Ruling

09772-23 Peet v Sunday People

    • Date complaint received

      13th July 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09772-23 Peet v Sunday People

 

Summary of Complaint

1. Louise Peet complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday People breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “We go without meals to keep our son alive”, published on 15 January 2023.

2. The article was a report on the difficulties faced by disabled people and their families during the cost-of-living crisis. The article included the story of the complainant’s family who “faced an agonising situation every single day”. The article reported that the complainant’s two-year-old son had a “rare type of spina bifida and cannot walk or talk” and that “each day he is attached to a feeding pump and each night he needs an oxygen machine to help him breathe”. It went on to report that “the gruelling treatment not only takes its toll on [the complainant’s son], but soaring energy bills mean his mum Louise, her partner and [son]’s sister […] have been pushed to the brink”. The article then stated that the family were “struggling to afford their £200-a-month energy bill and are now having to choose between buying food and paying to keep [the son’s] vital machines going”.

3. The article also appeared online under the headline “EXCLUSIVE: Mum and dad go without food to meet 3-year-old son's needs as energy bills soar”.

4. The complainant said that the print version of the headline was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because it reported that she and her husband “go without meals to keep her son alive”. The article was based on an interview she had had with a journalist working for the newspaper, and the complainant said that she had not stated this during the interview. While the complainant accepted that her and her family had cut down on meals as part of managing rising costs, she said that to say their choice was as stark as going without meals to keep her son alive was not accurate.

5. The complainant also said that both versions of the article inaccurately reported her son “cannot walk or talk;” she said he was able to talk. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that she was aged 43; she said she was 36.

6. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 1 by reporting that her family had a “£200-a-month energy bill”. She said that, while this was the amount that they paid per month, this was a smaller amount than their actual usage; they had negotiated with their energy supplier so that they were allowed to pay a smaller amount. She said that the family were building up debt which would have to be paid off in the summer, as they were paying less than what they actually used.

7. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that her daughter had been “pushed to the brink”. She said her children were not suffering in “that sense”. The complainant also said the article was inaccurate because it said she had one disabled child, when actually she was a mother to three children with disabilities.

8. The publication did not accept that it was inaccurate to report that the complainant’s family went without meals to keep her son alive. While it accepted that she had not used these specific words during her interview, when asked by the reporter “do you do you worry about the fact that you're having to keep his oxygen [and] feeding machine going?”, the complainant had replied “when it gets unmanageable we make sure the kids are fed […] me and my partner often can survive coffee on tea [sic] but they can't so we just make sure they're fed and if the cost of fuel carried on going up”. The publication provided the transcript of the interview in question, as well as a recording. It said that the transcript and recording demonstrated the complainant had referred to concerns about the cost of electricity for healthcare that was essential to keep her son alive. Therefore, the headline had accurately captured the fundamental meaning of what the complainant had expressed, even if it was not worded in precisely the same way.

9. The publication did not dispute that the complainant’s son was able to talk. It said that the journalist who conducted the interview had been put in touch with the complainant by a charity, and the charity had described the complainant’s son as “non-verbal” during a phone-call prior to the interview with the complainant. It provided notes from this call to support its position. It did not therefore accept that it had failed to take care over the accuracy of this information; it had been entitled to rely in good faith on what the charity had told the journalist. 

10. The publication did not dispute that the complainant was actually 36 and amended the complainant’s age in the online version of the article.

11. The publication did not accept it was significantly inaccurate to report that the cost of the family’s energy bills was £200 a month. It again referred to the interview transcript to support its position. When asked by the reporter “how much all of this is costing you each month”, the complainant had replied “I can only really afford to give you 200 pounds a month for the boat [sic] to cover me you can't tell me how much I'm still waiting for a bill to be honest. I can only really afford 200 a month”. Although the publication did not accept that the article was significantly inaccurate on this point, it said it would be happy to amend the online article to clarify this point.

12. The publication also did not accept it was inaccurate to report that the complainant’s daughter had been “pushed to the brink”. It argued the phrase “pushed to the brink” was a commonly used tabloid expression, and that in this instance it was intended to express the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on the whole family. Although it did not accept that the article was inaccurate on this point, it offered to remove the sentence from the article should it resolve the complaint. The complainant did not accept the offer.

13. The publication also did not accept that the article inaccurately reported that the complainant only had one child with a disability. It said there was no obligation for the newspaper to include information within articles unless doing so may possibly render the article significantly inaccurate, misleading, and distorted – and it did not believe that leaving out this particular piece of information had any material effect on the overall accuracy of the article.

14. While the publication did not accept that the article breached the Code, on 17 March – two months after being made aware of the complainant’s concerns – it offered to publish the following footnote corrections, and amend the online version of the article to remove the reference to the complainant’s son not being able walk or talk and to correct the complainant’s age:

Print

Our article 'We go without meals to keep our son alive', 15 Jan, reported the impact of the cost of living crisis for Louise Peet's family, and specifically referenced her son, […], 2, who has spina bifida. The article reported that [her son] cannot 'walk or talk'. We have since been advised that this is incorrect, as [her son] is able to talk. The article also reported that Louise was 37, when in fact she is 42. We are happy to clarify this.

