Ministerial corrections and battling hoax posts: how our fact checking had an impact this summer

29 September 2023 | Steve Nowottny, Editor

A key mantra at Full Fact is that fact checking isn’t just about publishing fact checks. Yes, we do that—591 so far in 2023, at the time of writing. But it’s about much more besides—deliberately and methodically taking action to slow and stop the spread of bad information, with researching, writing and publishing a fact check just the first stage in that process.

Earlier this year I outlined five ways our fact checking had an impact in May, and another five ways it had an impact in June. Now, as the leaves turn brown, it’s time for a further update, with five ways our fact checking had an impact over the rest of the summer:

1/ Two ministers corrected inaccurate claims after we asked them to

We’ve fact checked many claims from ministers over the course of 2023, from the Prime Minister and others, but getting false, misleading or unevidenced claims corrected can often be a challenge.

So it was highly encouraging that over the summer we saw a brace of ministerial corrections. 

The health secretary Steve Barclay was the first. In an interview on the Today programme he wrongly claimed NHS consultants receive tax-free pensions (they don’t). When we contacted the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), it said that two issues were conflated during the interview and it was happy to correct the record.

We wrote to the BBC and Mr Barclay directly about the claim, and the BBC published the DHSC’s statement on its corrections and clarifications page. Mr Barclay did not respond—but it was good to hear him challenged on the point and make an on-air correction, in a subsequent Today programme appearance [starts at 2:18:16].

The second ministerial correction came from the justice secretary Alex Chalk. When we wrote to him about his inaccurate claim that since 30 June 2023 there has been an increase of over 700 full-time equivalent band 3 to 5 prison staff, he promptly sent a letter of correction to Hansard—updating the official Parliamentary record in exemplary fashion.

2/ Three MPs' claims were corrected or deleted—and there was encouraging news for our campaign on new rules for MP corrections

Our wider fact checking of MPs has led to three more taking steps to address or correct claims (bringing our total for the year so far to 11). 

Diane Abbott MP deleted a tweet giving an incorrect figure for the pay of the NHS England chief executive. A newspaper column by Wes Streeting MP claiming there are almost 5,000 fewer GPs than a decade ago was amended by the Telegraph, after NHS England said pre-2015 data wasn’t comparable with recent figures. 

And Ian Mearns MP went the extra mile to correct a claim about the number of children missing schooling, telling us he wrote to the Prime Minister to correct what he had said.  

While these actions by MPs are all extremely welcome, our campaigning for new rules on MP corrections continues. 

Parliament will soon vote on whether to change the House of Commons rules around MP corrections, following a campaign by Full Fact and over 50,000 of our supporters, and it was reassuring earlier this month to see that the government welcomed the Procedure Committee’s conclusion that all MPs should be able to correct the official record when they make a mistake (right now, only ministers can do that). Full Fact is calling for all MPs to agree to the change when the motion is tabled by the Government.

3/ We exposed the problem of hoax posts on Facebook to the national media with a major investigation

Over the last year we have fact checked dozens of hoax posts in local Facebook groups—tackling fake claims about everything from missing children and lost dogs to escaped snakes and a ‘serial killer’.

In August, we published a major investigation into the scale and causes of the problem, based on months of research. We identified at least 1,200 examples of such hoaxes and over 115 communities across the UK affected by them. We also looked at why they may be happening, with hoaxes often edited into unrelated financial offers using affiliate links.

We didn’t just write about the problem either—we took action. We have written to Facebook’s parent company Meta to formally raise concerns, and highlighted the problem in the national media, with our investigation receiving coverage from the BBC, Sky News, Guardian, MailOnline, Independent, Metro and others. 

4/ The BBC corrected two claims on immigration 

While our current focus is more on claims by politicians and on social media than those from newspapers and broadcasters, the volume of fact checking we do nevertheless yields a steady flow of media corrections. Among those in August were not one but two BBC corrections of claims about immigration—one from the Today programme about the “legacy backlog” of asylum cases, and one from the BBC News website about the number of withdrawn asylum claims. 

These were just two of a whole host of corrections, clarifications and amendments from the media, which continues to be generally responsive when we point out errors. Other examples came from the Guardian (on the tax impact of Brexit), Daily Mail (on doctors moving overseas), the Sun (on hairdressers’ cancer risk) and the Mirror (on NHS consultants’ pay demands). 

5/ And finally, we got to the bottom of an eyecatching claim about a patient waiting 36 days in A&E 

Sometimes, a claim just sounds so surprising it makes our fact check antennae twitch. And that was the case when our health team saw reports earlier this month that a mental health patient had waited 860 hours—the equivalent of 36 days—in A&E.

Getting to the bottom of this wasn’t simple. The claim in various media outlets was based on a Labour party press release, which was itself based on data obtained from NHS trusts via Freedom of Information requests.

The conclusion though was simple—it wasn’t true. It turns out the patient in question actually visited A&E then left on the same day, before returning and being “discharged” the following month.

Once that was cleared up, the clarifications and corrections followed—from the NHS trust which released the incorrect information under FOI, from the Labour party which issued the press release, and from PA Media, the MailOnline and the Independent who reported it. 

An eyecatching claim, a cautionary tale about the importance of checking FOI data—and a textbook example of how prompt proactive fact checking can nip false claims in the bud.

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