Ruling

11525-22 Mitchison v express.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      2nd February 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy


Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11525-22 Mitchison v express.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Neil Mitchison complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Brexit Britain urged not to 'hand EU £750m' to join scheme and launch own Five Eyes Plan”, published on 11 September 2022.

2. The headline to the article – which appeared online only – was followed by the sub-heading: “The UK has been urged to pull out of a £750million space programme that the EU blocked it from joining until it resolves the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute.” The article reported that the dispute over the Protocol had “dragged on so long that Britain [was] taking the EU to court” and was also “launching formal proceedings for, in Prime Minister Liz Truss’ view, violating” the Trade and Cooperation Agreement [TCA] by blocking the UK from accessing the programmes it was agreed it could join post-Brexit. The article then described a report by a prominent UK-based think tank which focused on space policy reform outside of the EU’s Copernicus programme, stating it was a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to fund a major new direction of development for UK’s space ambitions, centred around international collaboration especially with Five Eyes and Indo-Pacific Partners.” The article included comments from the organisation’s Director of Strategy and Space Policy, who suggested that, by re-joining Copernicus – and in doing so handing over “£750billion” – the UK would be “effectively subsiding the EU’s space policy” and that the UK should instead team up with its Five Eyes partners: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.

3. The article was accompanied by a video of an interview with the Chief Executive of a separate named European think tank, captioned, “EU chief threatens cancelling of TCA bill unless UK changes tack”.

4. The complainant said that the article included several inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. First, he said that the headline was inaccurate to report that the UK had been “urged” to “launch [its] own Five Eyes Plan”. He said that the Five Eyes partnership was an intelligence-sharing alliance. The think tank’s report, which focused on the separate space sector, proposed “teaming up with Britain’s Five Eyes partners”. Therefore, the proposal would not be a “Five Eyes Plan”, as it would not involve intelligence gathering or sharing – which was the purpose of the Five Eyes alliance.

5. Second, the complainant said that the article was inaccurate and misleading to report that “Britain [was] taking the EU to court”. While he said that the UK government had launched “formal consultations” against the EU – a mechanism set out in the TCA to resolve disputes between the two parties – it had not instigated legal proceedings against the bloc.

6. In addition, the complainant said that the article was inaccurate to report that re-joining the Copernicus programme would cost the UK “£750billion“; the correct figure was £750million.

7. Finally, the complainant said that the caption of the video was inaccurate to describe the Chief Executive of a European think tank as an “EU Chief”; this individual did not represent the EU nor were they in a position to “threaten” to “cancel” the TCA bill, as the video caption reported.

8. On 11 September 2022 – the day the online article was published – the complainant contacted the publication directly, via e-mail, with his concerns. When doing so, he copied IPSO into this correspondence and simultaneously requested that IPSO treat this correspondence as a formal IPSO complaint

9. Upon confirmation that the complaint fell within IPSO’s remit and raised a possible breach of the Code – and in its first response to the complainant – on 24 October 2022, the publication accepted that the article was inaccurate to report that the project cost “£750 billion” and that Britain was “taking the EU to court”. It confirmed that the article had been amended and the following correction published at the top of the article:

“A previous version of this article reported the project cost £750 billion when in fact it should have said £750 million. It also said Britain is taking the EU to court over the issue but it is not. We are happy to clarify this.”

10. The complainant said that this correction addressed the substance of his complaint, however he did not accept that the measures taken were sufficient in relation to promptness under Clause 1 (ii) of the Editors’ Code; the amendments had been made and the correction published 44 days after his initial complaint to the publication.

11. At the start of IPSO’s investigation and in a further effort to resolve the complaint, on 21 October, the publication removed the disputed video and published a following updated correction under the headline of the online article:

“A previous version of this article reported the project cost £750 billion when in fact it should have said £750 million. It also said Britain is taking the EU to court over the issue but it is not. We are happy to clarify this. The article also included a video which described the Chief Executive of a European think tank as an “EU Chief”. This was incorrect and the video has since been removed.”

