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Press Regulator: Criado-Perez Abuse Claim Was Misleading

It dragged on and on… you will have to decide for yourself why the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the UK’s press regulator, took so long to review the inaccuracies in Caroline Criado-Perez’s July 23rd piece about domestic violence. Published on the New Statesman’s website, Criado-Perez made the following assertion.

Domestic abuse is the largest cause of morbidity in women aged 19-44, more than war, cancer or motor vehicle accidents.

This is a dramatic statement, which caught the attention of many readers. When I surveyed Twitter tweets that linked to the article, I found ten percent repeated the claim verbatim. However, Criado-Perez’s domestic violence statistic is utterly false. It was most notably debunked by a 2009 episode of More or Less, the BBC’s statistical fact-checking show.

Criado-Perez did worse than repeating a common lie. If she had stopped there, then maybe she could have feigned innocence, pretending she made an honest mistake. Criado-Perez went further, trying to hoodwink gullible readers by hyperlinking her pseudostatistic to a 246-page report published by the World Health Organization, even though that report contains no data to support Criado-Perez’s hyperbole. The WHO report dates back to 2002, and the most pertinent data it contains is that interpersonal violence then ranked as the 43rd-highest cause of morbidity for women.

Though it has taken too long, IPSO has finally reached a decision. Their Complaints Committee said:

The Committee made clear that it would not be able to establish the accuracy of the statistic itself. However, it did consider it misleading for the magazine to cite as a source a WHO report which did not contain the assertion in question. The magazine had not been able to demonstrate that it had taken care. As such, there had been a breach of Clause 1 (i) [of the Editor’s Code of Practice].

Criado-Perez and the New Statesman have misled their readers. That was so obvious that nobody could sensibly deny it, even if they wanted to. I know that some of you have contacted Criado-Perez directly, asking why she cited the WHO report and what was the real source of her claim. Her attitude is plain: she intends to simply ignore those questions. Criado-Perez expects this all to blow over, allowing her to continue her career as a campaigner and journalist without even a hiccup. Instead of choosing to be honest, frank and transparent, Criado-Perez believes that the best course of action is to refuse to discuss questions relating to her integrity as a journalist. Better still, she hopes nobody will ask them. If the press, and its regulator, refuse to hold her to account, then only the public can do so.

I am not satisfied with the conclusion of my complaint. In all my dealings with the press regulator, I emphasized that time is of the essence, when correcting errors on popular websites. Articles on major websites are mostly read during the first few days of publication; this is when the article is featured on the home page and promoted via social media. The article may remain on the web forever, but only a very small number of people will read it after the initial rush. I contacted the New Statesman and Criado-Perez within hours of the publication of this article, alerting them to the error. It took the New Statesman two weeks to delete the bogus statistic (substituting other statistical misinformation in its place). By then, the article had long disappeared from their home page. Nobody was reading the article any more, so it hardly mattered what changes were made. No real effort has been made to correctly inform the readers who have been misinformed. In total, it has taken 10 weeks to get a judgment from the press regulator, though their standards state the following.

We will deal with your complaint as quickly as possible. We will explain any delays and keep you informed of the progress of our investigations. Overall, we aim to deal with complaints in an average of 35 working days.

The press regulator never explained why this complaint needed so much longer than their ‘average’. 10 weeks is a long time on the internet. In that time, a lie can spread worldwide.

More than that, we must question the purpose of a press regulator that is ‘not able to establish the accuracy’ of assertions made by the press. In this case, we are not dealing with a rarefied branch of theoretical physics or speculations about the nature of God. Either domestic violence is, or is not, the largest cause of morbidity for a certain range of women. Either there is statistical data to support this assertion, or there is not. In this instance, nobody can find any data to support this falsehood, and there is plenty of data to the contrary. In short, what is the point of a press regulator tasked to ‘uphold the highest standards of journalism’ and to ‘enforce’ a code which requires ‘the Press [to] take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information’, if that regulator cannot tell the difference between a statistical fact and some made-up garbage that gets repeated by people who should know better?

Even now, the press regulator is complicit in misleading readers. If you visit the offending article on the New Statesman’s website, you will see a footnote. That footnote is a lie, though it has the blessing of IPSO. The footnote begins: ‘Update, 7 August 2014’. I believe an ordinary person, with no knowledge of the history of this article, would assume that this update occurred on the 7th of August. It did not. The wording of this footnote originated in late September. IPSO’s complaint handler told me about it on the 1st of October.

From: Bianca Strohmann
Subject: Complaint 143805
Date: 1 October 2014 09:58:07 GMT+01:00
To: Eric Priezkalns

Dear Mr Priezkalns,

My apologies for the delay in bringing your complaint to a conclusion.

The statistic in the New Statesman has now been amended to

The prevalence of domestic abuse means that in some countries 40-70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by a husband or boyfriend, according to the UN.

And the footnote has been updated accordingly.

The article was first amended on August 7th, and a footnote was inserted then. But what you see today is not the version of the article, or the footnote, as it looked on August 7th. It would bore most normal people to describe every edit made to the article, and to the footnote, since then. Let me assure you that what you see today is actually the fourth version of this article, and the third version of this footnote.

