In early October of last year, the Alba Party commissioned a full-scale Scottish opinion poll from Panelbase. I was still a member of the Alba NEC at the time, but my involvement in the poll was limited to recommending Panelbase as the best choice of polling firm - I didn't have any input into the choice of questions or anything like that. Little could I have realised, though, that the poll was going to end up dominating my life for well over half a year afterwards. That's an exaggeration, but not as much of one as you might think, and certainly not as much of one as should need to be the case in any sane world.
On the main independence question, the results of the poll were extremely clear-cut and straightforward, and of course can still be found on the Panelbase website in compliance with the British Polling Council's rules. For the avoidance of doubt, here is a screenshot of the headline numbers.
As you can see, with Don't Knows left in, Yes were on 46%, No were on 49% and Don't Knows were on 5%. With Don't Knows excluded, the figures showed a two-point No lead with Yes on 49% and No on 51%, which represented a statistically insignificant one-point drop in Yes support and corresponding one-point increase in No support since the previous comparable Panelbase poll, which had been conducted just a handful of days earlier on behalf of Believe in Scotland. It's that latter set of figures, with Don't Knows stripped out, that are relevant to this story.
The first thing Alba did with the results was to pass them on to The National, who published them accurately on 14th October in the following fashion: "The poll found...49% of likely voters (excluding undecided) saying they would vote for independence while 51% said they would vote to remain in the UK." But then something very odd - and downright outrageous - happened. The publication that laughably refers to itself as the "Scottish" Daily Express, and which regularly devotes a considerable proportion of its output to cynically misleading its readers about poll results, belatedly picked up on the poll two days later, but simply lied about the results. They falsely claimed that Yes were on 48% after the exclusion of Don't Knows, that No were on 52%, and that No had thus opened up a four-point lead having been level-pegging in the previous Panelbase poll. The headline of the piece claimed that the poll had "sunk Nicola Sturgeon's Scexit dream", which would have been a risible claim even if the inaccurate figures had been true. The most charitable explanation for the lies (although not necessarily the correct one) is that the Express had picked up the false figures from a random Twitter account, and hadn't even bothered to do the journalistic basics by double-checking the numbers with the polling company (Panelbase), the polling company's client (the Alba Party) or with the first media outlet to publish the numbers (The National).
Long-term readers might recall that at this point I asked if any Scot Goes Pop readers would be interested in lodging an official complaint with IPSO - the press-run "self-regulation" body that handles complaints about the Express and most (but not all) other mainstream media outlets in the UK. Nobody came forward, and I think probably the reason was that I'd made a similar appeal only a couple of weeks earlier when The Sun had lied about an independence poll. The people who complained about The Sun (and I know of at least two) probably felt that they only had enough energy for one complaint at a time. So after about ten days or so I realised I was going to have to bite the bullet myself, and I made a complaint under the 'Accuracy' clause of the IPSO Editors' Code.
For those of you who don't know, IPSO have a well-earned reputation for being - at the very least - a woefully inadequate regulator, and that's widely assumed to be a feature, not a bug. The newspapers themselves clubbed together to set up IPSO as a way of dodging the type of proper statutory regulation that had been recommended by the Leveson Inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal a decade ago. Ironically, one of their excuses for arguing that their own baby was superior to a statutory regulator was IPSO's supposed "independence from government" - a boast that is somewhat hard to square with the fact that the man they currently have installed as IPSO chairman is none other than Baron Edward Faulks, who served as a Minister of State in the current Conservative government between January 2014 and July 2016. That piece of career history is of course highly relevant to my own complaint against the Express, because it means the committee that adjudicated upon it was headed by someone who was actually a member of the viscerally anti-independence UK Government at the time of the 2014 independence referendum. Whether such a person can really be trusted to look objectively and dispassionately at a factual dispute over the reporting of independence is, I think, a question that is not unfair to raise. It appears that what the press really mean by "political independence" is "independence from any politician who does not share our broadly Tory and unionist worldview".
The first thing that happens after you lodge a complaint with IPSO, or the first thing if they don't dismiss your complaint out of hand (which is what actually happens to the vast majority of people), is that they hand your email address over to the publication you've complained about and tell you to negotiate with them directly and thrash out a solution yourself if you possibly can. This is of course an almost unbelievably inappropriate system, because most people who complain to a regulator are doing so precisely because they do not wish to have any dealings with the publication. In many cases, that publication will have breached their privacy in the most appalling way or told lies about them, and having to deal with a gaslighting Complaints Officer from the publication will considerably aggravate the psychological harm caused by the episode. Why do IPSO insist upon this? It's almost certainly intended to load the dice in favour of the press and against the complainant. For as long as this direct negotiation goes on, the playing field is hopelessly uneven, as a member of the public with no legal training tries to hold their own against a highly experienced Complaints Officer who will use every trick in the book to get the complaint dropped or to get the complainant to accept a derisory offer as a resolution. If that happens, IPSO close the case permanently and there is no public record that the complaint was ever made. If you ever find yourself in such a negotiation, I would strongly recommend that you reject any offer made by the publication unless you are absolutely certain that it is a generous one. It's true that IPSO may well 'punish' you later for effectively rejecting a 'plea bargain', and will impose a lesser sanction than the one offered by the publication - that, as you'll see, is what happened in my own case. But, actually, a public ruling against the publication is probably far more valuable to you as a complainant than whatever daft offer you turned down.
