You might remember that a few weeks ago, the "press regulator" IPSO (in reality a self-regulator set up by the press themselves in an attempt to head off calls for proper statutory regulation) upheld my complaint against the Scottish Daily Express for lying about the results of a Scottish independence poll. However, they perversely allowed the Express to publish a bogus "correction" containing a slightly modified version of the same lie. I had battled unsuccessfully for months to persuade IPSO to instruct the Express to publish a genuine correction, and the subtext of the responses I received was basically: "But can't you see that the severity of the lie has been reduced a bit? What more do you expect from us? Golden elephants?" Instead of calling themselves a press regulator, IPSO should perhaps be billed as a "Lie Severity Reduction Body (but only if we happen to be in the mood, you understand)".
The reason I had to lodge that complaint myself was that a few weeks earlier I had suggested that Scot Goes Pop readers might want to complain about the Sun on Sunday's lies about another independence poll. Several readers took up that suggestion, and I think the stress of the complaints process meant that they understandably didn't want to rush into a second complaint when I made a similar suggestion about the Express! Because the complaints about the Sun on Sunday and the Express were running on a similar timetable, I had intended to write a single blogpost covering the outcome of both complaints - but in the end, the story of my own complaint against the Express was so complex and lengthy that I didn't have space for both. So here, belatedly, is the story of what happened with the Sun on Sunday complaint.
The lie published by the Sun on Sunday was that support for independence had "plummeted" as a result of the Queen's death. The drop in support quoted to justify the word "plummet" was seven percentage points from 49% in an earlier Panelbase poll to 42% in a newer Deltapoll survey. That was a wholly bogus claim, because the two numbers weren't comparable - the 49% from Panelbase was after Don't Knows were excluded, and the 42% from Deltapoll was before Don't Knows were excluded. A like-for-like comparison between the two polls showed only a statistically insignificant two-point drop, far lower than the Sun on Sunday were suggesting, and not enough to credibly support the word "plummet". (Of course technically the publication shouldn't even have been making a comparison with a Panelbase poll which used a completely different methodology from the Deltapoll survey - the only meaningful comparison would have been with a previous poll from Deltapoll.)
Now, you might think this is an open and shut case of IPSO's code being breached on the "accuracy" clause. But I was genuinely unsure whether the complaints would even get over the first hurdle, because IPSO have a track record of heroically "interpreting" their code in such a way as to allow newspapers to say whatever the hell they like about poll results, no matter how misleading. There was an earlier incident in which a Scot Goes Pop reader had complained about the Daily Record falsely claiming that a poll had shown a drop in support for independence. To make that claim, the Record were basing their comparison on an earlier poll that they had cherry-picked to suit themselves - it wasn't the most recent poll from the same firm, and it wasn't the most recent poll from any other firm either. But IPSO's "bouncers" refused to allow the complaint to proceed, on the grounds that the Record were entitled to make a comparison between any two polls they liked. Just think about the implications of that logic for a moment. Suppose there was a poll which showed Yes support dropping like a stone from 48% to 39%. What IPSO are saying, what IPSO are literally saying, is that it would be perfectly OK - and not a breach of the accuracy clause of the code - for The National to report that as a big surge in independence support because there was a previous poll in 2013 showing Yes on 34%. That's the absurdity of what passes for "press regulation" in the UK.
So I was half-expecting IPSO to dismiss the complaints about the Sun on Sunday on the grounds that newspapers are perfectly entitled, if they wish, to make a bogus comparison between figures including Don't Knows and figures excluding Don't Knows. But amazingly, it turned out that the Sun on Sunday's lie was a step too far even for IPSO, and the complaints were allowed to proceed. Because there were multiple complainants, IPSO invoked a procedure whereby one person is selected as the 'lead complainant' and effectively makes decisions on behalf of all complainants from that point on. It's far from clear how that person is selected. Is it a random choice? Is it whoever happened to complain first? In this case, Stephen Duncan - who occasionally posts here as "Duncanio" - was chosen, which was a good outcome from our point of view because he proved to be a determined complainant who argued his points extremely intelligently.
