Decision of the Complaints Committee - 00347-21 Williams v Sunday Times
Summary of Complaint
1. Jonathan Williams complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Scientists warn over delaying second shot as patients face waiting until March”, published on 10 January 2021.
2. The article reported on the UK Government’s decision to extend the interval between Covid-19 vaccines doses to 12 weeks. It stated that BioNTech and Pfizer had said that there was no evidence that their vaccines, which require two doses, were still protective if the second jab was given more than three weeks after the first, and that “no other country had followed suit”. The article reported that “leading scientists” – who were also described in the article as “experts” – had expressed concern that delaying the second dose of the vaccine could have a “catastrophic” impact on ending the pandemic.
3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline: “Scientists warn over delaying second Covid shot as patients face waiting until March”.
4. The complainant said the article was inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1 as it reported that “no other country had followed” the UK’s vaccination policy to extend the interval between doses. He said the placement of this particular assertion in the article had immediately followed a sentence outlining BioNTech and Pfizer’s position regarding the efficacy of their vaccinations if the interval between doses was extended further than three weeks, and consequently it gave the clear impression that no country apart from the UK had extended the interval beyond three weeks. The complainant cited the strategies introduced by Denmark and France which he said, at the time of publication, “already permitted a delay of up to six weeks between doses”. In order to demonstrate this point, the complainant highlighted that the National Agency for Medicines and Health Products Safety (ANSM) in France had recommended on 7 January, three days prior to publication, an extension between doses of the BioNTech and Pfizer vaccine beyond three weeks, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommending a similar policy on 8 January.
5. Furthermore, the complainant said the article was misleading as it failed to mention the large body of expert opinion which supported the approach adopted by the UK Government and the delay between the administration of doses of Covid-19 vaccines. In addition, he expressed concern that the article was misleading to refer to the three scientists quoted as “experts” within this particular field.
6. The newspaper did not accept it had breached the Code. It said that the disputed statement that “no other country has followed suit” should not be viewed in isolation but rather in the context of the whole article. Whilst it accepted that other countries had extended the interval beyond three weeks, the UK was the only country, at the time of publication, to extend this gap to 12 weeks. This was double the six-week interval introduced by other countries and the emergency recommendation put forward by the WHO. As such, the newspaper said it was not inaccurate or misleading to report that “no other country [had] followed suit” of the UK’s policy. The newspaper maintained that this position was made sufficiently clear within the article and readers would not be misled on this point. In any event, it added that France’s decision to extend the interval between doses from three to six weeks – in line with the recommendations of the WHO – was not formally implemented until several weeks after the article was published, with a recommendation put forward by the ANSM on 7 January not indicative of the country’s official vaccination policy.
7. The newspaper made clear that it was not obliged to cite every point of view on a particular issue, acknowledging that this was a short news report focused upon a single matter and thereby naturally limited in its scope. Notwithstanding this, it noted that the article made clear the justification put forward by the Government for delaying a second dose and referred to a number of articles it had printed before and after this article which “strongly” gave the opposite views of those quoted within the article under complaint. In addition, it noted that the assertion the consequences of the UK’s vaccination strategy could be “catastrophic” was clearly the view of a particular academic and presented as such. It stated that the article reported the concerns of some experts on a matter of great public interest. Whilst it said the term “expert” was open to interpretation, it noted that each of the individuals quoted were currently working, or had previously worked, in relevant fields including epidemiology and immunology.
Relevant Code Provisions
Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
8. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that, reading the disputed statement in isolation, readers might understand it to mean that the UK was the only country that had extended the interval between doses of the Covid-19 vaccines beyond three weeks. However, the Committee had regard for the article as a whole and was satisfied that it was sufficiently clear that the action referred to in the phrase “no other country has followed suit” was the UK’s specific policy in delaying second doses of vaccines, rather than a general policy in delaying second doses. The phrase amounted to a statement that no other country had taken the same course of action as the UK. Given the article had clearly set out the UK’s policy – that the second dose of the vaccine would be delayed by 12 weeks – the Committee did not agree the article would mislead readers to understand that no other country had adopted a policy of delaying the second dose beyond three weeks, but rather they would understand that no other country had adopted a policy of delaying the second dose by 12 weeks. There was no breach of Clause 1.
9. The Committee noted that the selection of material was a matter of editorial discretion, as long as the Code was not otherwise breached. In this instance, there was no suggestion within the article that the views reported represented some form of scientific consensus – but rather that these scientists, who were identified in the article, held specific points of view. In reporting these concerns, the newspaper was not obliged to also report views that may have contradicted the position(s) presented. The absence of such views did not raise a breach of the Code, where the claims made were clearly presented and attributed as such, a basis was provided for them, and where it was not in dispute that the newspaper had accurately reported these views. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
10. Finally, the Committee considered whether the article was misleading to refer to the three scientists quoted as “experts” within this particular field. The Committee noted that the term “expert” was, to a certain degree, subjective. In such circumstances, and where the newspaper was able to provide evidence to demonstrate the academic credentials of the individuals in relevant fields during IPSOs investigation, the Committee was satisfied that this particular characterisation was not significantly misleading in this context. There was no breach of Clause 1 in regard to this.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 10/01/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 02/06/2021
Independent Complaints Reviewer
The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.Back to ruling listing