Thursday, November 17, 2016

IPSO Facto Crapso

On Sunday 22nd May 2016, a month before the EU Referendum, the Express headline screamed "12M TURKS SAY THEY'LL COME TO THE UK".  The subheading began "Those planning to move.." (emphasis mine) and the story was based on a poll that had asked respondents whether they "would consider moving" to the UK if Turkey ever joined the EU.

Think about that for a minute. "Would consider" in the small print was enlarged to "planning" in the subhead and further to "will" in the main headline (without any single quotes to paraphrase, which is the headline-writer's usual way of qualifying a dubious allegation).

I have, in the past, considered becoming a concert pianist (I've never even got as far as Grade 1).  It doesn't mean I'm even planning to take lessons, much less that I will ever take to the stage.

The headline was clearly a blatant lie.  And you didn't have to be an Express purchaser or regular reader (I'm not) to read it - it would have been on display in shops everywhere and shown on newspaper review segments on television.  So it would have reached a much wider audience than the 370,000-odd people who bought the paper.

In January 2016 IPSO amended Clause 1 of the Editor's Code of Practice to make it clear that inaccuracy included publishing headlines that were not supported by the text.  An open and shut case here, surely?  So I - and apparently many others - complained.

The Legal Adviser at the Express acknowledged the complaint later that week.  On 16 June IPSO informed me that it was carrying out its own investigation.  Funnily enough, after 3 weeks of silence, the Express got back in touch a few hours later, to say that 
"It is now clear that the question we asked was flawed and the data produced by the polling company was therefore wrong."
and that a correction would be published on 19 June, the last Sunday before the referendum.  My issue wasn't with the nature of the question (although plenty of others had, with good reason, complained about it) but the way the results had been blatantly misreported in the headline.  I replied to the Express to that effect.  They did not respond.

On 19 June they published their correction on page 2 of the newspaper, and halfway down the (incredibly long) homepage online.

Compare the size, placement and language of the correction headline ("Turkey poll findings flawed: clarification") to that of the original headline.  Never mind the text (which incidentally was spread across three columns rather than the four of the "news" article above - was this a deliberate attempt to put people off reading something that already looked rather dense and forbidding?);  newspaper articles are emphasised by their headline - if they weren't then why would tabloids use so much front page space on the headline and so little on the actual article?  Prominence is determined by the headline.  

The correction headline takes up approximately one tenth of the space of the original. And it's on an inside page.  I couldn't find advertising rates for the Express, but the Sunday Telegraph (who do publish their rate card online) charge a 60% premium for a front page advert over an inside page one, so it's reasonable to assume that a front page article is around 60% more prominent than an inside page equivalent.  Or, put another way, by my measure the correction was about sixteen times less prominent than the original.

IPSO's code says that corrections must be published "with due prominence" but does not disclose further details about what that means.

The substance of the correction was - in between a lot of self-justification about sample sizes and the like - that by including members of the family in the question about considering migration there was a risk that some responses would have been double-counted had two members of the same family been questioned, or under-counted had a respondent answered on behalf of his or her entire family.  So the question was indeed flawed, but I wasn't unhappy about the niceties of the polling method, I was unhappy about a headline that was an outright lie.  I put this to the Express and asked for confirmation that their own internal complaints procedure had been exhausted.  Again, they never bothered to reply.

IPSO carried on with its own investigation.

And on.

And on again.

Eventually, in late August, they advised me of the newspaper's response:
"Are you asking me whether I accept that the headline and sub-heading of an article that was inaccurate, were inaccurate because they could not be supported by the inaccurate text? I am not sure what the point of this further complaint is"
It's pretty clear that the Express weren't going out of their way to engage with the issue; I was surprised (but perhaps shouldn't be) that their attitude to their own chosen regulator was so dismissive.

IPSO advised me that the matter would go before their Complaints Committee and that I would hear from them after the meeting on 12 October (it would be dealt with at a formal meeting rather than via correspondence).  So they were making all the right noises about taking this seriously and I was hopeful that they would agree with my argument.

I was naive.

On 31 October they advised me of their draft ruling, it's now published on their website.  And it's wrong on so many levels:

They have recorded my complaint as "upheld" because they agreed that the poll question (which I hadn't complained about) was flawed.  However they didn't uphold what I did raise: the misleading headline and the prominence of the correction.

"..the page 2 clarification was sufficiently prominent, given its comprehensive nature, and bearing in mind that the newspaper had acted in a pro-active manner and, crucially, before the Referendum to address the inaccuracy quickly"

Apparently the prompt and proactive nature of the Express' published correction counts towards IPSO's measure of "prominence".  Prompt in this case meaning 4 weeks after the original article - more than enough time to investigate - and at the last possible moment before the EU Referendum vote on 23 June.  And proactive meaning after receiving a substantial number of complaints, and after IPSO had launched its own investigation.  Never mind that the headline was tiny and it was buried on an inside page.  Hundreds of thousands of people who don't buy the paper but saw the headline in shops or on TV would never see the correction.  But that's fine. 

And the headline not being supported by the text of the article was, apparently, not a problem either because the correct (or, correct-ish) text appeared early on in the article.  

 "[The committee] noted that, in addition to setting out the exact wording of the question asked of respondents in the body of the text, the second paragraph made clear that those asked “would consider relocating” were Turkey to join the EU"

So their overall conclusion was that the action already taken by the Express was, conveniently, sufficient to atone for all the failings in the original article.

I requested that IPSO review both of these decisions, but they have refused - they only allow reviews if the original investigation was "procedurally flawed"; since their procedures are opaque there's no way of telling whether this is the case or not.

So what have we learned, or had confirmed, from this exercise?
  1. An earlier IPSO ruling (also widely criticised for the prominence of the correction IPSO negotiated) about a Sun headline based on an inaccurate poll doesn't appear to have inhibited newspapers from continuing to construct inflammatory rubbish from dubious polling.
  2. If a newspaper wishes get away with a false headline it merely needs to introduce a minor error into the story.  That way it can publish an obscure correction for the minor error, and escape further sanction for the major one.
  3. IPSO takes no account of people who have seen, but not bought, the paper when determining the impact of a falsehood and the way it should be corrected.
  4. A headline that's not supported by the text isn't misleading if the truth appears fairly early in the article.  In what circumstances IPSO would actually dare to determine this part of the Editor's Code had been breached I really don't know.
  5. A correction that's about sixteen times less prominent than the original article has "due prominence" according to IPSO. One wonders how small and hidden away a correction would have to be to fail their prominence test.
  6. Newspapers - or at least the Express - treat complainants and IPSO with contempt.  Remember, twice I didn't even get an acknowledgement from the Express, and their attitude towards IPSO was unhelpful to say the least.
  7. IPSO should rename themselves IPSLOW to set people's expectations.  The original article was published more than five months before their eventual ruling.
  8. They do not permit their reasoning - however illogical - to be challenged.  
  9. For some reason IPSO are keen to make it look like they have brought a satisfactory conclusion to this by claiming to have upheld a complaint about a controversial article - with complete disregard for the truth.
Is this regulator really fit for purpose? 

If you'd like to tell IPSO what you think of them you can reach them at or @IpsoNews on Twitter.  In closing I'd like to acknowledge that the staff I've had contact with at IPSO have been unfailingly polite throughout, but that counts for little when the organisation as a whole is so laughably complacent and ineffective.

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