Economist Editors Flout Their “Editors’ Code of Practice”

The British Press Complaints Commission (PCC) publishes an Editor’s Code of Practice that was designed by the newspaper and periodical industry in the UK. One of its premier elements is to take care “not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, ” followed by a directive about what to do when “a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion” is revealed:

Once recognised [the misleading infromation] must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

Yet, when readers of London’s Economist complained to editors about multiple inaccuracies in a highly misleading May 4th article vilifying Israel with baseless accusations of Israeli racism, Middle East and Africa editor Xan Smiley sent out a  form letter to those who wrote, not  heeding their specific complaints but attacking them for “a wilful misinterpretation of what our correspondent wrote.”

What was Smiley talking about?

Among the many examples of misinformation indicated, the complaints pointed to one about the article’s false statement (also sent out on The Economist‘s twitter account) that
so far this year, Israel’s army has evicted almost 400 Palestinians from the West Bank and dismantled over 200 homes, the fastest rate for two years, according to the UN.
Readers indicated that this was wrong.  There was no UN report, or any other credible evidence, to suggest that any Palestinians were evicted from the West Bank this year.

But far from apologizing for the obvious distortion, as the Editors’ Code of Practice directs, Smiley twisted himself into knots to avoid acknowledging the error. Instead, he insisted that:

…from the West Bank naturally refers not to the verb “evicted” but to the noun “Palestinians”, which directly precedes it. In other words, the phrase “has evicted almost 400 Palestinians from the West Bank” means that “Palestinians living on the West Bank” were evicted from their homes, not from the West Bank altogether.

According to Smiley, “the intended meaning was never in doubt.” In other words, readers should have understood that the article didn’t actually mean what it said – and if readers misunderstood, well then, it was simply “wilful misinterpretation” on their part.

Regardless of the editor’s public refusal to apologize for, let alone acknowledge, the article’s distortions, The Economist corrected the above passage on its website. According to the Editors’ Code of Practice, “It is the responsibility of editors and publishers to apply the Code to editorial material in both printed and online versions of publications.” However, there was no correction in the print edition. Nor was there any correction of other misinformation in the article.

In response to requests to correct the print edition – whose readers deserve precise, unmistakable language as much as readers of the online edition – and for additional clarification of other misleading information in the article, Smiley, joined by The Economist’‘s Editor-in-Chief, John Micklethwait, sent out a derisive letter to readers announcing the editors’ adamant refusal to issue a correction and falsely suggesting that any criticism of the magazine’s article was “orchestrated by a pro-settler group discomfited by our meticulously researched article.” Below is the letter sent by The Economist‘s editors:
I am sorry to disappoint you. We will be making no “correction” in our printed edition because there was nothing in our article that was factually wrong which we needed to correct. We have made a clarification online to remove the slightest ambiguity in the sentence to which you refer concerning evictions.

As we explained (below) in our comprehensive rebuttal of the various charges and unwarranted slurs in the letters we received that were orchestrated by a pro-settler group discomfited by our meticulously researched article, a reader would misunderstand that sentence only if it were taken out of context or wilfully misinterpreted.

Thus there will be no “correction” in our printed edition.

This correspondence is now closed.

With best wishes

John Micklethwait
The Economist


Xan Smiley
Middle East & Africa editor
The Economist

What emerges from this response is not only the contempt the editors hold for their readers, but their clear violation of the British Editors’ Code of Practice. Far from fulfilling their duty “to maintain highest professional standards,” The Economist’s editors have stooped to the lowest standards.

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