Each newspaper stable has its own modus operandi in dealing with complainants, and in the case of Reach plc (which owns the Express, the Mirror, the Daily Record and the Sunday Mail) the approach seems to be to grind the complainant into submission by taking as long as possible to reply to every email, and for each eventual reply to be as short, robotic and dismissive as possible. Reach's Complaints Officer acknowledged from the outset that the article about the Panelbase poll had been inaccurate, and told me that it had been changed, with a footnote correction to acknowledge the original "error". There was, however, a snag. The new version of the article, and the correction, simply swapped the original lies about the poll with a new set of lies about the poll. The new bogus claims were that the Yes vote was 48.5% rather than the 49% published by Panelbase, that the No vote was 51.5%, rather than the 51% published by Panelbase, and that the No lead was three points, rather than the two points published by Panelbase. It is of course wholly inappropriate for a "correction" to suddenly switch for face-saving reasons to using rounding to one decimal place when the original false claim had used whole numbers - a factual correction should be as direct and straightforward as possible. But the much bigger problem is that the numbers rounded to one decimal place were still indisputably lies. I doublechecked the raw numbers from the data tables (as you can do yourself from the screenshot above), and if rounded to one decimal place they come to Yes 48.6% (0.1% higher than claimed by the Express), and No 51.4% (0.1% lower than claimed by the Express). What had clearly happened is that the Express wanted to baldly claim in their "correction" that the No lead in the poll was three points, meaning that they were only admitting to an error half as big as it really was, but they knew that if they tried to support that claim with Yes and No percentages that were accurately rounded to one decimal place, readers would quite rightly say "hang on, that comes to a 2.8 point lead, not a 3 point lead". So they decided to get around that problem by simply "adjusting" the Yes and No figures by 0.1%. In other words they intentionally inserted lies into a "factual correction" - an utterly disgraceful way for any newspaper to respond to a complaint about accuracy made through a regulatory process.
Let me take a step back at this point and note that IPSO features prominently in claims made by the mainstream media about its moral superiority to the alternative media. For example, the controversial journalist David Leask will tell you that mainstream newspapers promptly correct all errors pointed out to them in a regular 'corrections & clarifications' column, and if for any reason they neglect to do it, IPSO will force them to do it. Readers can thus have total peace of mind that newspapers will never lie to them in the way that filthy bloggers would. Well, this complaint against the Express is an extremely useful test of whether the system works in the way Leask claims it does. Here we have a case where it is beyond all dispute than an opinion poll shows Yes on 49%, No on 51%, with a No lead of two points. The Express have falsely claimed that the numbers were actually Yes 48%, No 52%, with a No lead of four points, and then in a bogus correction have falsely claimed that the numbers were Yes 48.5%, No 51.5%, with a No lead of three points. It should therefore be automatic for any genuine regulator to simply instruct the Express to stop playing silly buggers and to publish a genuine correction containing the real numbers from Panelbase.
Is that what happened? Well, I'll give you three guesses.
Now, I wasn't naive about IPSO. I knew from their reputation that they would probably try to work out some way of getting the Express off the hook, and my guess was they would do it by means of sophistry along the lines of "a 0.1% error in a factual correction is within perfectly acceptable and normal bounds". I had made up my mind that if that happened, I would just 'bank' the nominal upholding of my complaint (I was almost certain that it would be upheld because the Express had acknowledged the original inaccuracy) and not bother appealing against the failure to require a truthful correction. I knew from what I'd heard that the appeals process is even more of a sham than the main complaints process, and that it would thus be a complete waste of my time. But when the draft ruling finally arrived in my inbox four long months after my complaint was lodged (and it did indeed uphold my complaint), my jaw dropped to the floor, because there was no sophistry to justify the acceptance of a bogus correction - instead, IPSO just followed the example of the Express by lying through their teeth and flatly claiming that the correction was "true". I mean, I can live with lots of things, but I can't live with reality-defying "black is white" statements. Truth matters, as the saying goes, and so I realised that from the point of view of sheer self-respect, I was going to have to appeal, even though the outcome was going to be utterly predictable.