Online

A previous version of this article reported that [the complainant’s son] cannot walk or talk. We have since been advised that this is incorrect as [he] is able to talk. The article has also been amended to correct Louise's age. We are happy to clarify this.

Relevant Clause 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

15. The Committee firstly considered whether the print version of the headline was inaccurate in reporting the complainant and her partner “skip[ped] meals to keep our son alive”. While publications are entitled to paraphrase people, a published quote must not misrepresent the actual words spoken in a significantly inaccurate, distorted, or misleading way. This is of particular importance when reporting on sensitive and personal topics.

16. The complainant had, when questioned about whether she worried about keeping her son’s medical machines running, responded that her and her husband “can often survive on coffee on tea”. As such, it was reasonable for the publication to paraphrase this as the complainant and her partner “skipp[ing] meals” to keep costs down.

17. However, the publication had gone further than this, where both versions of the headline said that the family skipped meals did so in order to “keep [their son] alive”. The Committee considered that this misrepresented the complainant’s words; the headline did not reflect the phrasing she had chosen and, as a consequence, gave the impression that the situation of her and her family was much more stark and desperate than she had described it in the interview.

18. Moreover, where the publication was in possession of the transcript of the interview which contained the complainant’s exact words, the Committee found this to be a failure to take care not to publish misleading information. There was, therefore, a breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point.

19. Where the misleading quote appeared prominently in the print version of the headline and related to a sensitive and personal topic – the financial difficulties facing a family with disabled children – the headline was significantly misleading. Correction was therefore required by the terms of Clause 1 (ii). As no correction had been offered on this point, this represented a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

20. The Committee then turned to the question of whether the publication had failed to take care not to print inaccurate information in reporting that the complainant’s son “could not walk or talk”. During IPSO’s investigation the complainant had explained it was inaccurate to report her son was not able to talk, which the publication accepted and offered to correct. While it was clearly inaccurate to report that her son was unable to talk, the publication provided notes from the call with the charity where her son had been described as “non-verbal”. As such, the Committee found the publication had taken care not to print accurate information on this point and there was no breach of Clause 1 (i).

21. However, where the focus of the article was on her son and the struggles faced because of his disability, reporting the facts of his disability accurately was clearly a point of significance, and stating that the complainant’s son was unable to talk was a significant inaccuracy in need of correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii) – notwithstanding that the publication had taken care over the accuracy of this information. The Committee then considered whether the corrective action on this point was sufficiently prompt and prominent to satisfy the terms of the Clause 1 (ii). The Committee found where the correction had not been offered until two months after the complainant made the publication aware of the correct position, it was not offered promptly enough to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

22. The Committee then considered whether reporting the complainant’s age incorrectly was an inaccuracy that was significant in the context of the article and therefore in need of correction. Where the complainant’s age was not the focus of the article, the Committee did not consider the inaccuracy to be significant and therefore in need of correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

23. The Committee then considered whether it was inaccurate to report that the family’s energy bills were £200 a month. Where it was not in dispute that the family were paying £200 a month toward their bills, the article was not significantly inaccurate on this point.

24. While the Committee understood that the complainant was unhappy that the article had described her daughter as “pushed to the brink”, it noted that it was a vague term without a specific meaning. The sentence under complaint also referred to the parents as well as the complainant’s daughter, and the article was reporting on the challenges faced by the family as a whole. Where it was not in dispute that there were pressures on the family, it did not consider this a significantly inaccurate or misleading description.

25. The Committee finally considered the complainant’s concern that the article had not mentioned she had three disabled children. Newspapers have the right to choose which pieces of information they publish, as long as this does not lead to a breach of the Code. In this case, the publication was entitled to focus on the complainant’s son, and it was not obliged to mention the disabilities of her other children.  There was no breach of Clause on this point.

Conclusions

26. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

27. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction or an adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

28. The Committee considered that the publication had not taken the necessary care when reporting the complainant’s comments to its reporter, and this had led to the publication of significantly inaccurate and distorted information. The publication had offered to correct one significant inaccuracy when it was brought to its attention – the fact that the complainant’s son was able to talk – it had not corrected the significantly misleading print headline. In these circumstances, a correction was appropriate given that the newspaper had published its interpretation of the comments which had been made in the interview and a published correction was sufficient to make the complainant’s position clear.

29. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. The original article appeared on page 13 of the paper, and so the correction should appear on the same page or further forward. The correction should make clear both that the complainant’s son can talk – as set out in the publication’s proposed correction – and that the complainant had not told the newspaper that her and her partner “go without meals to keep our son alive”. The wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it had been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

30. The headline of the online version of the article was not under complaint; however, the body of the article itself had included inaccurate information about the complainant’s son’s disability. While the clarification on this point had not been offered sufficiently promptly, for the reasons previously noted, the Committee considered the correction proposed to be an appropriate, duly-prominent remedy and should now be published.

 

Date complaint received:  15/01/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  21/06/2023