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Daily Telegraph ordered to correct Boris Johnson claim that no-deal Brexit was public's favoured option

The ruling was made by the UK-based Independent Press Standards Organisation.

British former foreign secretary Boris Johnson (file photo)
British former foreign secretary Boris Johnson (file photo)
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH has been ordered to correct a “misleading” claim by Boris Johnson that a no-deal Brexit was the public’s favoured way to leave the European Union.

The ruling was made by the UK’s Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), who found that the article breached the accuracy clause of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

It came on foot of a complaint to the organisation about an article by the former British foreign secretary headlined “The British people won’t be scared into backing a woeful Brexit deal nobody voted for”, which was published on 7 January this year.

The article, a long-form opinion piece, saw Johnson set out his opposition to Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal deal, arguing instead for a no-deal Brexit.

In it, he claimed that fear of a no-deal Brexit had been greatly exaggerated by opponents to Brexit, and was in fact the public’s expectation of what would happen when they voted to leave the EU.

He wrote: “Of all the options suggested by pollsters – staying in the EU, coming out on Theresa May’ terms, or coming out on World Trade terms – it is the last, the so-called no-deal option, that is gaining in popularity.

“In spite of – or perhaps because of – everything they have been told, it is this future that is by some margin preferred by the British public.”

Front page

The member of the public who brought the complaint alleged that Johnson was inaccurate to claim that polls showed that a no-deal Brexit was more popular “by some margin” over remaining in the EU or leaving under Theresa May’s deal.

They said that no poll available at the time of publication, or provided by the publication in defence of Johnson’s statement supported his claims, and that the inaccuracy was exacerbated by the fact that Johnson and his column in the newspaper are high profile.

The complainant also noted that a news piece, which reported that Johnson had expressed the views in the article, also appeared on the newspaper’s front page.

In its response, the Daily Telegraph said that the article was clearly an opinion piece, and that readers would understand that Johnson’s statement was not invoking specific polling.

It also claimed that Johnson was entitled to make sweeping generalisations based on his opinions, and that the complainant had misconstrued the purpose of the article, which was clearly comically polemical and could not be reasonably read as serious.

The newspaper added that should the statement have been read literally, there were polls that supported the claim.

It pointed to one poll which showed that after support for a Canada-style trade deal and those who were unsure, respondents preferred a no-deal Brexit over Theresa May’s deal and remaining in the EU.

The Daily Telegraph also pointed to four other polls researching support for Brexit outcomes, and said that as polls were rarely identical or comparable, it was inevitable that there would be some degree of subjectivity involved in interpreting the results.

Accuracy failure

In its ruling, the IPSO committee said columnists are free under its code to campaign, be partisan, and to express strong opinions using hyperbole, melodrama and humour.

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However, the committee pointed to an obligation under the code to ensure the accuracy of any claims of fact.

It also said that Johnson’s article made a factual claim, and in considering whether that claim had a basis in fact, it analysed the content of the five polls provided to it.

However, the committee said the newspaper had not provided any data which supported the claim that a no-deal Brexit was the option preferred “by some margin” over the three options listed, or that these represented “…all of the options suggested by pollsters”.

Rather, it found that the newspaper had construed the polls as signalling support for a no-deal Brexit when this was the result of the publication either amalgamating several findings together, or interpreting an option beyond what was set out in the poll.

It found that this represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of the accuracy clause of its code.

“The reference to the polling was not material to the author’s polemical argument,” it wrote.

“However, it was a significant inaccuracy, because it misrepresented polling information.”

The committee decided that the Daily Telegraph had therefore breached its editors’ code by giving a misleading impression that polling had found a statistical basis to support a no-deal Brexit.

However, as the inaccuracy was not material to the overall argument of the article, the committee considered that the newspaper should publish a correction which made clear that no poll had found that a no-deal Brexit was the most popular option.

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