Fake News

Press code needs to be honoured in spirit, not just letter

by Hugo Dixon | 28.03.2017

One reason the pro-Brexit press hasn’t been forced to correct stories is because they weren’t technically false, even when they were misleading.

That’s not good enough. The editors’ code, which governs the main offending newspapers, is supposed be “honoured not only to the letter, but in the full spirit.” The experience InFacts gained through complaints to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which enforces the code, suggests that the opposite is often the case.

Clause 1 of the code says: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.” It goes on to say that “a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected”.

InFacts complained about 20 pre-referendum stories to IPSO. In half of these cases, we got a correction or clarification – though this often took an incredibly long time and was never prominent enough. In the other half, the press watchdog sided with the newspaper.

Here are four of the cases we lost – and why.

Telegraph migrants down sofa

The Daily Telegraph, 13 May 2016, front page banner

The headline on page 5 read: “The extra EU migrants the ONS has found down the back of a sofa are six Newcastles”.

The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson used her 2.4 million figure to claim that EU migrants are responsible for kids not getting into secondary schools of their choice, for people not getting on the housing ladder and for pregnant women being turned away by maternity units.

To get to the 2.4 million figure, Pearson added five years’ worth of short-term EU visitors to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimate of long-term migrants. We argued that adding the two numbers together in this way was misleading since short-term visitors leave within a year. The claims Pearson used her 2.4 million figure to support were spurious because it was implausible that many migrants who hop over for a few months’ work would put their kids into secondary schools, get on the housing ladder or attend maternity units.

IPSO rejected our argument on the basis that “it was not inaccurate to state that 2.4 million EU migrants had ‘come to’ the UK, and did not accept the suggestion that doing so implied that this was also the number of EU migrants who had stayed in the UK.”

While it is true that The Telegraph didn’t state that these short-term migrants had stayed, the headline on the inside page about the ONS finding “six Newcastles” of extra EU migrants down the back of the sofa and the tenor of the whole article implied that many if not most were still in the UK.

Mail migrants crisis

Daily Mail, 20 May 2016, front page splash

The first sentence read: “Britain has been ordered by Brussels to build more houses – to cope with all the EU immigrants.” It went on to describe the EU’s recommendations as a “demand”.

We argued that the words “ordered”, “demand” and “tells” were inaccurate. Not only does the EU not have any powers to order the UK to adopt any housing policy, the Daily Mail was referring to “country specific recommendations” which, as the term implies, are recommendations, not orders.

IPSO sided with the Daily Mail, saying that the EU’s recommendation “was presumably done on the basis that some attention would be paid to the recommendation. In these circumstances, it was not significantly inaccurate to characterise the recommendation as an ‘order’, or the EU ‘telling’ the UK to build more houses, or ‘demand’ that it does so.”

Express EU army

The Times, 27 May 2016, front page splash.

The Times quoted plans drawn up by the EU’s foreign policy chief for “new European military and operational structures, including a headquarters”. We argued that these could not reasonably be described as plans to create an “EU army” – a term that would imply military forces under a single command structure. The headline was therefore misleading.

IPSO disagreed, saying: “It was not misleading to characterise the proposed new European military structures as an “EU Army”, particularly in circumstances where the precise nature of the plans were explained in the article; the headline of the article was supported by the text.”

Express asylum control

Daily Express, 8 March 2016, front page splash

This was a story about European Commission plans to require member states to take quotas of asylum seekers. InFacts argued that there was never any chance that the UK would be part of this system since we had an ‘opt-out’ on matters of justice and home affairs and David Cameron had made clear he would exercise that opt-out. As such, we argued the story was misleading.

IPSO rejected our argument on the grounds that “as a member of the EU, there was a possibility that the UK could be subject to these new proposals”. It added that at the time of publication, “the UK had not exercised its opt-out”.

In each of these cases, newspapers published screaming front-page headlines. The editors’ code says that the press must take care not to publish misleading headlines. It also says the code must be honoured in the “full spirit”.

The papers’ actions – and IPSO’s support of them – have at best honoured the code’s letter. If we are to stamp out the fake news that has blighted the Brexit debate – and could continue to do so over the Article 50 process – the press watchdog will have to do better.

This is the final 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 second examined how long delays in publishing corrections means justice is often denied.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

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