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IPSO rules it is 'neither reasonable nor desirable' for editors to fact check readers' letters before publication

It is “neither reasonable nor desirable” to expect editors to verify every fact given in published letters from readers, the Independent Press Standards Organisation has said.

It rejected a complaint from Sandeep Mander that the Maidenhead Advertiser breached Clause 1 (accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice by publishing a letter headlined: “Adoption is not a toy for social engineers,” on 10 July last year.

The letter was a reader’s response to an article reporting Mander’s decision to take legal action against an adoption agency which had refused his and his wife’s adoption request because no children of their own ethnic background were available.

The letter said the couple’s “struggle to adopt a child of diametrically opposed colour, race and culture is beginning to look like yet another attempt to use race to further some right-on agenda”.

It added: “Here’s an interesting fact: as of March last year there were over 3,000 Asian/British Asian kids waiting to be adopted. So there’s absolutely no reason why the Manders can’t adopt from their own background”.

Mander welcomed debate on the issues raised by the original article, but said the 3,000 figure was inaccurate, and the publication had not verified it prior to publication.

Only a small proportion of looked after children were placed for adoption – 3,320 of 69,540 in 2015 – he said.

As only 3,320 children in total were placed for adoption in 2015, there was no possibility that 3,000 children of Asian or British Asian origin could have been available for adoption in March 2016 – and even fewer would have been of Indian heritage, like him and his wife.

It was also inaccurate for the letter to say that 3,000 “kids” were waiting to be adopted, when the figures provided by the publication for the number of looked-after children included young people up to the age of 18, with more than half being over the age of ten.

The newspaper said that while it verified all letters, it did not ordinarily “fact check” them, in the interests of preserving correspondents’ freedom of expression.

The writer had based the 3,000 figure on government figures for looked-after children, which indicated that, in 2016, there were 3,130 looked-after children of Asian or Asian British origin.

While not all of these children were subject to a placement or adoption order, the correspondent’s view was that they were all “waiting to be adopted” in terms of their “need” for adoption – and the correspondent was entitled to interpret the data in this way.

The newspaper offered to publish a letter from Mander in print and online, and put an addendum to the online article clarifying the figures.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee said letters pages were an important manifestation of the right to freedom of expression, offering individuals the opportunity to respond to claims made in publications, share their own viewpoints and dispute points raised by others.

It was neither reasonable nor desirable to expect editors to verify every fact contained in published letters.

The 3,000 figure was not, at face value, implausible, and the letter was clearly presented as the correspondent’s views, placed in a letters page, and the writer was not presented as having any particular authority on the issue.

There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the information in the letter.

But where significant inaccuracies in letters were identified post-publication, the obligation to correct or clarify in an appropriate manner remains.

“Occasionally, this will require the publication of a clarification or correction,” the committee said. “Usually, however, the publication of a letter giving the alternate view will be a sufficient and effective remedy.”

The committee also rejected the complaint that the use of the 3,000 figure was an inaccuracy.

Comments

2 thoughts on “IPSO rules it is 'neither reasonable nor desirable' for editors to fact check readers' letters before publication”

  1. The Bristol Post’s sloppy/barely-extant subbing is not confined to its letters section. Page 19 of today’s paper (Wed May 9) contains an opinion article which seems to have just been hastily dumped on the page with zero, or minimal, sub-editing or proofreading.

    Was it even checked by staff, or indeed its own author, before publication?

    Including gaffes in the headline, standfirst, pull-out quote and picture caption, as well as those riddling virtually every paragraph of the article itself, the page is riddled with circa SIXTY-FIVE errors of punctuation, syntax, sense and fact.

    It is bylined Neil Maggs. Not-Neil-y-good-enough-for-Mags, more like.

  2. Maybe it is unreasonable, given limited time and resources, for newspapers to fact-check *every* assertion/statistic in letters published, but it seems bizarre to deem the practice not desirable. In an ideal world of infinite editorial budget and sufficient staff to dedicate to the task, it would save much time, effort and confusion, and bolster papers’ credibility, if letters’ content were verified.

    But, even with the time-pressured, short-staffed real world’s impracticability of comprehensive fact-checking, surely letters desks could at least find a few seconds to Google contentious or unattributed statistics, or to ask the sender for a source.

    Printing corrections or refutations is a compromise solution, and easy to implement by simply copying and pasting correction emails (after checking these too, of course) – though many papers do not even do this. But far preferable is to obviate correction letters by verifying the original claims before publication in the first place, thereby freeing space on the letters pages for new topics rather than clogging them up with corrections and taking readers’ time and effort in supplying these. Correction-raisers are effectively doing letters editors’/sub-editors’/proofreaders’ jobs for them, unpaid.

    Certain papers, such as the Bristol Post, often run letters seemingly not only factually unchecked but not even amended for spelling, punctuation, local relevance, basic sense/coherence, or whether they just repeat views already expressed by previous submissions. The impression is that these are just pasted from emails without even being read beyond a fleeting glance, let alone checked.

    And most major UK local and national papers fail to publish submitted corrections, even major ones, despite each day’s prominent page-2 pledges to do so; and despite the sheer ease of reproducing emails, requiring little or no additional typesetting.

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