The Sun’s notorious “QUEEN BACKS BREXIT” headline was published on 9 March. The Queen’s complaint was made on the same day. Some 10 weeks later Ipso has published its adjudication despite claiming on its website to offer a “speedy resolution” to complaints.
The newspaper’s defence was that
“readers would have known that the headline referred to no more than a claim that the Queen backs Brexit. The text of the article set out the basis of that claim: the accounts of apparently Eurosceptic views said to have been expressed by the Queen on two previous occasions.“
Ipso’s response to this was that
“it did not follow from the comments the article reported that the Queen wanted the UK to leave the EU as a result of the referendum: that suggestion was conjecture and the Committee noted that none of those quoted in the story were reported as making such claim.”
The Queen was badly advised in complaining both about the headline and the body of the article; there being no prospect whatsoever of a successful Ipso complaint about the article itself given the Sun’s untested claims that it has a small army of anonymous sources. However the success of her complaint pursuing the headline was emphatic, and the response of The Sun’s editor to the adjudication on this morning’s Today programme was just as distorted and misleading as the headline itself.
Tony Gallagher, who confirmed that he had personally approved the misleading headline, was unrepentant: “Oh, I don’t accept that we made an error at all. We made a judgement that the headline was right and that it was backed up by the story“. The headline was however blindingly obviously not supported by the “story” – as Ipso was bound to find.
He also disingenuously criticised the Ipso adjudication as finding against The Sun despite the fact that the top of the front page bearing the offending headline had been the apparently qualifying words; “BOMBSHELL CLAIM”. This is what he said; “…the headline is only misleading if you exclude the words “bombshell claim over Europe votes” which were in capital letters on the front page.” Ipso had however dealt with that argument by effectively saying that the “BOMBSHELL CLAIM” was one being made by The Sun itself, rather than any of its sources.
Mr Gallagher went on spinning against the adjudication; “I can assure you we were left in no doubt that the Queen backed leaving the European Union”. When asked why he did not put that in the body of the article he said; “...self evidently, we were unable to compromise the people that told us that.”
This is nonsense. Mr Gallagher and his paper can perfectly well quote anonymous sources he claims justified the Sun’s “BOMBSHELL CLAIM” – as it did a number of other “highly reliable sources” which The Sun elected not to name. Why could it not attribute to one of those sources words from the Queen’s mouth to support the claim made in the headline?
The Ipso Code says that the corrections must be published with “due prominence” which must as a matter of rudimentary logic mean that is proportionate to the offending publication. As a PCC chairman said to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, any other interpretation would be “ridiculous”.
The offending headline was 360 cm2, whereas the area covered by the correction was 29cm2, which is 8% of the size of the offending headline. The front page of The Sun which carries the Ipso correction has by contrast a headline about Boris Johnson’s wife in letters which are 45mm in height whereas the notification of the Ipso ruling at the foot of the page is published in letters a mere 12mm in height.
The lettering of the “BOMBSHELL CLAIM” that the “QUEEN BACKS BREXIT” headline was 2½ inches high. The means that it can easily be read from a distance of 25 feet; though since it was also published in capital letters the headline will probably be readily readable from at least 30 feet. Lettering of that size is generally readable from a distance of 75 feet – but probably 100 feet for capital letters. That means that a substantial proportion of the publication of the UK will have read the headline just from having passed within 100 feet of the hard copy of the paper. Only a tiny proportion those people will see the box at the bottom of the front page.
Millions of people read a front page story who would never buy the newspaper. Front pages are read and shown on both the late evening news broadcast news programmes, and in the morning news when the newspapers were being reviewed. They turn up on news aggregation websites, aggregator apps, Twitter, Facebook etc. That will mean that the “QUEEN BACKS BREXIT” headline will have been read by a very substantial proportion of those eligible to vote in the EU referendum.
So an effective regulator must ensure that front page breaches of the Code are corrected on the front page. If they are corrected anywhere else, or if they are merely trailed on the front page (especially in a small box at the foot of the front page) then for 99% of those who read the Code-infringing article they have derived no benefit from IPSO’s adjudication; and nor has the complainant. The Sun was also plainly not told to transmit the correction to its 1.12 million Twitter followers.
As Ipso deferentially concedes in the adjudication: “IPSO acknowledged the importance of headlines in tabloid newspapers“. You might think that if it did so, it would also acknowledge the importance of headlines being corrected with some degree of equivalence when it comes to prominence and reach.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post and is reproduced with the permission of the author.