Press regulator IPSO has ruled that Metro breached the Editors’ Code by wrongly telling readers they could only leave home for exercise once a day during January’s lockdown – even though this information came from the Government itself.
The free paper, which continued distribution for key workers during every stage of the pandemic, included a section titled “The rules say stay at home unless for…” detailing 13 exemptions to the “stay at home” rule on 11 January.
This section included the statement: “Exercise alone or with just one other person once a day.”
Elsewhere in the article, which was also published online but later deleted for reasons unrelated to the complaint, readers were told Health Secretary Matt Hancock had said “the rules [were] not boundaries to be pushed” and Home Secretary Priti Patel said police “will not hesitate” to enforce “the new rules”.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation said the word “rules” had been used repeatedly throughout the article to refer to laws and readers would therefore believe the section in question to be referring to legal requirements, not guidance.
In fact, the legislation provided a non-exhaustive list of “reasonable excuses” for leaving home and there was also no legal limit on the number of times people could leave their homes for exercise per day, with this only suggested in Government guidance.
But the Government’s website wrongly presented guidance as law and the list of permissible reasons to leave home as exhaustive, IPSO said.
The Government website told the public that “exercise should be limited to once per day”, that the rules listed were “what [one] can and cannot do during the national lockdown”, and that they “should follow this guidance immediately. This is the law”.
IPSO said Metro was entitled to rely upon the accuracy of the information given on the Government’s website given “the nature and authority of this source” and added it had taken “sufficient care”.
Despite this, the regulator’s complaints committee said it was a “significant” inaccuracy for Metro to give a misleading impression of the law “on a topic of public importance”.
“The publication had failed to clearly distinguish between guidance and the law; this distinction was, in the view of the committee, a significant one and, while it acknowledged that the conflation of the two had arisen due to the government’s own failure to adequately distinguish between guidance and law on its own website, the misrepresentation by the panel on these points amounted to a significant inaccuracy,” it said.
The story was therefore in breach of Clause 1 (accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, with a further breach because the paper had offered no correction or clarification.
It has now published one online and in its corrections and clarifications column, telling readers: “We would like to make clear that the ‘Covid laws’ do not provide an exhaustive list of reasonable excuses for absence from the home, but merely identifies some examples of permissible reasons.
“The panel also reported that only one excursion a day could be made for exercise; in fact, the legislation places no limits on the frequency of outdoor exercise.”
The person who reported the inaccuracy to IPSO said they feared “mispresenting the legislation in this area had the potential to be very damaging; people might feel unable to leave home for a necessary and important reason, because it did not fall within the 13 exceptions listed by the newspaper”.
Two months ago IPSO issued a rare order to Metro to flag a “serious” breach of the Editors’ Code on its front page, after it wrongly claimed deaths from illnesses other than Covid-19 had “rocketed” during lockdown.
The regulator has said reporting on Covid-19 is “not always easy” and is publishing a list of case studies, mostly relating to issues of accuracy, to help editors abide by the Editors’ Code of Practice.
Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire