Ruling

09950-22 Hay v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      3rd November 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09950-22 Hay v The Sunday Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Malcom Hay complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “50-somethings, get out of your gardens: Britain needs you”, published on 29 May 2022.

2. The article was labelled as “comment” and discussed employment in the UK. It noted that there was a “record 1.3 million [job] vacancies” and a “short supply” of workers in several different professions, which it described as an “employment crisis”. The start of the article stated that “Covid-related labour shortages mean industries such as hospitality are still operating well below their previous capacity” and that the “strained state of the labour market is one of Covid’s longer-lasting legacies”. The article also commented on the level of unemployment, which it said was at its lowest level since 1974 and stated that “[i]t seems strange to think that two years ago we were worrying about an unemployment crisis, because what we have ended up with is an employment crisis". Within the same paragraph the article provided a list of reasons as to why unemployment was at this level: “Some of that is testament to the success of the furlough scheme […] Part of it is down to Brexit, which contributed to the exodus of 200,000 EU citizens over the past two years. But there is also something very unusual going on. About 450,000 people have left the workforce since 2019 — a big drop by past standards”. The article also included the opinion of the governor of the Bank of England: “Trying to explain why the Bank of England had been wrong-footed by employment dynamics this month, Andrew Bailey, the governor, was clear that the fall had been driven by a rise in the number of “economically inactive people” — those who do not have a job and are not looking for one.”

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline “Fiftysomethings, get out of your gardens: Britain needs you”. It was labelled as a “leading article”, rather than “comment”.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that in the years preceding 30 June 2021 the outflow of EU citizens was 450,000 whereas the inflow of EU citizens was 462,000, meaning that there was a net inflow of EU citizens overall. He supplied government data to support this. He said, therefore, the article was inaccurate to report that there had been an “exodus of 200,000 EU citizens”. The complainant said that Covid was a far more significant factor than Brexit, and that he believed the article had ignored this.

5. The complainant also thought that it was misleading for the article to refer to an “exodus of 200,000 EU citizens” alongside the figure of 450,000 people leaving the workforce since 2019. He said that this gave the misleading impression that EU citizens leaving the UK workforce made up almost half the number of people leaving – when in fact the vast majority of people who had left the UK workforce were UK citizens. In support of that argument, he provided information from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which did show that the number of people in employment when comparing figures from January – March 2020 was 454,000 lower than between January – March 2022. However, itemising this figure showed that there were 210,000 fewer EU citizens in work by the end of this period and 426,000 fewer UK citizens; meanwhile there had been an increase of 182,000 non-EU citizens. The complainant said, therefore, it was misleading for the article to refer to the “exodus of 200,000 EU citizens” alongside citing the overall decrease of people in the work place as 450,000 in general, whilst omitting that the number of non-EU citizens in employment was 182,000 higher than two years prior.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said, firstly, that the article was an editorial, and was therefore entitled to advance its own views and arguments. It said the article was clearly distinguished as comment – it was labelled “comment” in print and “leading article” in the online version. It said that the figures in the article did not refer to the number of EU citizens who had left the UK in general, but rather that the sentence should be read in the context of the relevant paragraph, which it said made clear that the exodus related to EU citizens who had left the UK workforce. The publication provided a table from the ONS which showed there has been a drop in employment among EU nationals of just over 200,000. It recorded a total of 2.411 million EU nationals in the UK workforce in January - March 2020 and 2.201 million in January - March 2022. The publication noted that the figures supplied by the complainant related to different dates than the ones referred to in the article, and whilst it did not accept a breach of the Code, offered to amend the online article from “EU citizens” to “EU workers” and published wording in its print and online corrections and clarifications column. This wording was offered in its first substantive response to the complainant:

"An article on UK employment referred to an exodus of 200,000 EU citizens in the last two years (leading article, May 29). The number of EU nationals working in the UK fell by this amount in the two years to March 2022: the number of EU citizens residing in the UK rose slightly over the previous two years."

7. The publication did not accept that referring to both the “exodus” of 200,000 EU citizens from the workforce and the overall workforce reduction of 450,000 was misleading in the way suggested by the complainant. It said that the focus of the article was on economically inactive people as the primary cause of the workforce reduction, and that the passing reference to Brexit having "contributed to" the 200,000 reduction in the number of EU workers in the UK workforce suggested that Brexit merely  played a part. The publication noted that the article went on to argue that “there is also something very unusual going on” – meaning something new was at play in the overall workforce reduction of 450,000. The article cited the governor of the Bank of England, whose opinion was that the reduction was driven by the rise in "economically inactive people". The publication said that this did not amount to a statement that nearly half the reduction in the workforce was of EU workers, but rather the article mainly focussed on the rise in the number of "economically inactive people" as a primary cause.

