Ruling

14834-23 Ochota v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      14th September 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 14834-23 Ochota v The Sunday Times


Summary of Complaint

1. Mary-Ann Ochota 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 “Sunak’s threat to pull UK out of the ECHR”, published on 5 February 2023.

2. The article reported that the prime minister was “prepared to take Britain out of the European convention on human rights (ECHR) after being warned that 65,000 illegal migrants are expected to come to the country this year.” The article included a photograph showing the prime minister; the  caption beneath the photograph stated politicians were “finalising plans for a bill that would make it illegal to claim asylum in Britain for those who come here illegally”. The article then stated that “official estimates suggest there will be almost a 50 per cent increase in illegal migration on last year, when 45,000 claimed asylum, many of them after crossing the Channel in small boats”. It went on to report that “the political imperative to stop the boats is heightened by the estimate of 65,000 illegal arrivals this year”. It then explained that the source of the 65,000 figure was “an official computer model that tracks migration flows around the world. Last year, when 45,000 illegal migrants came to the UK, the model was accurate to within 600 people.”

3. The article also quoted a “senior figure” who said: “the PM is as frustrated as the public that the number of people arriving here illegally in small boats has risen fourfold in the last two years.” It also quoted from “a No 10 source” who said: “for the first time, if you come here illegally, you can expect to be detained and removed from the UK”.

4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline “Rishi Sunak’s threat to pull UK out of the ECHR”.

5. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1 because it used the terms “illegal migration” and “illegal migrants” to describe asylum seekers. She said this gave the inaccurate impression that people seeking asylum had done something illegal, which she argued misrepresented UK law, as the law does not describe asylum seekers themselves – or the act of seeking asylum – as “illegal”.

6. The complainant also said the article was inaccurate as it quoted an unnamed source, who had reportedly said: "the PM is as frustrated as the public that the number of people arriving here illegally in small boats has risen fourfold in the last two years”. She said the article should have clarified that arriving in a small boat is not illegal.

7. The complainant also said the article was in breach of the Code as she considered it could incite hatred against asylum seekers.

8. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code, or that it had inaccurately conflated “illegal migrants” and “illegal migration” with asylum seekers. It said it had in fact been careful not to do this: it was aware “illegal asylum seeker” is a legally inaccurate phrase – as it is not illegal to seek asylum – and this was reflected in its internal style guide. It said the terms “illegal migration” and “illegal migrants” were not used within the article to describe asylum seeking and asylum seekers; these terms were solely used to describe illegal migration and illegal migrants.

9. The publication also said that the law governing immigration was complicated, and the paper was not a technical legal publication; it was written in everyday language for the normal reader to understand. It said that an “ordinary” reader would have no issue understanding what was meant by the term “illegal migrant”, and that this was not a claim that seeking asylum was illegal. It said the phrase as commonly used describes those who have entered the country illegally.

10. In making this argument, the publication relied on Section 24 of the Immigration Act 1971, which states:

24 Illegal entry and similar offences.

[F1 (A1) A person who knowingly enters the United Kingdom in breach of a deportation order commits an offence.

(B1) A person who—

(a )requires leave to enter the United Kingdom under this Act, and

(b) knowingly enters the United Kingdom without such leave, commits an offence

(C1)A person who—

(a) has only a limited leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom, and

(b) knowingly remains beyond the time limited by the leave, commits an offence.

(D1 )A person who—

(a) requires entry clearance under the immigration rules, and

(b) knowingly arrives in the United Kingdom without a valid entry clearance, commits an offence.

The publication said that this legislation showed that it was a criminal offence for a person who is not a British citizen to knowingly enter or remain in the UK without authorisation to do so. People entering the country on small boats would be doing so without authorisation, and describing this as illegal migration or the people who did so as illegal migrants was not, the publication said, inaccurate. It also noted the term “illegal migration” was used in government documents, which it provided to support this position.

