Sunday 27 September 2015

My 13 complaints against one Daily Mail story

A front-page news story by the Daily Mail in January 2014 that buses and planes to Britain from Romania and Bulgaria were 'full-up and sold-out' was untrue. 

The newspaper asserted that planes and busloads of Romanians and Bulgarians were on their way to Britain in the New Year of 2014 because 'work restrictions' had been lifted.  But with the help of Romanian journalist, Alina Matis, we discovered 13 shocking errors or disputed facts in the story.  

It took over 7 months of complaining to the Press Complaints Commission (now called IPSO) for them to accept that the newspaper had broken their Code 1 on 'accuracy' of the Editors Code of Practice for parts of the story.  But the press regulator refused to publish their findings, so I had to instead.

Here are the 13 errors and disputed facts in the story that Alina and I uncovered - although not all of them were accepted as a breach of the press regulator's Code of Conduct.  (It should be pointed out that the chairman of the Editors Code of Conduct is Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail).

1 Daily Mail claim: 'One airline has even doubled the number of flights to meet demand'  

The claim was flatly rejected by Wizz Air, the airline named by the Mail as doubling its flights from Romania to the UK ‘to meet demand’. Wizz Air flights from Romania and Bulgaria to the UK were only increasing by 30%, stated the airline, and that was for summer 2014.  The Mail’s claim that tickets from Romania to London from 1st January were being sold for £300 was also misleading. Wizz Air flights from Bucharest to London were available on New Year’s Eve for travel the next day at only €190 each (£158). 

2 Daily Mail claim: Some one-way tickets are selling for up to £3,000 each 

The £3,000 ticket was offered by Alitalia for a non-direct route from Bucharest to London via Rome.  As I pointed out to the Daily Mail, they’ll always be oddly priced, oddly routed tickets. But why mention it when direct flights were readily available for less than £160?  Who would buy a £3,000 ticket when much cheaper ones were available?  

3 Daily Mail claim: 'Buses leaving Bulgaria capital Sofia until January 9 are fully booked' 

On 1 January I, the day after the Mail’s story was published, I was easily able to buy a bus ticket from Sofia to London departing 3 January.  The bus company, Balkan Horn, stated that the bus left on 3 January with five empty seats.  Their manager, Valentina Georgieva, told me, ‘We actually have less bookings than this time last  year.’  

4 Daily Mail claim: 'Bulgarians and Romanians were last night preparing to travel to Britain as restrictions on working here are lifted tomorrow'  

The Daily Mail claimed that their story didn’t say if there was a link with Romanians and Bulgarians coming to the UK and the lifting of ‘work restrictions’ on 1 January.  The Mail’s legal department told me, ‘It is for a reader to make a connection if he or she chooses.’  But the connection seemed clear enough in the sentence above. 

5 Daily Mail claim: 'When controls imposed in 2005 are lifted tomorrow, 29 million* from the two countries will gain the right to work in Britain' 

Apart from the fact that it simply isn’t possible, let alone likely, that the entire populations of Bulgaria and Romania would all move to the UK, the Daily Mail’s claim that 29 million from both countries have ‘the right to work in Britain’ from 1 January cannot be correct.  Romania has 3.5 million children under the age of 15; many of them are babies.  Is the Mail claiming they have ‘the right to work in Britain’?   

There are also almost 1.2 million children in Bulgaria, and a combined elderly population of Bulgaria and Romania of over 4.5 million.  Are they all coming to work in the UK too? Also, the Daily Mail was incorrect to state that ‘controls’ were imposed on Romanians and Bulgarians in 2005.  The ‘transitional controls’ were imposed by some EU member states – including the UK – in 2007 when Romania and Bulgaria first joined the European Union. 

During the transitional period, Romanians and Bulgarians could only work in the UK with a work permit, although students could work for 20 hours a week during term time and full time during holidays.  From 1 January 2014, Romanians and Bulgarians are able to come to work in the UK, or to look for work, on the same basis as other European Union nationals.  

