IPSO “Rebuttal” of Covid-19 report

Our recent report, The Fake News Ferret, identified 55 examples of distorted coverage of disinformation in IPSO member’s newspapers about COVID.

These included conspiracy theories and clear examples of “fake news”.

Given newspapers’ failure to report COVID-related matters factually, we have launched a campaign to write a letter to newspaper editors, urging them to stick to the facts in reporting on the vaccines.

IPSO’s response to the report has been typical of the organisation.

Faced with the revelation that 55 distorted stories about COVID had been published on their watch, in the midst of a global pandemic, a competent and independent body would act swiftly to work through the list; rapidly and thoroughly investigating each cited example, recording breaches where they have occurred and enforcing appropriate (if belated) sanctions.

Instead, IPSO does not appear to have done any of that.

They have published a brief “rebuttal” which makes the false allegation that Hacked Off did not make publicly available the evidence for the report (let us be clear: the evidence is in the appendix, linked to on page 3 of the report where it says “appendix”, and here).  IPSO has not (so far) retracted that false allegation, which can only damage their credibility further.

The rest of the rebuttal does not properly rebut any point in the report but is nonetheless responded to below: 

The report claims that IPSO has done ‘nothing’ on Covid coverage and implies that IPSO has not upheld complaints about Covid. Both are untrue.

This is false – the report claims that IPSO has failed to uphold complaints about 55 specific articles about COVID, which are set out in a detailed appendix, publicly linked to, in the report. 

The report claims to have identified 55 examples of ‘disinformation’ and cites these as evidence that national newspapers have been ‘unaccountable’ and publishing ‘fake news’ about Covid. It fails to note that, according to Hacked Off’s own information, 18 of the examples cited had previously been corrected, amended to remedy inaccuracies, or removed in some cases within hours of publication.

In referring to ‘Hacked Off’s own information’ IPSO refers to Hacked Off’s detailed appendix – which evidences the report’s claims.  That appendix shows that a minority of the stories were subject to post-publication edits or removals on the newspapers’ own terms.  In none of these cases were complaints upheld, editorial breaches recorded or sanctions applied in transparent ways.

 Typically, stories were edited or removed without even acknowledgment of an error, apology, or any effort to inform readers that they had been previously misled.

The publication of prompt corrections to significant inaccuracies and misleading claims is one way in which publications demonstrate accountability as required by Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code.

 Editors’ Code clause 1.1 requires care to be taken to avoid inaccuracy.  Breaches should be recorded and sanctioned in a transparent and accountable way – not swept under the rug by publications.

The report does not contain details of most of the examples it relies on.

The report links to an appendix, which contains a full list of all articles relied upon.

At IPSO’s request, Hacked Off provided a copy of an appendix listing the articles and which references the corrections. This publicly unavailable appendix notes the remedies previously applied. IPSO has confirmed that at least three more articles were corrected, some with IPSO involvement.

 This is false.

 The appendix is publicly linked to in the report AND accessible to anyone.  When IPSO asked for a copy of the appendix we were surprised they had not just followed the link to where it is referred to in the report (page 3, where it says “appendix”), but we immediately supplied it.

 The Hacked Off Campaign has a fundamental commitment to factual accuracy and evidence-based campaigning.

 It is disappointing that, despite the appendix being publicly available since the report was first published, IPSO has not yet withdrawn the false and damaging accusation that we had not made that appendix publicly available.

The report claims that “none of these examples are minor or careless inaccuracies. They are serious and either deliberate or extremely reckless”. Among the 55 examples is an article published by The Sun in February 2020, which said NHS England had advised people to wash their hands before every meal and avoid shaking hands to prevent the spread of the “Wuhan coronavirus”. The respected independent fact-checking organisation, Full Fact, said that this was incorrect, because although some doctors had advised people to wash their hands before every meal, this was not NHS England advice at the time. The headline of the article was later amended to make clear that this was the advice of individual doctors, not the NHS body. Full Fact did not describe the story as “disinformation”.

IPSO appears to be arguing that a failure to distinguish the views of some individual doctors from official NHS advice is no more than a careless/minor inaccuracy.  We would disagree, but in any case, it is striking that IPSO can only find one such example.

IPSO has not been asked to rule on complaints about any of the articles cited. It did receive complaints about some. To give one example, IPSO received four complaints about a 10 March article on express.co.uk (“Coronavirus shock claim: virus ‘genetically engineered for efficient spread in humans’”). The headline was amended and a correction issued within 48 hours.

Competent regulatory bodies do not wait to be asked about clear and obvious inaccuracies during a public health crisis when disinformation can put lives at risk.  IPSO should have taken (and be taking) proactive action, although their rules put in place by newspaper executives and editors limit their ability to do so.

As above, it is not sufficient to allow newspapers to sweep significant inaccuracies under the rug.  IPSO refers to an Express case that implied the virus might have been engineered to spread in humans; feeding conspiracy theories that the virus was deliberately designed for population control or as a “bio-weapon”.  But instead of the Express having a code breach recorded against it and being required to publish an equal-prominence correction, the newspaper got away with a small correction at the bottom of the page where few will ever see it and no record of the title having ever breached the code.

Many of the examples cited in the Hacked Off report fall far short of justified claims of “disinformation”. Meanwhile, IPSO takes extremely seriously its role in promoting high editorial standards in reporting on this issue.

The report is careful to refer to both disinformation and seriously distorted coverage which is dangerous and ought to be remedied. 

In any case, this is no defence.

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