Fake News

Justice delayed with press corrections is justice denied

by Hugo Dixon | 27.03.2017

InFacts secured 10 corrections to inaccurate pre-referendum stories after complaining to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). But it took between one and seven months for the newspapers to set the record straight after we first alerted them to their errors. The average delay was 89 days.

If past form is any guidance to future behaviour, the pro-Brexit press can be expected to maintain a barrage of distorted stories during the intense negotiating period that starts when Theresa May triggers Article 50 on Wednesday. Unfortunately, on past form, corrections to inaccurate stories will be long in coming.

The length of time it takes to get justice is at odds with the Editors’ Code, which says that inaccuracies must be corrected “promptly” and that “editors must maintain in-house procedures to resolve complaints swiftly”.

One reason it takes so long to get corrections is that IPSO, which enforces the code, has a long-drawn-out complaints process with no fewer than five stages:

  • Its staff assess whether the complaint raises a possible breach of the code.
  • If so, they refer the complaint to the paper, which normally has 28 days to resolve the matter directly with the complainant.
  • If no resolution is found, IPSO staff investigate the matter themselves and seek to mediate, trying to conclude their probes within 90 days.
  • If the two sides still don’t agree, IPSO’s complaints committee gives its judgement.
  • After this, both sides can ask the watchdog to review its decision, but only on the basis that the original process was “substantially flawed”.

This quasi-judicial process is designed to ensure that complaints are handled thoroughly and both sides get a chance to put their points of view. But it also gives newspapers an opportunity to drag their heels, hoping that complainants will be worn down. Even if the paper is eventually forced to make a correction, the later it is published, the less its readers will remember what all the fuss was about.

Another reason for delay is that a complainant may not appeal immediately to IPSO. Given the exhausting process, this makes sense. On the other hand, papers often don’t take complaints seriously unless the watchdog is involved.

InFacts always first sought to persuade newspapers to correct their stories without bringing in IPSO. We were able to secure five corrections to pre-referendum stories in this way. But in 20 other cases, we complained to the watchdog – in two batches, on May 19 and June 1. In half of these, we got corrections or clarifications. Here’s what happened.

Chart showing how long it took InFacts to get corrections to erroneous EU referendum stories.

Numbers 1-10 represent each case detailed below. Bars show time between InFacts’ first complaint to the newspaper and a correction being published. Vertical red line represents referendum date (June 23).

1. Express, February 17Express crime stats original headline

2. Telegraph, February 17Telegraph migrants crime headline

The official data the papers referred to was for criminal “notifications”, not convictions or offences committed. InFacts pointed out the error to both papers on the day the stories were published. The Telegraph corrected the story on June 9 as did the Express – nearly four months later.

3. Sunday Express, March 6

Express coasts headline

The proposal the paper was referring to only affected the Schengen Area, which the UK does not belong to. We pointed out the error on the day of publication. After a marathon email exchange, mediated by IPSO, the Sunday Express corrected the article on October 9 – seven months later.

4. Mail Online, March 30Mail Raab migrant headline

Dominic Raab, then justice minister, didn’t say this. InFacts contacted the Mail Online journalist on April 11. The story was corrected on June 11 – two months later.

5. Mail Online, April 3

Mail Online NHS headline

The newspaper website provided no evidence that EU migrants were responsible for the NHS being at breaking point. The data it relied on didn’t even record the nationality of the patients. InFacts contacted the Mail Online six times starting on April 4 before complaining to IPSO. The website corrected its story on June 8 – more than two months later.

6. Mail Online, April 27Mail Clapper headline

7. Express, April 27

EU free movement has allowed ISIS sleeper cells

into the UK, warns security chief

The US director of intelligence did not say that open borders had let terrorists into Britain. InFacts pointed this out to the Mail Online and the Express on the day the stores were published.

The Mail Online story was corrected on June 11 – six weeks later. The Express story was clarified on August 17 nearly four months after publication. IPSO rejected InFacts’ request that the Express make a formal correction.

8. Express, May 16

Express EU migrant child headline

The story wrongly described anybody with at least one parent from the European Economic Area as migrant children. Such a definition would include Nigel Farage’s children with his German wife. We informed the Express of the error on May 27. The story was corrected on referendum day – nearly one month later.

9. The Sun, May 19Sun Brits not fair headline

This was false because the paper misinterpreted jobs data. We pointed this out to the Sun on the day of publication. IPSO ruled that the record must be set straight on October 14. The correction was finally published on November 5 – nearly half a year after the original story appeared.

10. Express, May 23
Express NHS creaking under migrants headline

The report on which this story was based didn’t even mention migration. InFacts informed the Express of the error on the day the story was published. The story was corrected on June 22, one day before the referendum and almost a month after publication.

Such delays in publishing corrections – which are not confined to stories about Brexit – are not good enough. IPSO needs to vet newspapers’ complaints procedures to ensure they react more rapidly – especially before it is involved.

The watchdog should also review its own process with a view to speeding it up. Sadly, an external review of the body last year didn’t delve into this issue deeply. If IPSO requires more resources to move faster, it should ask the papers – which fund it – to pay up.

After all, justice delayed is justice denied.

This is the second part of a three-part series about InFacts’ experience of complaining about inaccurate stories during the referendum. The first looked at how corrections are insufficiently prominent. The third looks at why IPSO rejected some of our complaints.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe