Watchdog rules newspaper’s claims that one in five Muslims in UK had sympathy with jihadis misrepresented poll results
The Sun has been ordered to print a statement acknowledging that its claims that one in five British Muslims supported people who have gone to Syria to fight for jihadi groups such as Islamic State were significantly misleading.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) said a front page article from 23 November last year – as well as more coverage inside the paper – misrepresented the results of the poll on which they were based because the relevant question in its poll did not support the claim.
Respondents were asked to what extent they had sympathy with “young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria”, rather than with those who went to fight with Isis or any other Islamist group.
But, while Ipso upheld the complaint it investigated, the paper was spared having to print notice of the adjudication on its front page. The watchdog said the newspaper had agreed to publish the notice on page two of Saturday’s edition, having been ordered to place it no further back than page five.
“While the newspaper was entitled to interpret the poll’s findings, taken in its entirety, the coverage presented as a fact that the poll showed that one in five British Muslims had sympathy for those who left to join Isis and for Isis itself,” Ipso said.
“In fact, neither the question, nor the answers which referred to ‘sympathy’, made reference to [Isis]. The newspaper had failed to take appropriate care in its presentation of the poll results and, as a result, the coverage was significantly misleading.”
The Sun did not accept that the meaning of the question was ambiguous. The paper argued that previous questions in the survey had referred to Isis explicitly and that the “overwhelming majority of those who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria” did so in order to join the group.
Ipso said the paper had been accused of conflating “important distinctions between those travelling to Syria and those already fighting in Syria; between ‘sympathy’ for these individuals and ‘support’ for their actions; and between individuals attracted by the ideology of [Isis], and the ideology of [Isis] itself”.
It was entirely possible, the complainant said, that respondents could have taken “sympathy” to mean sorrow that people were being drawn into joining Isis without understanding the group’s true nature.
The Sun claimed that sympathy, whether defined as regret or sorrow “was still sympathy”. It also pointed out that its coverage extended beyond its front page and included the questions in full, as well as “comment from two positive Muslim voices”.
In its adjudication, Ipso said that, despite respondents expressing only “sympathy”, the Sun had turned that into “support” in a related column that appeared in that day’s edition, a story by its political editor and in its front page picture caption.
Ipso added: “The newspaper had taken steps to inform readers about the nature of the poll and the questions asked. Furthermore, the breach of the code had been established by the committee based on the cumulative effect of the coverage, the majority of which appeared on pages four and five.”
For that reason, it said, it decided to refrain from ordering that the notice be published on the front page.
The watchdog said it had received a large number of complaints about the paper’s coverage and chose the advocacy group Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend) as the lead complainant.
It added that there was no reason to consider complaints it received that the paper’s coverage was discriminatory. “There will be those who firmly believe that conducting and reporting a poll of this nature was in itself distasteful or socially harmful; such concerns do not constitute a possible breach of the code,” it said.
“The newspaper was entitled to commission the poll and it had used a reputable polling company to do so. The coverage had included the full text of the poll question, along with extensive commentary putting the findings into context, including comment from Muslim leaders, distancing themselves from extremism, and emphasising that the ideology of [Isis] was condemned by the vast majority of British Muslims.”
Like the Sun, the Times, which followed the story up the next day, was found to have breached clause one of Ipso’s code, which relates to accuracy. However,since the latter newspaper had already published a clarification, the watchdog required no further action.