(*The combined population of Romania and Bulgaria is actually 27 million, not 29 million as the Daily Mail claimed)

6  Daily Mail claim: 'One user of a popular website wrote: "My husband and I want to have a child in the UK. We want to know what kind of benefits we can apply for. We are interested in receiving a council house."' 

The Daily Mail gave the impression that the woman was in Romania and wanted to come to the UK to have a baby and claim benefits. The Mail declined to let me have the address of the website they referred to so that I could check it out.  But I managed to track down the Romanian woman anyway, and discovered she was working as an NHS nurse in Kent for over two years and was simply enquiring about maternity benefits. 

Daily Mail claimed: 'Aleksandra Dzhongova, who runs a legitimate employment agency in Sofia, said other firms had been set up with the specific intention of helping immigrants understand Britain's welfare system, rather than filling job vacancies.' 

Aleksandra Dzhongova, partner in the employment agency Anons, has strongly denied that she ever said that she knew about firms helping Bulgarian immigrants to understand Britain's welfare system.  Ms Dzhongova, who does not speak English, had been interviewed by a Daily Telegraph reporter and her words translated.  The interview was then used by the Daily Mail.  

However, the Daily Telegraph insisted that their reporter had accurately reported what the translator had interpreted at the time, and sent a copy of the reporter's notebook.  

I made the point to the press regulator that if I had interviewed Ms Dzhongova and she said she knew of firms that were set-up to help people use Britain's welfare system, my next question would be, "What are the names of those firms?"  But, curiously, that question was never asked.

In any event, contrary to popular belief and media misconception, EU law does not permit EU citizens to move to another Member State and immediately claim benefits. On the contrary, there are specific arrangements within EU law to prevent people from misusing the benefits systems of other EU states. These rules are covered by Regulation EC/883/2004 of the EU.

Daily Mail claimed: 'One firm offered to help its Romanian clients avoid paying fines issued by HM Revenue and Customs'

I asked the Mail for the name of this firm and whether they had reported them to the authorities for possible illegal activities.  The Mail declined to answer.  

The Mail’s story also referred to another anonymous firm helping Romanians find work in Britain whose spokesman was quoted as saying, ‘There are already many using these social benefits without necessarily having an urgent need for them.’  But the Mail didn’t name the firm and did not accept my request to provide more details. 

My colleague Alina said, ‘I did a thorough search on the internet, but I could not find any such firms in Romania or Bulgaria offering advice on benefits or avoiding fines.’ 

Of course, that doesn’t mean to say that there are no firms offering such advice; but it’s impossible to prove something doesn’t exist, and it would be easy for the Mail to verify this part of their story.  As Alina pointed out, ‘Out of 141,000 Romanians and Bulgarians living in the UK, in February 2013 there were around 1,700 Romanians who applied for benefits, according to statistics from the British government.  I would hardly say there is a trend or a mindset on going to the UK for benefits by the citizens of Romania or Bulgaria.’ 

Daily Mail claimed that they 'asked Priority Point, which gives Romanian migrants advice on settling in the UK, whether they could help a Romanian woman with two children with no legal documents to claim benefits while looking for a job as a housekeeper. A member of staff said they could, for a free' (sic). 

I phoned the Managing Director of Priority Point, Cristina Haicu, and read the quote from the Daily Mail article.  She exclaimed, ‘Oh my God!’ and said she knew nothing about the story. She told me, ‘Thank you for bringing the article to our attention. Please be advised that Daily Mail did not call Priority Point and Priority Point did not make the quoted statement for Daily Mail.’

10  Daily Mail claimed: 'Travel agencies in Sofia as well as the Romanian capital of Bucharest reported huge demand for tickets. At the Central Bus Station in Sofia, travel agent Svetlanka Beaucheva said: ‘Everything is booked until Thursday, January 9. There are no seats left.’ 

