· Decision of the Complaints Committee 00660-15 Muller v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of complaint
1. Karl Muller complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Mobile phones unlikely to harm human health, scientists find”, published on 10 December 2014.
2. The article reported on a scientific study conducted by the University of Manchester and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The study had considered the effects of weak magnetic fields on flavoproteins. The article reported that the University found that “magnetic fields created by mobile phone and power lines are not harmful to human health”. It said that it was previously “thought that magnetic fields could harm key proteins in the human body [but] the University of Manchester has now found that they have no detectable impact at all [having looked at] how weak magnetic fields affected flavoproteins, which are crucial to health and control the nervous system and DNA repair”.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate as the study did not demonstrate that mobile phones are safe. While he accepted that the article accurately reflected the information provided by the authors of the study in a press release, he said that the conclusion reached by the authors could not be supported by the findings of the study.
4. He said that the study had measured the effect of static magnetic fields on certain proteins. As it found no effect, it had concluded that mobile phones were likely to be safe. The complainant said that concerns have been raised about electromagnetic fields radiation and low-frequency magnetic fields, rather than static magnetic fields. As the study had only tested static magnetic fields, conclusions could not be drawn regarding the safety of mobile phones. The complainant also said that inferences drawn by the researchers, based on a limited study of a few proteins, had been “highly questionable”.
5. The complainant said that other studies in this area had produced different results. He was concerned that that the newspaper had not sought comment from independent ”experts” on the subject. Nor had it investigated the funding of the research and the backgrounds of the researchers.
6. The newspaper said it was entitled to publish details of a study which had been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and did not accept that the article was inaccurate or significantly misleading. It said that the possible health effects of mobile telephones and other electronic equipment is a controversial issue and a matter of scientific debate. The newspaper had not been obliged to rehearse all the scientific literature on the topic. The article had made clear the relevant facts of the study. It had also provided NHS advice on using mobile phones and had explained that other studies were ongoing and that more work needed to be done in this area. It made clear that prior to publication the journalists had assessed both the original study and the press release.
7. After receiving the complaint, the newspaper said that it had contacted the University and had been told that the article “was an accurate reflection of the findings of our researchers, with appropriate caveats to the findings”.
8. The newspaper said that the concerns of the complainant fell outside of scope of the Editors’ Code of Practice as it is not the role of newspapers to be the arbiter of researchers’ methodology.
Relevant Code Provisions
9. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.
Findings of the Committee
10. Scientific papers, and their possible implications, will often be the subject of intense and robust debate. The Committee made clear that while it is important that newspapers and magazines report scientific studies accurately, Ipso is not the appropriate body to consider concerns about the methodology employed in scientific research. There is a clear value in newspapers reporting scientific developments, and the press releases issued by those involved in studies can facilitate accurate coverage.
11. The complainant did not dispute that the article had accurately reported the conclusions drawn by the authors of the study, based on what they considered to be the possible implications of the research. Neither did the complainant contend that the newspaper had inflated the conclusions set out in the University press release. Rather, the complainant’s concern was that the article was inaccurate as the conclusions reached by the scientists could not be supported by the findings of the study. The study had been published in a scientific journal and been subject to peer review. In these circumstances, the newspaper had not been obliged to independently evaluate the validity of the authors’ conclusions or the rigour of the methodology employed. The newspaper had taken steps to ensure that the article reflected the views of the authors of the study. There had not been a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i).
12. The article had quoted the co-lead author of the paper as saying that the study “definitely takes us nearer to the point where we can say that power-lines, mobile phones and other similar devices are likely to be safe for humans”. The Committee expressed some concern in this context about the claim, in the sub-headline, that “key proteins in the human body are completely unaffected by the magnetic fields of mobile phones, scientists have found” and, in the first line of the article, that “the magnetic fields created by mobile phones and power lines are not harmful to human health, the University of Manchester has found”. The article had, however, made clear that that the findings represented conclusions drawn by the researchers from their laboratory study, rather than an undisputed consensus in the scientific community. It had explained the research methodology and set out the basis on which the conclusions had been reached, including the explanation that “the most plausible candidates for sensitivity” to the magnetic fields were “likely to be rare in human biology”. It had included NHS advice on mobile phone usage, said that “more work on other possible links will need to be done “and explained that other studies were on-going. The Committee concluded that there was no breach of Clause 1.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 11/02/2015
Date decision issued: 04/06/2015Back to ruling listing