Ruling

06056-19 Baker v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      13th February 2020

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 06056-19 Baker v The Daily Telegraph

Summary of Complaint

1. David Baker complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “’Public backs Johnson to shut down Parliament for Brexit’”, published on 13 August 2019.

2. The article reported on a poll which had been commissioned by the newspaper. It reported that this poll had suggested that the Prime Minister had “the support of more than half of the public to deliver Brexit by any means, including suspending Parliament”. It went on to explain that the poll had found that “…54 per cent of British adults think Parliament may have to be prorogued to prevent MPs stopping a no deal Brexit”. This statement appeared on the front page of the publication.

3. The article also appeared online on 12 August 2019 with the headline “Boris Johnson has public’s support to shut down Parliament to get Brexit over line, exclusive poll suggests”. It was largely the same as the print article, with the addition of a segment which reported other findings of the same poll.

4. The complainant said that the article had distorted the findings of the poll, in breach of Clause 1. He said that the poll did not find that “more than half” of the public, or 54% of British adults, agreed that Parliament should be prorogued to prevent MPs stopping a no-deal Brexit. In fact, the poll had found that 44% of respondents agreed with this statement, 37% disagreed, and 19% said that they did not know; it was not the case that a majority of people agreed. The complainant said that in order to claim that the poll had found that 54% of respondents agreed with the statement, the article had excluded the respondents who had answered “don’t know”, and had then calculated the level of support as split only between the remaining respondents who had expressed a view. He said that failing to make this fact clear meant that the article was a misleading report of the poll.

5. The publication did not accept that the article had distorted the poll or contained any significant inaccuracies. It said that it had relied on the polling company’s own press release which was a summary of the poll’s findings, in which it said that a “majority of public would support proroguing Parliament to deliver Brexit” and that “a majority (54%) of the public agree that Boris Johnson needs to deliver Brexit by any means, even if that meant suspending Parliament“. It said that it was entitled to rely on this press release, and that it was common practice for articles reporting on polls to exclude “don’t knows” from results. It provided several examples of where other publications had reported polls in this way and noted that the polling company had released a statement commenting on the practice of excluding “don’t knows” from results, which said that “every political pollster recalculates data to exclude the undecided”.

6. Furthermore, the publication said that excluding the “don’t know” responses did not give a misleading impression of the overall results of the poll. It was not in dispute that the largest number of people had supported the statement that Parliament may need to be prorogued to prevent MPs stopping a no-deal Brexit; it said that in the broad context of the current political debate over Brexit, and the poll’s significance in this context, the distinction between reporting that a “majority” of respondents, and the “largest proportion” was trite and meaningless.

7. Nevertheless, the publication said that in response to concerns, it had amended the online article to state that “[Prime Minister] has the support of most people who have an opinion to deliver Brexit by any means, including suspending Parliament, according to a poll” and that the survey found that “54% of British adults who expressed a view think Parliament should be prorogued to prevent MPs stopping a no-deal Brexit”. It also published the following wording as a footnote to the online article, and in print in its corrections and clarifications column on page two, on 15 August, two days after the original article was published:

Poll results

A 13 August article reported that 54 per cent of the public think Parliament may have to be prorogued to deliver Brexit by Oct 31. This was the proportion of respondents in a ComRes poll who agreed that the Prime Minister “need to deliver Brexit by any means, including suspending Parliament if necessary.” This figure however excluded those who expressed no view. Of all respondents 44 per cent agreed, 37 per cent disagreed and 19 per cent didn’t know.

8. The newspaper said that should the terms of Clause 1(ii) be engaged, the published correction adequately clarified any ambiguity which may have arisen from the original article and was sufficiently prompt and prominent, so as to satisfy the requirements of this Clause. It said that the Corrections and Clarifications column on page two was well known to readers as the place to look should a correction or clarification be required, and was prominently placed within the newspaper; publishing wording elsewhere would be unexpected and thus less prominent for readers. It said that there was no significant public interest in requiring a front-page correction in this case; there was no argument that the article had affected the government’s opinion of possible prorogation, and there were no significant consequences from any possible misapprehension of meaning. Finally, it said that the only part of the front page article which may qualify for greater clarity was the first sentence and did not accept that this created any significantly misleading impression of the poll.

9. Finally, the complainant said that the action taken by the publication was not sufficient and any correction or remedial action should appear on the publication’s front page.

Relevant Code Provisions

10. 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

11. The article reported that the Prime Minister had “the support of more than half of the British public” or “54% of British adults” to deliver Brexit by any means, including by proroguing parliament. These figures only reflected the respondents who had answered yes or no to the statement, and excluded the significant proportion who answered “don’t know”; the article did not explain this in any way. Although the publication had relied upon the summary of the poll results as presented in the press release, it was still incumbent upon it to take care to present the poll results accurately. Regardless of how they may have been presented in the summary, the full poll results were readily available. Failing to make clear that the “don’t know” responses had been excluded constituted a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. There was a breach of Clause 1(i). Reporting the results of the poll without making clear that a significant proportion of respondents had not expressed a view was significantly misleading, particularly where this interpretation formed the basis for the claim in the article that more than half of the public were in agreement. As such, a correction was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

12. The Committee then considered whether the corrections which had been printed satisfied the requirements of Clause 1(ii). The Committee expressed some concern about the clarity of the correction, but concluded that it had adequately identified the inaccuracy and the correct position, such that it met the requirements of Clause 1 (ii). The corrections had been published two days after the article was published, prior to the publication becoming aware that IPSO had received any complaints about the article. This was sufficiently prompt. The Committee also considered that the corrections were published in sufficiently prominent positions: online, the correction was published as a footnote to the article, and in print, the correction appeared on the newspaper’s page two Corrections and Clarifications column. Although the inaccuracy appeared on the front page, the Committee was mindful that a newspaper’s established Corrections and Clarifications column is a familiar and clearly marked area where readers can find corrections, and any wording contained within this column is clearly signalled as a correction or clarification. Furthermore, in deciding whether a correction is sufficiently prominent to satisfy Clause 1(ii), the Committee will consider whether the position proposed is proportionate to the breach; in this case, the inaccuracy was confined to the reporting of one finding of the poll, and did not change the article’s thrust, namely that there was significant support among the public for the measure. For these reasons, the Committee considered that the publication of the correction made the correct position clear, and was sufficiently prompt and prominent to remedy the breach of Clause 1(i) and there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

Conclusions

13. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial Action Required

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

15. The publication had published a correction sufficiently promptly and with due prominence as to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii). There was no further breach of Clause 1(ii), and no further remedial action required.

 

Date complaint received: 13/08/2019

Date decision issued: 08/01/2020