Commented my Romanian journalist colleague, Alina Matis, ‘Svetlanka Beaucheva has been impossible to find.  She only seems to exist in the Daily Mail article. The Bulgarian who helped me told me that the Daily Mail might have misspelled the name when they tried to adapt it to English, because it doesn’t sound right and he tried some variations of it, but couldn’t find her anywhere.’  

It does seem strange that the Daily Mail didn’t give the name of the travel agency. Furthermore, it wasn’t correct that as at 31 December – the date of the Daily Mail article – that all bus seats to England were booked until 9 January. I was able to book a seat on the bus from Sofia to London on 3 January; and according to the bus company, that bus had five spare seats when it left Sofia for London. 

11  The Daily Mail claimed: 'A manager at coach company Karats Eurolines said prices had gone up due to the high demand.'

Karats Eurolines in Bulgaria categorically stated that they never spoke to the Daily Mail, or gave that quote, and they don’t even have any buses going to the UK. In a strong statement sent to my colleague, journalist Alina Matis, their manager, Bojidar Stamenov, wrote:  ’What is the problem? Our company is KARAT-S AD, member of Eurolines Organisation from Bulgaria. We have NO interest for England, NO coaches for England, NO meetings with journalists.’ 

12  Daily Mail claimed: 'Another, at coach firm Balkan Horn, said: ‘It is very busy, many people want to travel to England, especially with the change in EU rules. But everything is booked up, it’s hard to get there.’ 

Balkan Horn denied any knowledge of ever talking with the Daily Mail, and say they would never have given such a quote as it wouldn’t have been true; there were seats available on their buses to London, and no increased demand because of the change in EU rules. 

In fact, demand for bus journeys to England had gone down. 

The Mail’s legal department explained that, ‘The published comments from the worker at the Balkan Horn office at Sofia bus station were given on the condition that he was not named because there is a company ban on speaking to journalists.’  This seems odd, as both myself and my journalist colleague, Alina Matis, had no problems talking several times with Balkan Horn, and found them to be very helpful.   There was no ban by the company on speaking to journalists. 

13  Daily Mail claimed: 'Ion Prioteasa, president of Dolj county in the south of Romania, claimed that the numbers travelling from there to the UK will double to 70,000 next year.'

Commented my Romanian journalist colleague, Alina, ‘I spoke with Ion Prioteasa, and he was shocked when I read out the quote to him.  The Mail had misquoted Prioteasa from a speech he gave last October when Wizz Air launched a direct flight from the city of Craiova to Luton.  Mr Prioteasa was talking about numbers of all flights from Craivova airport to all destinations, and he was not referring to the UK.’ 

Ion Prioteasa told Alina, ‘I was referring to the doubling of the number of passengers from Craiova Airport in the next year, but we have many other destinations other than Luton. We have Bergamo, Milan, Rome, we are now trying to have flights to France and Barcelona. I had no knowledge to support a statement regarding the number of people traveling to UK in the coming year.’  Mr Prioteasa confirmed that he had never spoken with the Daily Mail. 

For these 13 reasons, I made a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (now called the Independent Press Standard Organisation - IPSO).  It took seven months for the PCC to conclude that, “the newspaper had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information.” This, stated the press regulator, was in breach of Clause 1 of their Editors’ Code of Practice regarding accuracy.

The PCC agreed that the Daily Mail could not substantiate its claim that Wizz Air had doubled its flights from Romania to the UK; that they misquoted Ion Prioteasa as saying that passengers to the UK from Romania's Dolji county would double; that the Daily Mail was wrong to give an impression that a Romanian woman enquiring about maternity benefits was living in Romania whereas she was actually working as a nurse in the UK.

The PCC did not agree that the entire Daily Mail article was inaccurate or misleading. They refused to publish their findings stating, “the PCC only publishes a small proportion of its rulings on its website.”  Instead, I published their findings on my blog at EU ROPE and my verdict.  


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Posted by Jon Danzig on Sunday, 27 September 2015

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