11. Turning to the specific figures used in the article, the publication said the article was concerned with the number making legitimate asylum claims who have arrived illegally in small boats. It said Home Office statistics showed that there were 45,755 people detected arriving by small boats in 2022. It said the proportion of those established as claiming asylum after arriving in the country had previously been put at 98%.

12. The publication also disputed the complainant’s statement that “arriving in small boats was not illegal”. It said crossing the channel without authorisation is not a legal way to enter the UK. It also did not accept that the article allegedly inciting hate against those seeking asylum engaged the Code.

13. The complainant did not consider it to be relevant that government documents used the terms “illegal migrants” and “illegal migration”. She said this did not change the fact that the article had used these terms in a misleading manner.

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

14. It was not in dispute that the act of claiming asylum is not illegal. The article as a whole made clear that an “illegal” method of entry did not currently act as a barrier for an asylum claim, but that this would change under proposed legislation. This was shown, for instance, in the reference to “finalising plans for a bill that would make it illegal to claim asylum in Britain for those who come here illegally”, and the quote from a source who stated: “for the first time if you come here illegally, you can expect to be detained and removed from the UK”.  

15. However, the article had also referred to “almost a 50 per cent increase in illegal migration on last year, when 45,000 claimed asylum.” It had later referred to “45,000 illegal migrants” arriving that same year – therefore using the phrases “illegal migrant” to describe the 45,000 people who had claimed asylum. These phrases, where the phrase “illegal migrants” was used to refer to people who had “claimed asylum”, implied in a misleading manner that the 45,000 people who had claimed asylum were illegal migrants, when it is not illegal to enter the UK for the purpose of claiming asylum – notwithstanding the fact that the method by which these individuals had entered the country may have been illegal, their migration was not. The publication had demonstrated that a high proportion of those who entered the country by small boats went on to claim asylum. However, this did not mean that the terms “asylum seeker” and “illegal migrant” could be used interchangeably when reporting the numbers of people who entering the country via irregular means. The Committee found the article had conflated the numbers of “illegal migrants” who had entered the country with asylum seekers in a misleading way. Therefore, the publication had not taken care over the accuracy of its reporting, and there was a breach of Clause 1(i).

16. The inaccuracy related to a matter of national debate, and conflated illegal migrants with asylum seekers. The inaccuracy we therefore significant and in need of correction under Clause 1(ii). The publication had not offered any corrective action and there was therefore a further breach of this sub-Clause.

17. The Committee then considered whether the publication had breached the Code by including a quote from a source which referred to people “arriving here illegally in small boats.” While this was attributed to a specific individual, the quote clearly included a claim of fact and therefore the newspaper was required to take care over the accuracy of this claim. However, the claim of illegality was clearly linked to the method of arrival – rather than a claim that the act of claiming asylum is illegal.  Where it is unlawful to enter the UK without authorisation – notwithstanding that a successful asylum claim may later be brought, and the individual in question not become liable for criminal prosecution – this was not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted and there was no breach of Clause 1.

18. The Committee finally considered whether the issue of the article potentially inciting hatred against asylum seekers engaged the Code. While it appreciated this issue was highly concerning to the complainant, incitement of hatred is a criminal matter and does not fall within IPSO’s remit.

Conclusions

19. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

20. 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 and/or an adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

21. The Committee considered the article had conflated illegal migrants and asylum seekers in a misleading manner. The misleading information appeared in the text of the article rather than the headline, and was confined to two lines within the article – the remainder of the article correctly set out the legal position of asylum seekers. Therefore, on balance, the Committee considered that a correction was the appropriate remedy. The correction should acknowledge that the article misleadingly conflated illegal migrants with asylum seekers. It should also put the correct position on record, namely that it is not illegal to seek asylum.

22. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. With regard to the print correction, considered that it should be published in the publication’s regular Corrections and Clarifications column.

23. Turning to the online correction, if the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, the correction on the article should be published beneath the headline. If the article is amended and the misleading information removed, the correction should be published as a footnote.

 

Date complaint received:  03/04/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  25/08/2023

 

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.