12. While the publication did not accept that the complainant’s first point of complaint about the “Five Eyes Plan” represented an inaccuracy, it removed the term “own” from the headline in a gesture of goodwill. The amended headline read: “Brexit Britain urged not to 'hand EU £750m' to join scheme and launch Five Eyes Plan”. In any event, the publication said that the headline was supported by the text of the article: the think tank and its author had proposed a UK space sector which would be “centred around international collaboration especially with Five Eyes and Indo-Pacific Partners” and “would involve teaming up with Britain’s Five Eyes partners”.

13. Though the complainant welcomed the further additions to the correction and accepted that the item addressed the substance of his complaint, he expressed concern at the time taken by the publication to remedy the inaccuracies.

14. The publication said it was satisfied that all significant inaccuracies within the article had been addressed sufficiently; the correction had been published promptly and with due prominence. It noted that the complainant’s initial correspondence made clear that he wished for IPSO to first consider his concerns as a formal complaint; it was reasonable for the publication to wait for the complaint to be referred by IPSO before taking action.

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

15. The article made the clear assertion that the UK was “taking the EU to court” over a dispute about the TCA. While it appeared to be accepted that the UK government had launched dispute resolution proceedings over its access to EU science programmes – through a mechanism set out in the TCA – this did not in itself constitute formal legal proceedings, as suggested by the article. This amounted to a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i). This was significant, misrepresenting the status of the action taken and implying the existence of formal legal proceedings between the two parties when that was not the case. A correction was therefore required to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

16. The Committee also noted that the article incorrectly reported that re-joining the Copernicus programme would cost the UK “£750billion”. While the Committee noted that the correct figure of “£750million” was provided in the text of the article, including within the sub-heading, the newspaper’s failure to report this figure correctly and consistently represented a further breach of Clause 1(i). The Committee considered the difference between “millions” and “billions” to be significant, particularly in circumstances where the cost of the programme was a factor in the think tank’s proposal for a “Plan B” for the UK space sector and by extension the basis of the article. As such, a correction also addressing this point was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

17. The Committee then considered whether the action taken by the publication was sufficient to avoid a further breach of Clause 1(ii) on these two points. In considering this, the Committee had regard to the complainant’s initial correspondence with the publication and IPSO on 11 September 2022, which asked IPSO to consider the concerns raised as a formal complaint. Upon receipt of the complaint from IPSO, the publication removed the inaccurate information from the online article and published a correction. This identified the inaccuracies and put the correct position on record. It was offered promptly, as part of the publication’s first substantive response during IPSO’s complaints process, and was sufficiently prominent, appearing beneath the headline of the article. This correction met the terms of Clause 1 (ii), and there was no further breach on this point.

18. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concerns that the caption of the video which described the Chief Executive of a European think tank as an “EU Chief”. It was accepted by both parties that this individual did not hold any formal position within the European Union. While the Committee noted that the video included the individual’s name and title, this was not sufficient to rectify the inaccurate and misleading impression given by the caption. This represented a further breach of Clause 1(i). In the context of an article about UK-EU relations, and where the caption of the video suggested that this individual had direct involvement in negotiations, between the two parties, this was significant and as such required correction under Clause 1 (ii).

19. The Committee noted, at the start of IPSO’s investigation, the publication amended the online article to remove the video in its entirety and published a further, updated correction beneath the headline. The updated wording identified this inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. It was offered promptly, in the publication’s first substantive response during IPSO’s investigation, and with due prominence. The Committee was therefore satisfied that the correction addressed the terms of Clause 1 (ii), and there was no further breach.

20. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concerns about the headline. In the Committee’s view, the text of the article made clear that the reference to the UK’s “own Five Eyes Plan” came from the findings and recommendations of the think tank’s report on the UK space sector as well as the comments by its Director of Strategy and Space Policy. For this reason, and where the report itself made the specific recommendation that a future UK space programme should centre on international collaborations with the Five Eyes and could explain beyond “strictly civil or defence applications”, the article was not inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 in regard to this.

Conclusion(s)

21. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

22. The published corrections clearly put the correct position on record, and were offered promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required.



Date complaint received: 11/09/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 16/01/2023



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.