Ruling

17508-17 Evans v express.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      7th December 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 17508-17 Evans v express.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. Andrew Evans complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “BOMBSHELL POLL: Seven in 10 Britons now support hard Brexit according to major survey”, published online on 11 August 2017. 

2. The article reported on the findings of a survey which examined public opinion and attitudes towards the possible outcomes of Brexit negotiations, and Britain’s future relationship with the EU. The article reported that more than 20,000 respondents had been surveyed and asked questions about “a series of conditions imposed on Britain as a result of being in the bloc”. Based on this poll, the article claimed that “seven in 10 Britons now support a hard Brexit”; that “two-thirds of people would rather quit with no deal than settle for a soft Brexit”; that “neither Leavers nor Remainers support the continuation of free movement after Brexit”; that Remainers do not wish to be subject to the European Court of Justice; and that both Leavers and Remainers support paying no “Brexit bill”. The article included comment made by an author of the survey that “our results imply that…there is on aggregate higher levels of support for outcomes that resemble the ‘hard Brexit’ position put forward by the government”. 

3. The complainant said that only 3,293 respondents had taken part in the poll, and that the article had misinterpreted its findings. He said that, in the poll, respondents had been presented with “bundles” of policy proposals, and had to either accept or reject the whole bundle. He said that it was not possible to deduce support of particular policy proposals from the survey, rather the survey showed respondents’ preference of one bundle, over another. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that “Britons now support a hard Brexit”; the respondents were not asked whether they preferred a hard or a soft Brexit, rather they were presented with a particular set of preferences which were later assigned the hard and soft labels by the surveyors. He said that the survey’s, and therefore the article’s, characterisation of the bundles as hard and soft was inaccurate. 

4. The complainant provided a summary of the original survey, written by its authors, which included a link to the survey findings. He said the survey authors had said that “what we caution readers to avoid, however, is looking at these numbers as raw measures of support for particular features”. 

5. The publication said that the reference to the number of respondents had been taken from an article published by another publication, which also reported on the findings of the survey. Once it became aware that this figure had been misreported, it amended the article accordingly and published the following correction as a footnote to the online article: 

“CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story said the researchers surveyed 20,000 people. In fact the researchers collected six data points each from 3,293 people, resulting in a dataset of 19,758 choices”. 

6. The publication did not accept that the article had misinterpreted the survey findings. It said that the survey showed that the majority of respondent’s chose groups of outcomes which contained policies such as paying no “Brexit bill” and no longer being subject to the European Court of Justice, as opposed to groups of outcomes which contained policies such as staying in the Single Market and the continuation of free movement. The publication said that it was entitled to characterise these outcomes as “hard” and “soft”, as in the original survey, and that the article made the basis of the observations clear. 

Relevant Code Provisions

7. 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. 

Findings of the Committee 

8. The publication had a copy of the original survey findings prior to publication, however it had taken the information, that 20,000 respondents had been surveyed, from another article published at an earlier date. The publication did not take any further steps to verify this information, and this represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1 (i). The survey stated that only 3,293 respondents had been surveyed. The discrepancy between these figures gave a significantly misleading impression of the scope of the survey, which required correction, in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). 

9. The publication promptly published a correction as a footnote to the online article, which addressed the inaccurate information, that 20,000 respondents had taken part in the surveyed, and made the correct position clear, that 3,293 respondents had been surveyed. The Committee considered that this was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

10. The newspaper was entitled to characterise the groups of options presented to the respondents as “hard” and “soft”, as recorded in the survey results; the article made clear which policies had been ascribed the “hard” label, such as Britain “leaving the Single Market and taking back control of immigration”, and which policies had been ascribed the “soft” label, such as Britain staying in the Single Market and “accepting free movement”. The article also included the survey authors’ comment that “there is on aggregate higher levels of support for outcomes that resemble the ‘hard Brexit’ position”, therefore the Committee did not consider that it was significantly inaccurate to report that “Britons now support a hard Brexit”. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

11. The complaint was upheld in relation to Clause 1 (i).

Remedial action required 

12. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.  

13. The publication had promptly published the correction, which addressed the inaccurate information in the article. This was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

Date complaint received: 13/08/2017

Date decision issued: 16/11/2017