There are two ways of appealing - you can make a submission to the Complaints Committee on "factual disputes" within one week, and you can identify "substantial flaws in the process" in a submission to an independent reviewer within two weeks (the word "substantial" is the get-out clause ensuring the independent reviewer rejects essentially all appeals). So I started with a submission to the committee, which you can read below. Note that the "Complaints Officer" I'm referring to here is IPSO's own, and not Reach plc's.
Submission on the factual inaccuracy of the Complaints Committee's ruling and the lack of remedial action proposed
I wish to bring to your attention a key factual inaccuracy in the text of the Committee's ruling, revealing beyond all doubt that the reasoning behind the decision to impose no further remedial action is based on a wholly false premise. In paragraph 14 of the ruling, it is stated that "Upon receipt of the complaint, the publication had amended the online article and published a footnote correction. This set out the original inaccuracy and the true position." The claim that the purported correction "set out the true position" is an untrue statement. And the committee cannot dispute that it is an untrue statement, because in paragraph 12 of the ruling they set out the true position themselves - that the poll showed Yes on either 49% of the vote on the numbers published by the polling company itself, or 48.6% if a DIY recalculation is done to round the raw figures in the data tables to one decimal place, and showed No on either 51% on the polling firm's published numbers, or 51.4% if recalculated to one decimal place. The purported "correction upon receipt of the complaint" did not include any of these accurate figures, but instead included a new set of inaccurate figures. And again, there can be no dispute whatsoever that the numbers in the purported "correction" were inaccurate, because the committee themselves helpfully include the text of that "correction" in paragraph 6 of their ruling, and show that the Express falsely claimed that Yes were on 48.5% (either 0.1% or 0.5% away from what the committee themselves state to be the only two possible versions of the true number), and falsely claimed that No were on 51.5% (again, either 0.1% or 0.5% away from what the committee themselves state to be the only two possible versions of the true number). The ruling therefore contains a massive and absolutely blatant internal contradiction that simply cannot be reconciled, and that goes to the very heart of the complaint.
When I expressed my bafflement to the Complaints Officer and asked for clarification, he ventured that an explanation might somehow be found in paragraph 12 where the committee "noted" the publication's convoluted claim that the No lead rose to three points if rounded to one whole percentage point as long as the Yes and No figures were first recalculated so that they were no longer rounded to one whole percentage point. That bizarre point is utterly irrelevant because it relates only to the No *lead*, and not to the inaccurate standalone figures for Yes and No also included in the purported "correction". The Complaints Officer did not offer any explanation of how text including untrue Yes and No figures can possibly constitute a "correction that sets out the true position", and I would suggest that's because there is no explanation, and no explanation is even logically possible. The committee's claim in paragraph 14 is frankly preposterous, and it is extremely hard to understand how such a dreadful and obvious blunder could possibly have been made if the committee gave the central facts of this complaint anything more than a cursory glance.
The only theoretical possibility that occurs to me is that perhaps the committee incorporated into their reasoning some form of sophistry along the lines of "there is a discretionary margin for falsehood that means some relatively small dishonest claims can be treated as if they are in effect true". However, if such sophistry had been used, it would have been so fundamental to the committee's decision that it can be safely assumed that it would have been mentioned in the ruling. There is no mention of any such thing. Nor did the Complaints Officer make any mention of any reasoning of that sort when I asked for clarification. Therefore, it must be assumed that the committee either didn't notice the falsehoods contained in what they were portraying as a truthful "correction", or for some extraordinary reason failed to even consider the elementary point that a text containing falsehoods cannot be called a "correction setting out the true position".
(As an aside, I will also just observe that it is nothing short of *astounding* that the committee appear to have tacitly accepted the risible gymnastics of logic put forward by the Express as justification for placing their claim of a three-point No lead in a purported "correction". However, that issue is entirely separate from the factual inaccuracies in the committee's decision, relating to the standalone Yes and No percentages, that I am raising in this submission.)
Because the decision on remedial action was based on a false premise, it is self-evidently the case that this aspect of the decision is itself unsound and must be wholly revisited. The suggestion that no apology or further correction is required because of the "prompt" nature of the "correction" is utterly nonsensical, because, as I have demonstrated, there was no truthful correction. Quite the reverse - the Express flatly refused to publish a truthful correction. Not only did they not publish one "promptly", they did not publish one *at all*. Instead they published - seemingly deliberately - new falsehoods. Their purported but bogus "correction" is thus an aggravating factor that considerably *increases* the need for a genuine, truthful correction and an apology. The committee's suggestion that the bogus "correction" not only *decreases* that need but somehow *eliminates* that need altogether is patently absurd and simply adds further insult to injury.
