The pro-Brexit press produced many false front-page splashes during the EU referendum. Even when papers acknowledged their errors, the corrections were never as prominent as the original stories. They were normally small articles tucked away on the inside pages.
When the sanction for a huge misleading story is a minor slap on the wrist, it’s hardly surprising that we are living in a world of fake news and post-truth politics. If we want to stop the pollution of our democracy, we need to do better.
As far as the press is concerned, the single most important reform would be to force papers to print corrections that are as prominent as the original story. If the article appeared as a front-page splash, the correction should also be on the front page – and appropriately large.
If papers had to make big front-page corrections every time they printed misleading front-page splashes, the psychology around getting the facts right would change dramatically. Such corrections would involve a loss of credibility with readers. They would embarrass proprietors and editors. The journalists who made the mistakes would probably receive dressing downs from their bosses. There would be a much bigger incentive to take care to get things right in the first place.
A review of the industry’s main code of practice – the consultation phase of which ends today – provides an opportunity to make just such a reform. All the large offending papers – the Express, Mail, Sun and Telegraph – abide by this code, which is enforced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
At present, the code merely calls for corrections to be given “due prominence”, a phrase that in practice normally means they are rarely prominent at all. It should be modified to “equal prominence”.
The evidence from the referendum debate is compelling. Here are six inaccurate front-page splashes and the accompanying corrections.
1. “Queen Backs Brexit” – The Sun, 9 March
This was a huge story. Stating that the monarch backed Brexit may have influenced how patriotic royalists voted. The Sun was required to correct the story by IPSO after Buckingham Palace complained. There was a reference to the correction on the bottom of the front page, with the full ruling published on page 2. But the correction was in no way as prominent as the original error.
IPSO has required papers to mention corrections on their front pages following two other inaccurate Brexit stories, both in the Daily Express. These splashes appeared after the referendum – one incorrectly stating that Brexit had boosted house prices, the other that 98% were opposed to an EU deal and wanted to quit without talks. In each case, the references to the corrections were small and at the bottom of the front page, and so much less prominent than the offending stories.
2. “We’re from Europe, let us in” – Daily Mail, 16 June
The Daily Mail front-page splash, just days before the referendum, detailed a Metropolitan police operation which found a family of migrants stowing away in the back of a lorry. Saying these migrants were from Europe added to the toxic brew over migration that the pro-Brexit press had been stirring throughout the referendum campaign. The only problem was that the migrants told police they were from Iraq and Kuwait, not Europe. The Mail did acknowledge its error the following day, but the correction was tiny and on page 2.
3. “Abu Hamza and latest blow to UK sovereignty” – Daily Telegraph, 6 February
The sub-head of the story said that “the daughter-in-law of Abu Hamza cannot be deported from Britain despite a criminal past because of human rights laws, an EU law chief has ruled”. The story fitted neatly into the Leave campaign’s message that we needed to quit the EU to “take back control”. The snag is there was no court ruling, just an opinion by one of the European Court of Justice’s advocates general, who added that under “exceptional circumstances” Abu Hamza’s daughter-in-law could still be deported. IPSO agreed that a small correction on page 2 was “sufficient”.
4. “EU seeks control of our coasts” – Sunday Express, 6 March
“Britannia will no longer rule the waves as Brussels threatens our island sovereignty” said the sub-head. The story would have inflamed the passions of anybody concerned about loss of control to the EU. The only problem is it was not true. The EU’s plans for a coast guard only covered the Schengen Area – of which the UK is not a member. After InFacts complained to IPSO, the Sunday Express published a small correction on the bottom of page 30.
5. “Brits Not Fair!” – The Sun, 19 May
“4 in 5 jobs” go to foreigners, said the sub-head. This article would have angered voters who thought that foreigners were taking our jobs – another recurrent theme of the pro-Brexit press. It was based on a misreading of data from the Office of National Statistics. The Sun was forced to publish a correction after InFacts complained to IPSO. However, the watchdog concluded that a small correction on page 2 was “sufficiently prominent”.
6. “Soaring cost of teaching migrant children” – Daily Express, 16 May
“The cost of educating 700,000 children from the EU in British schools has hit £3.2 billion a year”, said the story’s first paragraph. This was another inflammatory story about migrants, targeting a key issue of concern for voters. It was false because it 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. After InFacts complained to IPSO, the Express published a small correction at the bottom of page 27.
Small corrections tucked on inside pages – and even small mentions at the bottom of the front page – are not remotely adequate to deal with serious errors splashed on the front pages. Although the damage of distorted coverage over the referendum has been done, the press continues to pump out false stories about migration and the EU – and, of course, about many other topics as well. It is therefore vital that the Editors’ Code Committee revamps its code so that corrections have equal prominence with the original offending stories.
There are, though, serious doubts about whether the committee will want to do more than tweak the document. After all, two-thirds of its directors are from the press and its outgoing chair is Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail.
On the other hand, IPSO’s chair and chief executive also sit on the committee. So do three independent “lay” members. This is the first time that the code has been reviewed since independents joined the committee. Let’s hope the review won’t be a white-wash.
Edited by Luke Lythgoe