Ruling

05927-18 Shardlow & Jones v The Spectator

    • Date complaint received

      14th February 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05927-18 Shardlow & Jones v The Spectator

1. Matt Shardlow and Neil Jones complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Spectator breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The evil weed: Why is anyone defending ragwort”, published on 11 August 2018, and an article headlined “Real life”, published on 1 September 2018.

2. The first article was an opinion piece in which the columnist gave her views on ragwort. It said that the plant killed horses “so painfully that the RPSCA will prosecute you if your pony is grazing among it”. The article stated that the spread of the plant was turning the countryside into “a sea of yellow”, and that the columnist’s village was infested “with 30 uninterrupted acres of ragwort”. The columnist expressed her concerns about the lack of government action to control the plant. The article went on to describe the columnists concerns about individuals defending the presence of ragwort. It said that “On the website RagwortFacts [the complainant’s website] you will find all the reasons ragwort should be left alone. Four reasons, to be precise: cinnabar moth, ruby tiger moth, goldenrod pug moth and Sussex emerald moth”.

3. The article said that RagwortFacts “insists there is no evidence that horses are being killed by ragwort” and that the website believes that horses who die after eating it “have probably been killed by neglectful owners who poisoned them with something else”. It said that a single ragwort plant “can produce 150,000 seeds” and that it can propagate itself over a large area. Describing her experience of being covered in “angry bumps” after touching the plant’s “petals”, the columnist said that this was evidence of the “high toxicity of ragwort”. The article went on to say that section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, imposed a requirement on landowners to stop ragwort spreading to nearby grazing land.

4. The article appeared online on 11 August 2018 in substantially the same format, under the headline “Root out ragwort!”.

5. In the second article, the columnist commented on the complaint the complainant had made directly to the publication. It said that she was surprised to have “had a complaint from a sympathiser of ragwort accusing me of hate speech against another species”, and described the complaint as being “very much like a submission to a war crimes tribunal”. The article then quoted directly from the text of the complaint, and gave the columnist’s views on the nature of this complaint.

6. The second article appeared online on 1 September 2018 in substantially the same format, under the headline “When you compare ragwort to Islamic extremism, who should be more offended?”

7. The complainant said that the first article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). He said it was inaccurate to state that Section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act required landowners to prevent the spread of ragwort: this Section applied only to non-native species on a specific list; he said that ragwort was in fact subject to the Weeds Act 1959, which enables Ministers to issue official notices to control the spread of ragwort, but does not impose a general requirement on landowners to do so. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to state that ragwort “spreads like wildfire” and is “able to propagate itself over a vast area”; rather, the scientific evidence indicated that ragwort seed dispersal is limited to only a few metres in general. In addition, the complainant said that the article was wrong to state that “more and more of our countryside is turning into a sea of yellow”; he said that, rather, figures showed a 39% decline in English ragwort from 1998 to 2007. In addition, he said that it was misleading for the article to state that “a single plant can produce 150,000 seeds”: this was the maximum number of seeds a single plant could produce.

8. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate to link the presence of “red sores” with the “high toxicity” of ragwort, because the sores were not caused by the alkaloids contained in the plant which caused liver damage. In addition, he said that the claim that the plant was “highly toxic” was not supported by the strict definition of high toxicity, and horses had to eat very large quantities of the plant to experience lethal effects. He said it was also inaccurate for the article to state that the RSPCA would prosecute owners whose ponies were “grazing among” ragwort; he said that there would only be grounds for prosecution if animals were not given any option but to eat the plant. He highlighted one conviction where the defendant had pleaded guilty to ‘causing a poisonous or injurious substance, namely ragwort, to be taken by a protected animal’; the prosecution was not therefore made on the basis of an animal “grazing among” ragwort.

