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Law Column: “Extreme left” – Fact or opinion according to IPSO?


Having said recently that we rarely write about IPSO decisions in our fortnightly column, here is a second one in as many months! Whilst IPSO adjudications are more regulatory rather than legal, they are still very important to the readers of this column and the landscape in which regional journalists operate.

The article concerned in this ruling was published by the Telegraph on 22 June, online and in print, and sparked 213 complaints to IPSO in relation to Clause 1, Accuracy. The article was a first-person opinion piece which appeared in print under the headline: “The scrapping of Dfid is good news in Westminster. The attack on Churchill’s statue is not”.

The article discussed the calls to remove Winston Churchill’s statue, and listed some of the things which Churchill had done in his life. The contentious sentence included that he had liberated “our friends on the continent from the curse of Hitler’s extreme Left, anti-Semitic, German Nationalist Workers’ Party regime”.

The issue raised by the many complainants was the use of the words “extreme left” to describe the political positioning of Hitler’s party. They argued that communists, socialists and others on the left-wing were persecuted by the Nazis and that as fascists, the party must have been right-wing. Further, they argued that characterising the Nazis as left-wing was “offensive, revisionist and an attempt to smear left-wing people and parties”.

The Telegraph denied that the Editors’ Code of Practice had been breached because the piece was clearly identifiable as an opinion piece, and that readers would understand it was the writer’s opinion that the National Socialist Workers’ Party was left wing. The publisher argued that the party’s position on the left or right had not been established and was the subject of great debate, so the statement could only be an opinion. Further, adding the word “extreme” to “left” or “right” is “intrinsically opinion based” and this would be recognised by the reader.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee found that there had not been a breach of the Code and that the Telegraph had taken care not to publish inaccurate information. The Committee stated that characterising parties as being on the left or right of the political spectrum is based on subjective assessment and is not verifiable as fact, and further, that any such placement is always a matter of debate. On this occasion, the Committee was satisfied that:

“due to the subjective nature of assessing a group as being politically left or right, and the placement of this assessment within an easily distinguishable first person opinion piece, the columnist’s characterisation of the Nazi Party as ‘extreme left’ would be understood to be his personal assessment.”

IPSO’s adjudication makes it clear that characterising a party’s political leaning is subjective, and that readers would recognise such a characterisation to be the author’s personal opinion in the context of an opinion piece.

Obviously each case would turn on its own facts, but given the political landscape at present and the high concentration of political reporting on partisan politics, this (non-legal) precedent is both useful and reassuring. However, what we don’t know is how IPSO would respond to such a characterisation being made as a statement of fact in non-opinion piece, so a careful approach should be taken to any contentious characterisations of political leanings in this context.