* * *
My contact at IPSO suddenly shifted the goalposts after receiving the above submission - he implied that it would not be considered by the committee after all, but would instead form the basis of my submission to the independent reviewer. He gave me three days to submit any "additional comments" for the reviewer rather than the two weeks he had originally promised me. Not to put too fine a point on it, I thought that was absolutely bloody outrageous, and without wanting to sound like a snowflake, I think it's fair to say the complaints process by this stage was taking a bit of a toll on my mental health. Is that the whole point? Is the intention to make the process as stressful and gruelling and soul-destroying as possible so you will never, ever be tempted to complain about a factual inaccuracy in a newspaper ever again?
Anyway, I set aside yet another five or six hours (literally) to make the following submission for the independent reviewer -
Request for a review, addressed to the Independent Complaints Reviewer
I am requesting a review of the ruling on the grounds that the decision on remedial action (or lack thereof) and the process that led to that decision were substantially flawed. I have read through the information provided both by email and on the IPSO website about your role, and about the types of issue you are able to consider in deciding whether there have been substantial flaws. I will be suggesting that two of those types of issue apply in this case.
Firstly, however, I want to make a more general point about the ruling. Anyone reading it from start to finish, even if they had no external information about the facts of the case, would easily be able to deduce from the ruling itself that the decision made on remedial action is substantially flawed, because there is a glaring internal contradiction within the text. That contradiction can be explained very simply:
In paragraph 6, it is stated that the publication's purported "correction" claimed that the Yes vote in the poll was 48.5% and the No vote was 51.5%.
In paragraph 12, it is stated that the true position in the poll was that Yes was on 49% and that No was on 51% - or, alternatively, that Yes was on 48.6% and No was on 51.4% if rounded to one decimal place. (The latter depends on a DIY recalculation based on raw numbers in the data tables, because percentages rounded to one decimal place were never published by the polling firm or by their client at any time.) Both of these sets of true figures are different from the ones that appeared in the "correction" - therefore, the correction contained inaccurate information.
And yet in paragraph 14, it is flatly stated that the "correction...set out the true position". This bogus claim of truthfulness forms the main basis for a total rejection of any further remedial action, such as the publication of a genuine and truthful correction, and/or an apology.
Furthermore, there is no explanation offered anywhere in the text about why the committee is claiming that an untrue correction is "true". For example, there is no suggestion that the degree of the falsehood was somehow small enough that the false numbers could in effect be treated as if they were true. If such a principle had been applied, it would have been so fundamental to the committee's reasoning that a reference to it in the text would have been essential to make the ruling comprehensible. No such principle is mentioned, so the inescapable conclusion is that a genuine blunder has been made, and it's one that goes to the very heart of the complaint.
Because the error is so obvious from the text of the ruling, and because no-one on the committee seems to have noticed the contradiction before signing the text off, it can be said almost by definition that the process must have been seriously flawed. Only those present during the committee's discussion can explain exactly how such a serious error came to happen, but it seems likely that at least part of the explanation is simply that nowhere near enough time and care was taken over this case, perhaps because of a preconception that complaints about the misreporting of opinion polls are of relatively low importance.
I will now turn to two key issues that I've read you are able to consider in determining whether the process was substantially flawed. Firstly, the question of whether the committee gave full consideration to the arguments of both sides, and secondly, the issue of transparency.
There are at least two important arguments that I raised during the complaints process that were not given full consideration by the committee - indeed, they appear not to have been given any consideration at all.
One of the key points I raised in reaction to the purported "correction" by the Express was that it was not appropriate for the correction to use rounding to one decimal place when the original false claim in the article had used rounding to whole numbers. I described that as a "grudging and tricksy" tactic on behalf of the publication, intended to give the impression that the false claim was not as significant as it actually was. I pointed out that, while the Express have all the latitude they want in articles to decide for themselves whether rounding to whole percentages or to one decimal place is more interesting or newsworthy, a correction should simply put the error right in as straightforward a way as possible. Thus, if the original false claim was made in whole numbers, the correction should also have been made in whole numbers. In the ruling, my concern about the sudden switch to rounding to one decimal place is fleetingly touched upon in paragraph 7 as part of the narrative summary of the progress of the complaint (although the reasons for my concern are not explained), but in the three paragraphs setting out the findings of the committee, it is not mentioned at all. It appears to have not even been considered by the committee. It appears to have been completely ignored.
After the "correction" was published, I also explicitly raised the point that the standalone percentages for Yes and No contained in the correction were inaccurate *even if* the switch to rounding to one decimal place could somehow be deemed acceptable. I pointed out that the correct Yes figure if rounded to one decimal place was 48.6% and the correct No figure if rounded to one decimal place was 51.4%. (This does not appear to be disputed by anyone, incidentally.) I also pointed out that the correction falsely claimed that the figures were Yes 48.5%, No 51.5%, and therefore that the correction was not truthful. Again, although the fact that I raised these points is briefly referred to in the narrative summary of the progress of the complaint in paragraphs 7 and in the form of a quote in paragraph 9, none of these points is even mentioned in the three paragraphs covering the findings of the committee. The points appear to have not even been considered by the committee. They appear to have been completely ignored.