9. The complainant also said that the article misrepresented his website. He said it was not the case that RagwortFacts denied that horses were killed by ragwort; in fact, the website stated that government figures showed 13 equine deaths in 2005, and 10 in the following five years. In addition, it was inaccurate for the article to suggest that the website stated that owners were poisoning their horses with other substances. He also said that it was inaccurate for the columnist to state that her village green was “30 uninterrupted acres of ragwort”, based on photographs she had provided, and to state that there was an “up-and-coming craze” to defend knotweed. He said he was not aware of any individual defending knotweed.

10. The complainant said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that his website gave “four reasons” for why ragwort “should be left alone” – the four moth species referred to. He said that, in fact, his website made clear that at least 30 species are totally dependent on the plant.

11. The complainant said that the second article breached Clause 2 (Privacy), by publishing the contents of his complaint without his consent.

12. The publication did not consider that the articles contained any significant inaccuracies. However, it accepted that it had referred to the wrong piece of legislation in reference to ragwort control, and amended the first online article to state that “Under the Weeds Act 1959, there can be a requirement for landowners to stop ragwort spreading to adjacent grazing land”. It said that the government’s website made clear that landowners “must” prevent ragwort spreading to agricultural land. The publication said that the RSPCA had prosecuted people for allowing horses to graze among ragwort, but amended the online article to say that they “could” do so, rather than that they “will”.

13. With respect to the complainant’s concerns regarding the misrepresentation of his website, the publication said that the columnist was caricaturing the position of the website. It said that the website said that ragwort “doesn’t really kill many horses”, and that “it is time to look for other toxins” in many cases where ragwort is blamed for horse deaths.

14. Nevertheless, the publication offered to publish the following correction online and in print, in the same section of the magazine as the original articles appeared:

An article published in The Spectator on 11 August 2018, ‘Root out ragwort!’, stated that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 obliges landowners to stop ragwort spreading to adjacent grazing land. In fact, orders to stop ragwort spreading may be made under the Weeds Act 1959. We also said that the RSPCA ‘will prosecute’ the owners of horses found grazing among ragwort. We are happy to clarify that, while the RSPCA may prosecute such owners, they will only do so when horses have no choice but to eat ragwort. The article also stated that a website, RagwortFacts ‘insists there is no evidence that horses are being killed by ragwort’. The website in fact says ragwort ‘doesn’t really kill many horses’.

15. The publication denied that it was inaccurate to state that “more and more of our countryside is turning into a sea of yellow”; it noted that the complainant had provided data from 11 years previously, and that there was evidence of ragwort expansion being cyclical, and said that there was evidence of ragwort having a wider geographical distribution in the 2000s compared to the 1970-80s.

16. The publication denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy): it said that the second article had not named the complainant, and the information it included did not relate to his private life. It had published details of his complaint in order to highlight what it considered to be the harassment of journalists under the guise of countering ‘hate speech’, which was a matter of public concern.

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

17. While it was the case that the complainant’s website said that that ragwort “doesn’t really kill many horses”, this was not a basis for stating that it said there was “no evidence” of this happening, and the website made clear that some horses had died as a result of ingesting ragwort. The article had misrepresented the website’s position, and this represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1(i). This was a significant inaccuracy, in that it suggested that the website said something it did not, and misrepresented its stated position in a way that was potentially reputationally damaging; a correction was required to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). The publication had offered a correction which made the website’s position clear– namely, that few horses were killed by ragwort. This had been offered promptly, once the publication had received the IPSO complaint, and with due prominence, and there was no further breach of Clause 1(ii) on this point.

18. It was not in dispute that the complainant’s website considered that the number of horse deaths attributed to ragwort was exaggerated, and it had quoted – apparently approvingly - what it called an ‘interesting’ letter which stated that “it is time to look for other possible toxins” as causes of ragwort death, including feeds provided by owners.  In the context of a plainly hyperbolic comment piece, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly misleading for the article to state that the website considered that horses “have probably been killed by neglectful owners who poisoned them with something else". The use of the word “probably” made clear that this was not the firm view of the site. There was no failure to take care over this claim, and no significantly misleading impression was created that required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The article had inaccurately stated that the Wildlife and Countryside Act imposed a “requirement” on landowners to stop the spread of ragwort. In fact, such a requirement could be imposed using powers derived from a different piece of legislation – the Weeds Act 1959. It was clear that the government interpreted this Act as requiring landowners to prevent the spread of ragwort. It therefore appeared that the publication had mis-named the legislation, but had not significantly misrepresented its effect. In the context of a hyperbolic comment piece, which was not an examination of the legal status of ragwort, the Committee did not consider that this represented a significant inaccuracy that required correction, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to clarify the piece of legislation referred to.