The Sun on Sunday's initial response to the complaint was to delete the online version of the article and to offer to publish a correction of sorts. This made it highly likely that the complaint would at least be nominally upheld if Stephen pursued it to the end of the process - but in the Kafkaesque world of IPSO complaints, the whole aim of the Sun on Sunday's concession was to ensure that the complaint was *not* upheld, because if Stephen was coaxed into saying he agreed that the complaint had been resolved to his satisfaction, IPSO would then mark the complaint as closed and effectively treat it as if it had never existed. There would be no public record of an upheld complaint, or that the Sun on Sunday had been found to be lying.
Fortunately, Stephen didn't play along with that game, and pressed on with his complaint on the basis that the proposed correction was inadequate. He felt it should have contained an apology, that its offered location was not prominent enough, that it should have made explicitly clear that the comparison was bogus because of the different treatment of Don't Knows, and that it should have made clear that the polls were also not comparable because one of them included 16 and 17 year olds in the sample, and the other did not. Personally, I also felt that the proposed correction was inaccurate because it claimed that in reality there was a drop in Yes support of between two and four percentage points "depending on assumed variables in the polling". In fact, the true figure is incalculable because no-one knows what the effect of one of the variables was, ie. the decision of Deltapoll not to interview 16 and 17 year olds.
In a distinct echo of my own complaint against the Express, IPSO's Complaints Committee upheld Stephen's complaint (or "partially upheld" it) but refused to impose any sanction on the publication beyond what had already been done and/or offered. The need for the correction to refer to the point about 16 and 17 year olds was dismissed with two of the most jaw-dropping sentences you'll ever have the misfortune to read. Effectively they agreed in every particular with Stephen's line of argument, but then rather optimistically tried to weaponise it against him -
"It was therefore unclear as to the precise impact that this particular age group, which had been allowed to vote in the Scottish Independence in 2014, had upon the poll’s findings and by extension the accuracy of its comparison to the second poll. Taken in this context, and where readers would understand that a comparison between two different polls, undertaken by two separate organisations, at separate times, under different conditions and employing different methodologies, would have their own limitations, the Committee did not consider that this rendered the article inaccurate or misleading."
The whole point, of course, is that the vast majority of readers would NOT have understood - or not without having it explained to them - that the two polls were conducted by two separate organisations using different methodologies, or the serious implications of that fact. They would have wrongly assumed that they were being presented with a like-for-like comparison and that the drop in the Yes support being reported was meaningful and accurately measured. That's precisely WHY the Sun on Sunday's article was so seriously in breach of IPSO's own code (which forbids "misleading" claims as well as outright inaccurate ones), and that's why any Complaints Committee acting in good faith would have instructed the publication to amend their proposed correction accordingly.
You can read the IPSO ruling in its full dismalness HERE.
So we've now had two (or at least two) complaints upheld by IPSO in recent months about newspapers telling lies on Scottish independence polling. Those might only seem like partial successes, given that IPSO allowed the papers in question to get away with murder in their published corrections (and in one case the Express were even allowed to tell a further lie in their "correction"), but the important point is that those upheld complaints are now a matter of public record. They demonstrate that it's not some kind of tinfoil hat conspiracy theory to point out that the mainstream media are lying to the public on this topic for partisan reasons. And if upheld complaints against certain publications become an established pattern, that can begin to seriously detract from the credibility of those publications' reporting. To give an example, it's well-known that there have been a disproportionately high number of complaints upheld by IPSO against the Jewish Chronicle, and that has undoubtedly led to people taking the Jewish Chronicle's output less seriously.
So I would certainly urge Scot Goes Pop readers to continue complaining to IPSO about the misreporting of independence polls, especially if they spot a lie that is blatant enough that they think there's a chance a complaint will get past IPSO's "bouncers". I can attest to the fact that seeing a complaint through to its final - and almost inevitably unsatisfactory - conclusion can be very stressful, but it may well pay useful dividends in the long run.