Lee Longstaff complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Northern Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an online article headlined “The North East MPs that have claimed their TV licence back on expenses”, published on 22 January 2022.

The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required the Northern Echo to publish this adjudication to remedy the breach of the Code. 

The complainant said that the article gave the misleading impression that MPs were claiming TV licences for their personal use on expenses and suggested wrongdoing: the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) only allowed MPs to claim a TV licence for their constituency office, not for personal use. He said that this impression was further compounded by: the suggestion that the publication had in some way revealed hidden information about MPs through an “investigation”, rather than accessing and publishing publicly-available information; the inclusion of quotation marks around the term “office supplies” – a term not used by IPSA, with the quotation marks casting doubt on the honesty of this categorisation; and by reporting that North East MPs had “stayed quiet” on the subject of licence fees in the House of Commons. 

The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It said that the headline was supported and clarified by the text of the article, which set out exactly what the 12 MPs had claimed on expenses: TV licences for their constituency offices. It said that the article clearly detailed where this information had been sourced and gave every MP identified the opportunity to respond. 

In IPSO’s view, the references in the article, taken together, suggested that the named MPs had claimed their own personal TV licences on expenses. The headline of the article, the opening paragraphs, and the captions of the accompanying images, used the term “their” to describe the licence fees being claimed on expenses. The text of the article referred to representatives asking to be reimbursed “out of the public purse” for “their license”; explained that the BBC licence was “required by any household” consuming BBC programmes and services; and included the observations of a reader who commented on the programmes watched by him and his children, thereby reinforcing the impression that the article concerned domestic TV licences. The publication did not seek to argue that the named MPs had claimed their personal TV licences on expenses and the article, therefore, published misleading information.

While the article acknowledged that no rules were alleged have been broken and noted that “so far, most MPs that have responded [to the publication] have clarified that the licence fee is just for their constituency office”, this did not amount to a clear acknowledgment that the claims by each of the named MPs had been made in relation to television sets for constituency offices – information that was publicly available – and that none had been made in a personal capacity. In addition, reporting the response of some MPs carried the implication that the other MPs who had not responded to the publication’s request for comment may have claimed their own personal TV licence on expenses.

This misleading impression was compounded by the publication’s characterisation of the report as its own investigation and the comment that MPs had “stayed quiet” on the subject of TV licence fees, which could suggest that they had done so out of self-interest and in order to avoid scrutiny. For these reasons, the Committee found that the article provided a significantly misleading impression in regards to MPs expenses, and represented a failure to take care not publish misleading information in breach of Clause 1 (i). Neither a correction nor a clarification was offered by the publication. The Committee therefore found a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

To view IPSO's adjudication in full click here