Throughout this process, the ‘independent’ press regulator has been in repeated contact with the New Statesman, negotiating changes to the wording. After each change, I was asked to comment. The implication is clear. The editors of the New Statesman wanted to make the least possible change, and to draw the least possible attention to the inaccuracy in the original article. The press regulator aided and abetted this, by asking me to comment on every change.

A genuinely impartial body would have no need to ask my opinion, because they could have told the New Statesman that the changes were clearly inadequate, as they continued to mislead readers by presenting statistical falsehoods. Why ask me about every change, only to then negotiate further changes, unless the regulator hoped I might drop my complaint? Why draw this process out unnecessarily, with repeated trivial edits, unless the goal was to avoid issuing a formal decision that the Editor’s Code had been breached?

Over the last 10 weeks, a lot of my time has been wasted. My ‘reward’, such as it is, is that the regulator was finally forced to issue a decision, stating that the public had been misled. This is of scant benefit, if the public does not learn the truth. Though it is entitled to do so, the regulator has not published its decision. I received the decision by email, as if lies about the prevalence of violence in our society are a private matter between me and a group of career journalists who never had the decency to respond to me directly.

At every turn, the regulator has done the least it can possibly do, to correct the misinformation spread by Criado-Perez and the New Statesman. It should not be up to private citizens, like you and me, to hold the press and public servants to account, in this fashion. But it is up to you, and me, to hold them to account. We cannot rely on anyone else to do it for us.

Criado-Perez is a famous victim. Her fame is inextricably linked to the abuse she received from Twitter trolls. Our society is humane; we have sympathy for victims. But we all know that bad people can be victims too. We must not allow sympathy for Criado-Perez to grant her leeway we would not permit to every journalist. She lied, and it was a gross lie. The readers of her articles should know about this, and apply appropriate scepticism to everything she writes in future.

The truth has come out, somewhat. But the truth has arrived late, and is only spoken in whispers. You are reading this now, but many more people read the original article by Criado-Perez, and they believed its contents. They are not reading this, or learning they were misled.

In many respects, this process shows how liars and cheats are winners in our society. It is people like you and I, who want journalists to present reliable information to readers, who are the losers. Perhaps we are in the minority. But even if we are a minority, I intend to keep fighting, and I hope to find myself fighting alongside you. If you agree with me, that Criado-Perez was caught in a barefaced lie but has suffered no repercussions, then I urge you to tell others about this incident, and the judgment issued by the press regulator. We cannot rely on others to do it for us.

The full text of the IPSO decision follows.

Committee’s decision in the case of
Priezkalns v New Statesman

The complainant expressed concern about an article, published on the magazine’s website only, which reported incidents of domestic violence, and called for a change in UK law to offer greater protection to victims.

Clause 1 (i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice states that “the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures”. The complainant stated that a statistic used in the article, that “domestic abuse is the largest cause of morbidity in women aged 19-44, more than war, cancer or motor vehicle accidents”, had been widely debunked and was inaccurate. Further, the magazine had linked to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report to support this assertion. The report did not contain the statistic in question and the complainant considered that it was misleading for the magazine to suggest that this statistic could be attributed to the WHO.

The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the statistic under complaint had been widely debunked. The magazine had stated that it had been quoted in government reports, including one issued by the Home Office, but acknowledged that it had been widely contested. The Committee made clear that it would not be able to establish the accuracy of the statistic itself. However, it did consider it misleading for the magazine to cite as a source a WHO report which did not contain the assertion in question. The magazine had not been able to demonstrate that it had taken care. As such, there had been a breach of Clause 1 (i).

Clause 1 (ii) states that “a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence”. The magazine was obliged to correct the impression that the statistic quoted had come from the WHO. The magazine had replaced the original statistic with one contained within the report, and added the following footnote: “This article originally referred to domestic violence as “the largest cause of morbidity in women aged 19-44”. However, this was not contained in the WHO report cited as the source. The article was amended to state that “in some countries 40-70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by a husband or partner”, a statistic contained within the report in question”. The Committee was satisfied that, in acknowledging that there had been an error, and making clear the amendment that had been made, the magazine had taken sufficient action to remedy the initial breach.

The Committee noted that the complainant was concerned about the prominence of the correction, stating that the original article had been one of the four most popular on the magazine’s website when originally published, but only a minority of readers would be likely to revisit the article and see the correction. The Committee made clear however that the correction should appear where the original inaccuracy had. It was satisfied that the remedy offered was sufficient. The complainant was further concerned about the time taken to publish the final correction. The Committee noted that the process had been lengthy, but was satisfied that the magazine had not failed in its obligations under the terms of the Code. The complainant had also suggested that the magazine publish a comprehensive history of its footnotes, but the Committee did not consider that it was obliged to do so.

Reference no. 143805

2 Responses

  1. Congratulations on your persistence in gaining this victory, small though it may seem. I had a set-to with Prospect Union whose web site contains one of the many variants on this spurious statement. I was able to refute their statement emphatically using 2008 WHO data – details are in Appendix A of http://redpilluk.co.uk/PartnerViolenceAgainstMen2ndEdition.pdf – but they did not see fit to remove the statement. Encouraged by your success I may have a go at them again – quoting the outcome of the IPSO review – and also the More Or Less programme (which I was not previously aware of, but have now listened to – thanks).

  2. Fantastic work at calling the establishment and the powerful to account. In a democracy that is the responsibility of the press, in this case they have become the very thing they are supposed to police.

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