SEN errors in press corrected after Full Fact goes to PCC

16 December 2010

After three months of persistence, Full Fact is happy to report that the Daily Telegraph and Independent newspapers have agreed to alter inaccurate figures in their coverage of an Ofsted report on special educational needs (SEN).

Long-term Full Fact readers will recall that both newspapers, in addition to the Daily Mail, claimed the report estimated that 700,000-750,000 special needs children were misdiagnosed.

Based on what the report actually said, a more reasonable estimate seemed to be the lower but still significant figure of a little over 450,000. The higher figure raises doubts about a whole category of SEN in which Ofsted found no widespread problems, as we explained here.

After Full Fact clarified with Ofsted that the higher figure was not backed up by the figures in the report, we went to all these publications to request the number be changed. All three refused.

Since the inflated figure could have a knock-on effect on later public debate on special needs provision, Full Fact refused to give up there, and took the matter to the Press Complaints Commission.

The Commission initially told us that action over corrections is normally only taken when the request comes from a party directly involved in the story, in this case Ofsted. This was action the schools watchdog was unwilling to take.

After further persuasion, the Commission did take up the matter and it has now been corrected online in the two of the cases, the Telegraph and Independent.

The PCC process can work

Despite the criticism of the Commission, the corrections show that a bit of persistence can pay off. Without the involvement of the PCC these corrections would not have been made.

Third parties can complain

When we initially complained we were told that the PCC only normally pursued cases about inaccuracy when the party to whom the inaccuracy related to complained themselves.

This case shows that in cases of clear factual inaccuracy, the PCC is willing to follow up complaints by third parties.

This can take a while — but shouldn't

Full Fact initially highlighted the errors in the stories three months ago. It has taken us this long, and several rounds of correspondence with the reports, Ofsted and the PCC to get to where we are.

We had verbal confirmation from Ofsted that the higher estimates did not reflect their research on the date the story was published.

The process for getting stories corrected really shouldn't take this long.

Daily Mail can still ignore our complaint

The refusal of the Daily Mail to change its story after the other two publication have is frustrating.

This along with the written confirmation from Ofsted that the figure was not accurate, would to most people seem like enough reason to amend a story.

However the Mail's response to the PCC argued that based on the information in the report and the press briefing, the figure was valid — and made only more so by the use of qualifiers such as "up to".

We feel that even if the use of the higher figure was reasonable based on the briefing, this is no grounds not to correct the story in light of the later clarification.

Nevertheless, the two other corrections show that a route for complaints about the inaccuracies in media reports, the Press Complaints Commission has served a useful purpose — even if it did take a while.

However the prominence of the the story when reported means we will both be continuing to call for the amendment to the Daily Mail story and requesting corrections be published in the print editions of the Independent and Telegraph.

However we do not consider the matter closed. We will ask the PCC to take further action to ensure the Daily Mail corrects its story. Likewise due to the prominence of the story when first covered, we will be requesting printed corrections from the Daily Telegraph and Independent.

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