When I asked for clarification from the Complaints Officer, he ventured that an explanation might somehow be found in paragraph 12 where the publication's convoluted justification for claiming in their correction that the No lead was 3 points had been "noted" by the committee. That's completely irrelevant, because that justification relates only to the No *lead*, and not to the inaccurate standalone percentages for Yes and for No. The fact that the Complaints Officer believed that he was offering a relevant explanation, and seemed genuinely surprised when I pointed out that inaccurate Yes and No percentages were in the correction as well, tends to confirm my impression that the committee hadn't even considered the issue of those percentages, even though I had flagged them up at some length during the complaints process.
Now, I entirely accept that you have access to considerably more information than I do, and that it's therefore possible you will find evidence that the committee did in fact consider some or all of the points raised above and rejected them, and then for some reason eradicated all trace of that from the public version of the ruling. Which brings me on to my next grounds for requesting a review, namely a gross lack of transparency. If it is indeed the case that key parts of the arguments I raised during this process were considered and rejected, and the ruling does not mention that or offer any explanation whatsoever for the rejection, and if subsequent attempts at seeking clarification did not yield any explanation either, the process self-evidently was not a transparent one and was thus substantially flawed. This veil of secrecy has significant concrete consequences, both from my own perspective as a complainant, and from the perspective of the wider public. Being left in the dark complicates my attempts to appeal against an erroneous ruling. because although there is more than enough information to demonstrate that the process has gone disastrously wrong, it would be far easier for me to pinpoint the precise causes of that disaster if I had been given the full information I was entitled to.
As far as the public are concerned, this excessive secrecy shields IPSO from legitimate public scrutiny of any faulty or dubious reasoning that the committee may be guilty of. In this case, the committee has glossed over the fact that a purported "correction" contained untrue numbers by stating that it was a "correction setting out the true position". Members of the public casually reading those words would come away with far more sympathy for IPSO's position than they would if they had realised that the correction was in fact partly untrue but that IPSO had decided to treat it as wholly true for some convoluted reason that would almost inevitably have to involve a considerable degree of sophistry or doublethink. It might even bring IPSO into disrepute if the public knew the real basis for the decision on remedial action, but that's actually as it should be - the whole point of transparency is to allow the public to reach clear-sighted conclusions, warts and all.
In particular, it has been noted by many people that the bar for getting IPSO to even consider complaints about inaccurate reporting of opinion polls, and also the bar for getting such complaints upheld, is in practice exceptionally high, and probably far higher than for many other categories of complaint. One plausible reason for the lack of transparency in this particular case could be a fear of a light being shone on how there appears to be an institutionalised sympathy towards allowing journalists to mislead the public about opinion polls, provided some nominal justification is provided, no matter how absurd that justification would look to a reasonable person. In this case, IPSO have tacitly accepted as valid a rather fantastical explanation from the Express about why it was supposedly appropriate to claim in a "correction" that the No side had a 3 point lead, as opposed to the 2 point lead published by the polling firm. In plain language, what that explanation amounted to was that the No lead was 3 points if you round it to one whole percentage point, but only if you first recalculate the Yes and No percentage vote shares so that they are *no longer* rounded to one whole percentage point. That kind of Alice Through The Looking Glass "logic", especially when applied to a "factual correction", is so bizarre that if IPSO had explained their reasons for accepting it, rather than just glossing over the point with the word "noted", members of the public may well have come away with considerably less confidence in IPSO and in the system of press self-regulation. But again, that's the whole point of transparency - to shine a light on anything that is going wrong and to create pressure for it to be put right.
The most plausible reason for the Express lying to their readers in their "correction" - to put it bluntly - about the Yes and No figures rounded to one decimal place is that they knew from past experience that IPSO would let them get away with a claim that the No lead was 3 points because they had come up with a figleaf justification for it. In order to also make that claim "work" for readers, they needed the Yes vote to be 0.1% lower than it actually was and they needed the No vote to be 0.1% higher than it actually was. So, it appears, they simply decided to fib, and IPSO rewarded what I described as their "tricksy" behaviour in exactly the way they had banked on, not only by turning a blind eye to the fibs but also by concealing them from the general public with the fiction that the correction was "true". This will perpetuate the vicious circle by which further such cynical fibs in the future will be positively incentivised. Whereas, if IPSO had followed their correct processes, the reverse would be true, a virtuous circle would have been created and publications would be deterred from fibbing in this way, and would be incentivised to make their corrections as accurate as possible.
