. In this context, it was also misleading to fail to mention that the meeting about these issues between Ofqual and the OCR exam board had taken place in 2014, implying by reference to “31 July” that it had taken place in the weeks leading up to the exam results’ release in 2015.

23. The material published was significantly misleading and represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i). A correction was therefore required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

24. It was regrettable that when Ofqual complained to the writer and editor by email, it received no reply and was not directed to the appropriate department for complaints, on the misunderstanding that the writer had already resolved the matter with the complainant directly. The Committee noted that when Ofqual then submitted its letter for publication, it was not informed that it would not be published, and instead received an automated response, which said that complaints should be made via on online form.

25. When the complaint was submitted to the Complaints department, however, the newspaper responded promptly, agreed to make various amendments to the online article, and offered to publish corrections in print and online, with wordings which the complainant had confirmed would correct the misleading impression given by the article. This exchange took place over a period of less than two weeks. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the earlier delay had represented a failure to correct a significant inaccuracy promptly in breach of Clause 1 (ii).

26. Once notified of IPSO’s investigation into the matter, the newspaper offered to expand the wording of the corrections offered during direct correspondence with the complainant. This wording sufficiently addressed the misleading impression given by the original article, and met the requirement of Clause 1 (ii). There was no further breach of the Code on this point.

Conclusions

27. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

28. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

29. The original article had been published on the newspaper’s front page; the Committee therefore considered whether to require front-page remedial action.

30. Front pages are of particular importance to newspapers as they provide the opportunity to inform new and existing readers about the main news stories of the day. As such, automatic front-page remedial action is reserved for serious, front-page breaches of the Editors’ Code of Practice, when it is proportionate.

31. In this instance, although the article appeared on the newspaper’s front page, it was not the day’s lead story; it was the smallest article on the page; it was carried over to page two; and its headline was not inaccurate. The Committee therefore decided that front-page remedial action would be disproportionate to the misleading impression given by the original article.

32. The Committee was satisfied that the breach of Clause 1 would be appropriately remedied by the publication of the correction in the newspaper’s established Corrections box and online, as offered by the newspaper during IPSO’s investigation of the complaint. This should be published without delay.

Date complaint received: 24/09/2015
Date decision issued: 03/12/2015