Ruling

10749-21 Sokal v kentlive.news

    • Date complaint received

      31st March 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 10749-21 Sokal v kentlive.news

Summary of Complaint

1. Alan Sokal complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that kentlive.news breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “University of Kent debunks claims students made to take 'white privilege' course”, published on 29th September 2021.

2. The article reported that the “University of Kent [had] debunk[ed] claims [that] students [were] made to take 'white privilege' course”. It went on to state that “[t]he module, called Expect Respect, is neither compulsory nor solely focused on the concept of white privilege, which seeks to highlight how white people are not subject to the same, often very regular racial discrimination as other ethnic and racial backgrounds”. It reported that articles in two other national newspapers implied that students were being made to take the module, but that a University of Kent spokesperson had addressed these claims. The article stated, “that whilst participation was encouraged, it is by no means mandatory, and not taking the course would not result in any kind of punishment”, including a quote from the spokesperson who said that “[w]hile we would like as many students as possible to take the module, nobody would face action for not doing so”.

3. The complainant said that the headline of the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because the previously published claims the article purported to “debunk” were in fact true, and the University had indeed told every student to complete the online course. To support his position, the complainant provided a number of pages from the University of Kent website which dated from July 2018 to August 2021, which referred to the module as being compulsory. One stated “[t]he Expect Respect module is a compulsory module for all registered students at the University of Kent, regardless of what you are studying or whether you are an undergraduate or postgraduate student”. The complainant added that he had made the publication aware of the University of Kent webpages prior to complaining to IPSO, and that it should have issued a correction after he had done so.

4. The complainant also said that the article was misleading to state that “it was clarified that whilst participation was encouraged, it is by no means mandatory, and not taking the course would not result in any kind of punishment” and to include the spokesperson’s statement that “[w]hile we would like as many students as possible to take the module, nobody would face action for not doing so”. He said that while the statements were technically true, the article concealed other relevant information about the University’s stance on the course, such as its website references to the module being compulsory, rendering the article misleading.

5. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1 and said that it had taken care regarding the accuracy of the information included in the article. It said that it had contacted the University for comment and provided the email response where the spokesperson had said “[w]hile we would like as many students as possible to take the module, nobody would face action for not doing so”. It highlighted that the reporter’s approach to the University included a reference to a “debunking article about these reports”, which the University raised no concern about and did not dispute. The publication added that the University did not state at any point to the publication that it had changed its policy from “compulsory” to optional.

6. The publication added that upon IPSO launching its investigation, it contacted the University again to confirm that the module was not compulsory. It provided the University’s response, in which the University spokesperson confirmed that the module was not compulsory, and it was working on clarifying its own “comms” around this. The publication added that while the University websites may contradict what the spokesperson had said, it was not the responsibility of the publication that the websites needed updating. 

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

7. The Committee recognised that the matters under complaint related to a contentious issue, and that there appeared to be contradictory communications regarding the University’s position on the module. It was the Committee’s role to determine whether the publication had taken care over the accuracy of the information included in the article, and whether the article included any significant inaccuracies in need of correction.

8. The Committee first considered the complainant’s concerns that it was inaccurate to claim the University of Kent had “debunk[ed]” claims made in two other national newspapers that students were required to take the course. The publication had provided email correspondence in which the reporter approached the University spokesperson for comment, and the spokesperson had said “[w]hile we would like as many students as possible to take the module, nobody would face action for not doing so”. In addition, upon receipt of the complaint, the publication contacted the University again and asked in unambiguous terms whether or not the course was compulsory; the publication received a response in the negative. The Committee acknowledged that the University websites provided by the complainant stated that the module was compulsory, which appeared to contradict what the University spokesperson had said. It was the Committee’s view, however, that where the spokesperson had made clear that students would not face action for not taking the module, it was not significantly inaccurate to characterise this as the University of Kent having “debunk[ed]” claims [the] students [were] made to take 'white privilege' course”. The University was best placed to comment on its policy around the module, and the publication was entitled to rely on the University’s most recent statement on this matter. The publication had taken sufficient care over this claim by approaching the University for comment, and the Committee was satisfied there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

9. The Committee then turned to the complainant’s concern that it was misleading to state that “it was clarified that whilst participation was encouraged, it is by no means mandatory, and not taking the course would not result in any kind of punishment” and to include the spokesperson’s statement that “[w]hile we would like as many students as possible to take the module, nobody would face action for not doing so”. The complainant was concerned that the article had omitted other relevant information, such as the University webpages he had provided. While the omission of relevant information can render an article misleading or inaccurate, the Committee did not consider that this was the case in this instance. The article reported on the University’s present stance on students’ obligation to take a module, making clear that this was based on the spokesperson’s statement. The publication had taken sufficient care over the information included in the article, by approaching the University for comment and publishing its response. It was not in dispute that the statement from the University spokesperson was accurately reported. No significant inaccuracy arose from reporting this, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusion(s)

10. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

11. N/A

 

Date complaint received: 12/10/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 11/03/2022