Furthermore, complaints about misreporting of opinion polls often seem to be dealt with almost on "autopilot", with entire complaints or key aspects of complaints being summarily rejected without proper consideration, on the basis of extremely broad and thus imprecise past precedents. The summary of the ruling in this case very much has an 'autopilot' feel to it, with a brusque set of findings that could mostly have been copied and pasted from other rulings and that contain obvious and large gaps of reasoning. Doing it by numbers in this way has probably led directly to the massive internal contradiction in the text of the ruling itself, and to that contradiction going seemingly unnoticed.
As you will know, after the ruling was sent to me, I was offered one week to submit comments about factual disputes in the ruling, and two weeks to submit a request for a review to you. I was not told precisely how my comments on factual disputes would be used, but given that the stated threshold for you to allow a review is "substantial" flaws, it might reasonably be inferred that the separate option to make submissions about factual disputes is there - at least in part - to identify "lesser" flaws. I was therefore concerned that after I made my submission on factual disputes, it was indicated to me that it would not be used in the usual way but would instead be sent directly to you. I do wonder if this was done because you are required to apply a higher threshold, and thus because it was hoped that any supposedly "lesser" flaws would never have to be addressed, rectified, or even acknowledged. The fact that this decision was made seems somewhat arbitrary to me, especially as I was also informed that it would for some reason reduce the time I had to prepare any submission to you by several days.
As it appears that my submission on factual inaccuracies will never be considered in any other way, I will copy and paste it below in case it's of any assistance to you (although there's a significant degree of overlap with what I've written above).
* * *
In a plot twist, the independent reviewer then requested that the committee consider my original submission after all, before she looked at my appeal. My guess was she did that so the committee could first cover themselves by making the contradiction in the draft ruling a bit less blatant, thus giving her the excuse she needed to decree that the process was no longer "substantially" flawed.
Sure enough, I was sent a revised version of the ruling a few weeks later, in which the committee had tortuously worked backwards to try to make a new reasoning fit a totally unchanged decision. Essentially the tactic was to pretend that the only "real" inaccuracy in the original article had been the claim that the No lead was four points, and that the lies about the Yes and No percentages were only relevant as part of the mathematical working used to arrive at that four-point claim. Therefore, the subtext went, it didn't matter if the Yes and No percentages in the article and in the "correction" were still lies - all that mattered was that the revised claim about a three-point No lead could supposedly be regarded as truthful.
Once again, I was given an opportunity to make a submission about factual disputes, which you can read below. You'll probably notice a change of tone here as the penny fully drops that I am not dealing with good faith actors.
Submission on the factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations contained within the revised text of the committee's ruling
I have to be direct at the outset and say that I am very deeply disturbed by the revised version of the ruling, which is even more inaccurate (or perhaps 'dishonest' is the more appropriate word in this context) than the original version. The new wording introduces a fundamental misrepresentation of the position I took as complainant. Whatever the committee believes its proper role to be, I would hope it accepts that its proper role can never be to make untruthful or misleading statements about the position of a complainant. I am therefore going to submit that the revised wording cannot stand, and that the misrepresentation of my position must be deleted and replaced with honest wording. I will submit that this must happen irrespective of the difficulties it will undoubtedly cause the committee in trying to find a plausible-sounding justification for a section of its ruling which is incoherent, contradictory, and ultimately nonsensical.
In his email to me, the Complaints Officer stated that the committee had "sought to give full consideration" to the comments I made in relation to the original ruling, and that the new version had only been composed "after full consideration". It is frankly impossible to see how that can have been the case, or at least impossible if the assumption is made that the committee was acting in good faith. The alternative explanation would be that the committee accepted the irrefutable point that the original text contained an untrue statement (ie. that the purported "correction" published by the Express was somehow "accurate"), but instead of then taking time to consider the unavoidably serious implications for the substance of the decision on remedial action, it used whatever period of time was covered by "full consideration" to try to dream up some convoluted way of claiming that the substance of the decision was still sound, in spite of having demonstrably been based on a wholly false premise. Part of that method was to introduce into the text a misrepresentation of my own position, namely that I had said in my submission to the Express after their bogus "correction" was published that "the overall lead was overstated by 0.2%". That strongly implies that I accepted the argument that the lead was in the vicinity of three points, whereas in fact I *explicitly rejected* that argument. The following is a direct quote from the submission on 4th November 2022 that the committee are referring to: "A genuine correction must accurately report the actual headline numbers from the poll of Yes 49%, No 51%, translating to a No lead of only two percentage points." How can the committee reconcile that quote with their own characterisation of my position? They cannot do so. It is literally impossible. They appear to have intentionally cherry-picked part of my submission and presented it wildly out of context to give the impression that my position in the submission was the polar opposite of what it actually was. There may have been a number of motivations for this misrepresentation, including for example an attempt to create the totally false impression that it was accepted by all parties that the later correction offered by the Express contained accurate information, and to create the equally false impression that I therefore acted unreasonably or inexplicably in rejecting that offer. But whatever the explanation for the committee's misrepresentation, it is totally unacceptable and must be deleted. I think I am entitled to say that whatever else the committee may feel able to say in this case, there is a special responsibility on it to not knowingly publish untruths or misleading claims about the statements or actions of a complainant, and there is absolutely no reason why I should have to accept the knowing publication of such untruths or misleading claims about me.