8. The complainant said that the article was still inaccurate. He supplied the dataset by ONS from which the table the newspaper had provided was taken and stated that the number had risen by 31,000 in the last twelve months. He said, therefore, that the “exodus” did not take place "over the last two years" as reported, as the number had started to rise in June 2021. The complainant said that the table the publication had relied on reproduced only some of the figures from the larger dataset, and that he therefore considered the newspaper had used the data selectively. The complainant said that this rise made it inaccurate for the article to say that the low rate of unemployment was in “part” due to Brexit, as numbers of EU workers were rising again, which he believed indicated Brexit had no role. Rather he considered the decline in numbers and subsequent rise aligned with the implementation and lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.  He said that this rendered the article biased in order to blame Brexit.

9. The complainant also said that he did not consider the standalone wording within the corrections and clarifications box to be duly prominent.

10. The newspaper noted that the article did, in fact, refer to Covid and a range of other causes as to why unemployment was low – including Brexit as only one factor. The newspaper said that as a comment piece the article was entitled to advance the opinion that the low level of unemployment in the UK was partly due to Brexit. It said that whilst the complainant may disagree with the publication’s opinion, the newspaper had no responsibility to cite and give weight to every point of view, and was entitled to consider Brexit as part of this.

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

11. The Committee noted that the article was a comment piece which sought to document labour shortages in the UK in support of its argument that this presented an opportunity for older people who had left the workforce to return to it. It gave a variety of facts and figures about “labour shortages” including a list of job roles that were unfilled and stated that there were now “1.3 million vacancies”. It went on to discuss why unemployment “at 3.7 per cent [is] at its lowest level since 1974”. It was in this context that the article then reported that there had been an “exodus of 200,000 EU citizens over the past two years” and this claim was then followed by yet another figure that related to the UK workforce: “450,000 people have left the workforce since 2019”. While the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concerns, in the particular context of a narrative that was clearly focused on labour supply and significant departures from the UK workforce, the Committee considered that the phrase “exodus of 200,000 citizens” was suggestive of EU citizens who had left the workforce - rather than a broader claim about EU citizens leaving the country. That figure, interpreted in that way, was supported by an Office of National Statistics (ONS) table which recorded a total of 2.411 million EU nationals in the UK workforce in January - March 2020 and 2.201 million in January - March 2022; a difference of approximately 200,000. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. The Committee noted the complainant’s concerns that the number of EU workers had not consistently fallen between 2020 and the date of the article’s publication. However, it noted that the sentence under complaint was a brief reference to the publication’s position as to what may have contributed to the reduction in the UK work force, and not a detailed analysis of migration trends. Where it was not disputed that there were around 200,000 fewer EU workers in the UK in January – March 2022 than in January – March 2020, and where this was the most recent quarterly data at the time of publication, it was not inaccurate for the amended version of the newspaper to report that there had been “an exodus of 200,000 EU workers”. There was no breach of Clause 1(i) on this point.

13. The complainant had said that the article had made no reference to Covid as a factor to the reduction of the workforce, nor had it referred to the number of non-EU citizens who had joined the workforce. He also questioned why, if Brexit had been a factor, the number of EU citizens was beginning to rise again. The Committee firstly noted that the article was an opinion piece – and clearly distinguished as such. The article put forward the publication’s view as to the reasons for the reduction in the UK workforce, and did not need to list every possible factor which may have contributed to this: it was not intended to be an impartial analysis of the subject. Whilst the complainant may disagree that Brexit had an impact on the UK workforce, the publication was entitled to hold this opinion and express it. The Committee also noted that the article had, in fact, referred to Covid as a factor multiple times: “Covid-related labour shortages mean industries such as hospitality are still operating well below their previous capacity” and that the “strained state of the labour market is one of Covid’s longer-lasting legacies”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

14. The article reported that there had been an “exodus of 200,000 EU citizens over the past two years. But there is also something very unusual going on. About 450,000 people have left the workforce since 2019 — a big drop by past standards”. The complainant said that the juxtaposition of those two figures was misleading, as it gave the impression that almost half of those who had left the workforce were EU citizens, when the majority of people who had left the UK workforce were UK citizens. The Committee noted the statistics from ONS provided by the complainant – which showed that 454,000 people in total had left the UK workforce, and that there were 210,000 fewer EU citizens over that period. The fact that there were other significant changes contained within the overall drop in the workforce did not render those figures inaccurate. In addition, the Committee considered the context of the article as a whole – from the headline which asked “50-somethings” to get out of their gardens as “Britain need[ed them]”, to the quote from the governor of the Bank of England who “was clear that the fall had been driven by a rise in the number of ‘economically inactive people’”. In circumstances where the figures quoted in the article were accurate, and the context of the article made clear that economically inactive people in the UK were considered to be the largest driver of the fall in people in the UK workforce, the Committee did not consider the article to be misleading on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion(s)

15. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

16. N/A


Date complaint received: 30/05/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 12/10/2022


Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.