The UK’s biggest press regulator has accused the Express website of “inflammatory” reporting during a delicate period of UK and EU negotiations on fishing last year.
The Express reported online on documents that had been “unearthed” from 1981 and 1972 but the headlines made the disputes sound contemporaneous as if they were ongoing during Brexit.
The 1981 story, reported in March 2020, was headlined: “French fisherman’s threat to HANG British naval officer exposed amid Brexit fishing row.”
The sub-headline said a document detailing the “maritime dispute” had been “unearthed” by the Express and suggested Brexit meant the UK had the chance “to take back control of its fishing waters”.
The second story, published in December, was headlined: “EU unmasked as outrageous letters show Belgian trawlers fishing off Brighton Pier.”
The sub-headline said that, as the success of Brexit hung in the balance and fishing had proved to be a “major sticking point”, documents showed “Belgian trawlers have gone as far as to fish off Brighton pier”.
The Independent Standards Press Organisation investigated the stories after receiving a complaint that both headlines gave the misleading impression the events detailed were happening during the Brexit negotiations and were “offensive and sensationalist and sought to inflame public tensions”.
The Express disputed that it had breached the Editors’ Code of Practice as the stories below the headlines made clear the events in question were historic.
However, it did amend the headlines of each to make clear they referred to decades-old events, and added a footnote reading: “The headline of this article has been changed to make clear that the threat was not made recently.” It later added more detail to the footnotes in an attempt to resolve the complaint.
IPSO ruled there had been a “significant” breach of Clause 1 (accuracy) of the Editors’ Code but said the publisher’s clarifications were sufficient.
“The [Complaints] Committee noted that this misleading impression was given at a delicate moment in the UK-EU relationship and was inflammatory when the issue of fisheries was a significant point of contention between the two sides,” the regulator said in its decision.
IPSO said although Clause 1 makes clear headlines should be supported by the text of an article, this “should not be interpreted to mean that the body of the article can be relied upon to correct an actively misleading impression given by a headline”.
It said the information in the articles “was not deemed on balance to be sufficient in order to rectify the already misleading impression created by the headlines”.
Specifically stating in the first headline the event had been exposed “…amid Brexit fishing row” suggested the incident was contemporaneous, while in the second headline the present tense made it sound like events were ongoing at the time of publication, IPSO said.
IPSO said it was unable to respond to the complainant’s view the articles could have incited violence and hatred towards EU citizens, saying this would be a matter for the police.
Picture: Reuters/Tom Nicholson