(Incidentally, I am fully aware that the above paragraph intrudes upon the Palace of Fiction constructed so painstakingly by the Express with the enthusiastic applause of the committee, but I'm afraid the inconvenient fact remains that the results of the poll as published by the polling company were Yes 49%, No 51%, and the published No lead was two points, not three. The figures contained in the bogus "correction" were all dreamt up by the Express themselves as part of a face-saving exercise to give the false impression to readers that their original lie was only half as serious as it actually was. I formed the strong impression from the correspondence between the Express and IPSO that the decision to publish those confected numbers was taken on the expectation, based on past experience, that IPSO would let them get away with it and would even pat them on the back for doing it. Grotesquely, that expectation proved to be well-founded. Even at this very late stage, there is still a window of opportunity for the committee to prevent the system of press self-regulation in the UK from being brought into disrepute with the publication of a ruling in which the regulator, to all intents and purposes, commends a publication for lying to its readers in a bogus "correction". In all sincerity, I urge the committee to seize that opportunity before it is too late, not only in IPSO's own interests, but also in the public interest, and ultimately in the interests of the press itself, which will only retain or regain public confidence if it is subject to regulation that penalises deliberate inaccuracies, rather than praising them to the skies.)
I will now turn to other inaccuracies in the revised version of the ruling. The committee's approach to the realisation that it falsely claimed that the purported correction was "accurate" has been to delete the word "accurate" from its original place in the ruling and to instead apply it only to one particular part of the correction. That tacitly accepts that other parts of the correction, especially the claims that the Yes figure was 48.5% and that the No figure was 51.5%, were inaccurate, as indeed they undeniably were. But then mysteriously the remainder of the paragraph reads as if these tacitly acknowledged inaccuracies do not actually exist. This pretence farcically culminates in the final conclusion that "there was no breach of Clause 1 (ii)". This simply substitutes an active untruth with passive dishonesty. The factual defect in the original ruling is thus unresolved. It can only be resolved by the insertion of an explanation of how a purported "correction" containing deliberate lies can qualify, in the committee's view, as a genuine and promptly-published correction. Such an explanation may prove very difficult to come up with, and indeed it may prove to be impossible - but that, with respect, is the *whole point*. The rationale for the decision on remedial action is fatally incoherent and contradictory, and thus the decision itself must be revisited.
The updated ruling states that "[the footnote correction] was offered promptly". That is an untrue statement. As we have established, and as the committee have tacitly acknowledged by removing the word "accurate" from its original place, the purported correction contained untrue claims and was thus not a genuine correction. No genuine correction was ever published, and it certainly cannot be accurately stated that a genuine correction was "offered promptly" - the much later offer of a revised correction, regardless of anyone's views on its accuracy, was categorically not "prompt". My request for a revised and truthful correction was rejected out of hand by ***** ****** of Reach plc on 9th November 2022 with the following words: "The publication is satisfied that the action they have taken is sufficient under the Code."
The new ruling states that "the correction...accurately put on record the overall lead for Scottish independence found by the poll by presenting a rounded figure for the lead having rounded the poll figures to one decimal place". That's a mischaracterisation of the text of the bogus "correction", which did not make clear to readers that the three per cent figure was "rounded" to a whole number (or the absurdly convoluted way in which it was "rounded", for that matter - let's not forget that the true lead of two points as published by the polling company was also based on rounded numbers). A reasonable person reading the "correction" would have wrongly concluded that the claimed three-point lead was *not* rounded to a whole number, for the simple reason that the other numbers in the "correction" were presented as rounded to one decimal place (albeit those numbers were just plain lies). It would have wrongly looked to that reasonable reader as if the lead when rounded to one decimal place just happened to come to precisely three points. Thus, not only did the "correction" flatly lie about the Yes and No figures, it also deliberately misled readers about the size of the No lead. It did not "accurately" put anything "on record".
Lastly, I must just note that the committee is now effectively arguing in the updated ruling that a promptly-published untruthful "correction" constitutes sufficient remedial action *specifically because* a less untruthful correction was offered at a much later date *but never actually published*. Again, with the very greatest of respect, that rationale is so fatuous that it borders on the downright embarrassing.
* * *
After several weeks, I was sent a third version of the ruling (probably identical to the one published on the IPSO website today, although I must admit I haven't made a direct comparison yet), which only differed from the second in that the misrepresentation of my own position had been deleted. This wasn't done because the committee accepted it was a misrepresentation but because I "felt so strongly about it" (!). The rest of my objections were dismissed out of hand with yet more logic-defying and reality-defying nonsense. This time I was left in no doubt that the committee would not consider any further comments from me, irrespective of circumstance, so I quickly sent a reply in the hope that it would at least be included in the submission to the independent reviewer -
Thank you for your message. In your explanation of the committee's latest decision, you state that there are a number of "potentially defensible" ways of characterising the No lead in the poll, one of which is the 2.8 point figure. You make the entirely false claim that the Express decided to use the 2.8 figure and say on that basis the committee concluded that the purported "correction" was sufficient. I checked the online article again last night, and as far as I can see there is no sign in either the main body of the text, or in the purported "correction", of the 2.8 figure. In both cases, the Express instead claim that the lead is 3 points. It seems phenomenally improbable that they changed the text on 6th December and then changed it back again, and therefore the committee have yet again based their reasoning on an entirely false claim and an entirely false premise. You might feel that this latest blunder is not especially important, given that the committee argued that a claim that the lead was 3 points would also have been "potentially defensible" (although I note there is a subtle but important distinction between "potentially defensible" and "actually defensible"). However, the fact that it was even possible for such an extraordinary mistake to be made at this late stage of the process adds further weight to the evidence that the committee has not taken sufficient time or care in its handling of this complaint and that the process has been substantially flawed.
Furthermore, the committee yet again seems to have misunderstood a key and extensive part of my submissions. I have explained umpteen times that the Express' false claim in their purported "correction" that the No vote in the poll was 51.5%, and their equally false claim that the Yes vote was 48.5%, are *standalone* falsehoods / inaccuracies *in their own right*, and that therefore the "correction" is still inaccurate *irrespective* of whether the committee accept that the quoted figure for the No lead could be justified. Every time I have made that point, the committee have responded in a way which suggests that they have misconstrued it by assuming that the false Yes and No figures are somehow only relevant on a "show your working" mathematical basis as a way of arriving at a particular version of the No lead. It's as if they think the No lead was the only relevant inaccuracy in the original article and that the other inaccuracies are somehow extraneous matters that can be disregarded unless they can be shown to directly feed into an ongoing inaccuracy on the No lead.
I have repeatedly explained the point that the Yes and No figures are standalone inaccuracies which in themselves are sufficient to render the "correction" obviously bogus, and I have explained it clearly. When it appears to have been misunderstood, I have explained it again in different language to avoid any possible misunderstanding. The fact that the committee are still acting as if they haven't grasped the point suggests to me that by this stage the misunderstanding is entirely willful. I have not once heard an explanation from the committee of how a purported "correction" containing inaccurate Yes and No figures can possibly constitute a genuine correction. Frankly, that is likely to be because the committee know full well that no such explanation is possible, and that the only way they can defend their decision is by pretending that the inaccurate Yes and No figures do not exist as standalone inaccuracies, or that the issue has somehow magically gone away. But those inaccuracies do exist, and the issue has not gone away.
As you have implied in your message that the committee will not consider any further comments from me, I would be grateful if you would confirm that this email has been safely received and that you will be passing it on to the Independent Complaints Reviewer along with the other material related to this complaint. You'll appreciate that the comments I've made above identify further evidence of the shoddy handling of this complaint and thus go to the very heart of the grounds for concluding that the process has been substantially flawed, and that it's therefore extremely important that the Independent Complaints Reviewer is able to see them. Given the importance of ensuring the above comments do not slip through the cracks, if I haven't heard back from you by later in the week I'll either phone or email again to make sure this email has been safely received and passed on.
* * *
I was assured that the independent reviewer would indeed consider the above email. But within a few hours, I was sent the rejection of my appeal, which left me with the distinct impression that she'd had it ready to go for months and all she did was press 'send'.
So there you have it. On Planet Leask, newspapers immediately correct factual inaccuracies when they're identified, and if they don't, the regulator forces them to do it. But here on Planet Reality, the lies stay up in slightly modified form after an eight month complaints process, and the regulator gives the newspaper a round of applause for having lied. It's another shameful day for "press regulation in the UK" - albeit just the latest of thousands.
The above images are borrowed (and I hope they don't mind) from the Hacked Off campaign. The irony is my complaint was upheld, so I'm one of the 'lucky' 0.3% of complainants....
* * *