20. It was accepted that a prosecution had been brought by the RSPCA for “causing a poisonous or injurious drug or substance, namely ragwort, to be taken by a protected animal”. Where such a prosecution had been made, and where concerns about the presence of ragwort clearly relate to its ingestion by animals, in the context of a hyperbolic comment piece, it was not significantly misleading to state that the RSPCA would prosecute individuals for allowing horses to graze amongst the plant. This did not suggest that a prosecution would necessarily arise in every such instance. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. It was accepted by the complainant that some ragwort plants can produce up to 150,000 seeds. The fact that this was unusual did not make it inaccurate for the article to state that “a single plant can produce 150,000 seeds”: the use of the word “can” indicated that this was not always the case. Similarly, the columnist was entitled to characterise her village green as being “30 uninterrupted acres of ragwort”, in the context of a hyperbolic comment piece, in circumstances where the complainant was not in a position to dispute that ragwort was widespread on the green. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

22. The complainant accepted that ragwort is responsible for horse deaths, and the columnist was not obliged to adhere to any particular scientific definition of the term “highly toxic” in the context of a comment piece. The use of this term was not inaccurate, in this context, and did not give rise to a misleading impression of the effects of the plant. Similarly, in referring to a skin irritation as evidence of this toxicity, the columnist was making the point that the plant has properties which make it hazardous to health, and the fact that the toxicity of ragwort to animals derives from a different chemical to that which causes skin irritation in humans did not give rise to any misleading impression of the plant that would require correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

23. The article’s reference to a “craze” to defend weeds, including knotweed, was plainly hyperbolic. The columnist was highlighting a contrast between the negative effects of weeds, and the views of individuals seeking to ‘defend’ them. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the inclusion of knotweed in a list of weeds being defended gave rise to any misleading impression that required correction, and was not in any case significant in the context of an article which was focused almost wholly on ragwort. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to state that ragwort “spreads like wildfire” and is “able to propagate itself over a vast area”, on the basis that individual plants only disperse seeds over short distances. The Committee did not consider that this evidence refuted the article’s claim: while a single plant might have a small dispersal area, this would not prevent a series of plants from ‘propagating’ across a large area. The complaint did not therefore give rise to any inaccurate impression requiring correction, where it was used in the context of a comment piece. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. The complainant’s website, on its page titled “Why ragwort is important to wildlife”, drew particular attention to the four moth species that the article had described as the reasons ragwort should be “left alone”. In this context, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly misleading to suggest that the website had referred to “four reasons” for preserving ragwort. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

25. The second article had paraphrased aspects of the complainant’s letter of complaint to the publication, made directly, and not as part of the IPSO process and had quoted section of it verbatim. This complaint had not been identified in relation to these views, and the views expressed related solely to ragwort, and not to any private information about him or his private life. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the publication of the article raised a breach of Clause 2 (Privacy).

Conclusions

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

Remedial action required

27. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action was appropriate.

28. The Committee had identified one inaccuracy within the comment piece that was of sufficient significance to warrant correction. The publication’s offered correction had presented the correct position in relation to this point, and had been offered promptly following the start of IPSO’s investigation. The publication had offered to publish this correction as a standalone and footnote correction online, and in the same section of the print edition as the articles had originally appeared. This was sufficiently prominent, and there was no breach of Clause 1(ii); the correction should now be published.

Date complaint received: 05/09/2018

Date decision issued: 23/01/2019