Ruling

29958-20 Iddon v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      15th July 2021

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 29958-20 Iddon v The Sun

Summary of Complaint

1. Chris Iddon complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “COLD TURKEY; Madcap advice encourages us to eat Xmas dinner outside with gran”, published on 17 December 2020.

2. The article was published on the newspaper’s front-page. The headline appeared beneath the banner “ANOTHER SAGE STUFFING”. The first line of the article reported that “Brits were last night urged by boffins to cut back on Christmas plans – and celebrate outside if granny is joining”. It then stated that the “crackers” advice could see families eating turkey dinners outside. The main article continued on page four and five, beneath the two bullet point sub-headline - the first reading “Brits left baffled by festive rule” and the second “Conflicting advice in every country”.

3. A substantially similar version of the article appeared online, headlined “COLD TURKEY Boris Johnson urges Brits to cut back on Christmas plans as experts say we should eat turkey dinner OUTSIDE with gran".

4. The complainant said the article was inaccurate and misleading, in breach of Clause 1. He said that the headline was significantly misleading, as the advice from SAGE included a section specific to shared dining, and at no point did it suggest eating outside. He said the banner reference to “SAGE” and the reference to “boffins” – a term commonly used by the newspaper to refer to members of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – gave the clear impression it was reporting SAGE advice. Furthermore, he said describing this particular advice as “madcap” and “crackers” was, in the midst of a pandemic, irresponsible and could potentially undermine adherence to the government’s guidance.

5. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. The newspaper said the article was not referring to SAGE advice, but rather to government advice, which recommended that Christmas support bubbles which include members over the age of 70 should “meet outdoors where possible”. The newspaper did not agree that its front-page misrepresented this advice, as there was an “implicit” suggestion in the advice issued that people should celebrate Christmas with their elderly relatives outside. It argued that front-page articles such as this one were a defining characteristic of the newspaper and tabloid journalism in general. It did not consider a literal interpretation of its front-page appropriate, noting that the "wording and presentation [of the article] signal clearly to readers" that it was hyperbolic and "humorous parody of government advice" designed to demonstrate that a traditional British Christmas celebration - families meeting indoors, with a substantial meal at its focus – was impractical in 2020. It added that this approach was also reflected in the text of the article: "BRITS were last night urged by boffins to cut back on Christmas plans - and celebrate outside if granny is joining. The crackers advice could see families eating turkey dinners out in their gardens in an icy 1°C." The newspaper maintained that it was entitled to characterise this advice as “madcap” and “crackers”.

6. The newspaper also noted that the banner “ANOTHER SAGE STUFFING” was itself a Christmas pun and designed to work in conjunction with the ‘turkey’ theme of the article. In addition to its intentions to be humorous, the publication argued that the banner was not the formal headline and as such did not have the same requirements under the Editors’ Code. Though the newspaper said that any advice issued by the government concerning Covid-19 would likely be informed at least to some degree by the input of SAGE, and readers would be well aware of this relationship, it maintained that the article did not refer to any official SAGE document(s) or pronouncement(s) that could lead readers to understand that it was the official source of this particular advice. It added that the meaning of “boffins” was dependent on context: the text of the article did not explicitly refer to SAGE advice, or scientists in general. In addition, it noted that this word was a wide-ranging term used colloquially to denote any kind of expert, or “highly qualified” individual or academic (of any discipline), adding that it was “by no means a synonym for” scientists. In order to demonstrate this variety, the newspaper provided a number of articles from a range of publications.

7. Although the newspaper did not accept that the terms of Clause 1 (i) were engaged, it amended the headline and first paragraph of the online article on 18 February, adding the following footnote clarification to record this:

“CLARIFICATION: This article's original headline has been changed to clarify that the Government has advised meeting - not necessarily eating - outdoors with elderly relatives at Christmas.”

8. In a further effort to resolve this complaint, the newspaper offered on 25 February to publish the following statement in its established Corrections and Clarification column which appears on page 2:

“We have been asked to clarify that our 17 Dec article, 'Cold Turkey', reported Government advice to meet elderly relatives outside at Christmas, not official SAGE output, and that it advised meeting, not specifically eating, outdoors. We are happy to do so.”

9. Whilst the complaint welcomed this offer, he did not consider the clarification offered adequate expressing concern that it did not “acknowledge the error of describing the advice as madcap or crackers”. The newspaper maintained that it was entitled under the Code to editorialise, with the terms “madcap” and “crackers” playing a role in signalling to readers that the articles were treating the guidance issued by the government in humorous, hyperbolic terms.

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

10. Under the terms of the Editors’ Code, newspapers are entitled to present material in the way they choose – including in a humorous or mocking way, provided that they clearly distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, and take sufficient care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.

11. In this instance, the Committee did not accept that the article stated that specific advice had been issued that recommended the public to eat outside at Christmas; rather, it said that the advice “could” result in “families eating turkey dinners out in their gardens”. It was not inaccurate to suggest this was a potential effect of the advice, given that it covered the easement of restrictions over the Christmas period and suggested that support bubbles which included members over the age of 70 should “meet outdoors where possible”, with no exclusion for meals. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. In addition, the newspaper was entitled to characterise the government’s advice as “madcap” and “crackers”. This characterisation did not amount to a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article; it clearly represented the newspaper’s comment on the advice to meet people over 70 outdoors where possible. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. The Committee then considered the complainant’s concerns in relation to the banner “ANOTHER SAGE STUFFING”, in conjunction with the reference to “boffins” in the opening paragraph. The Committee did not consider that the punning reference in the headline constituted a factual claim that the “boffins” referenced in the opening paragraph of the article specifically referred to members of SAGE, or that the advice had been issued specifically by SAGE. Given the role of SAGE in informing government guidance of the type that was the subject of the article, the Committee did not consider that the generalised link to SAGE implied by the headline demonstrated a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, or constituted significantly inaccurate or misleading claim requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). As such, there was no breach of Clause 1.

14. Notwithstanding this, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s decision to amend the online article and to publish a footnote clarification in order to remove any ambiguity on the points raised by the complainant.

Conclusion

15. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

16. N/A

Date complaint received: 17/12/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 30/06/2021