Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01705-21 Gooding v The Mail on Sunday
Summary of Complaint
1. Keith Gooding complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The day anthrax was released in a tunnel on the Northern Line - by scientists from Porton Down”, published on 7 February 2021.
2. The article reported on a “secret experiment” in which a powder puff which contained spores was thrown onto the tracks of the Northern line. The headline of the article described the spores as “anthrax”, whereas the body of the article called them “freeze dried spores from the anthrax family, B globigii bacteria” and also a “bacteria that mimicked anthrax”. The article reported that B globigii bacteria “can cause eye infections, food poisoning and, more serious still, septicaemia”.
3. The article also appeared online under the headline “The day anthrax was released in a tunnel on the Northern Line - by scientists from Porton Down... and as ex-MP NORMAN BAKER reveals, it's far from the only time they've used Britons as guinea pigs for experiments” in substantially the same format.
4. The complainant said that the headline of the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. The substance released was not B anthracis, which causes the bacterial infection known as anthrax, but a bacterium known at the time as “B globigii”, which was then thought to be completely harmless. Although technically in the same biological family as B anthracis (“anthrax”) – the Bacillaceae family – the majority of the bacteria in this family were not toxic, unlike “anthrax”. The two bacteria (along with many other species) also shared the same genus; however, pathogenicity was not the basis of their classification together, but rather the fact that they both formed spores. It was therefore inaccurate and misleading to state that “anthrax” had been released. The complainant was concerned that the headline would cause alarm, as it implied that the government had tried to poison members of the public with a very dangerous pathogen, when it had in fact used what was thought to be a harmless substance. This was particularly irresponsible at a time when conspiracy theories about the government, COVID-19 and vaccinations were in circulation.
5. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It said that as B globigii is a human pathogen which is “a member of the anthrax family”, B anthracis and B globigii were not necessarily two distinctly different things. It noted that B globigii could cause serious health issues, such as eye infections, food poisoning and septicaemia, and maintained that it was not misleading to refer to it as “anthrax” in the headline of the article. Whilst the publication did not accept a breach of the Code it offered to amend the online headline and publish the following in its established corrections and clarifications box, and as a footnote to the online article:
A headline published on 7 Feb reported that scientists had released anthrax on the Northern Line. In fact, as the article made clear, it was B globigii, a bacteria from the anthrax family, that was released during the 1963 experiment.
6. The complainant said that it may not be appropriate to refer to B globigii as belonging to the “anthrax family” – there was no biological classification “anthrax family”, and there were many other bacteria within the same family as anthrax, most of which were harmless.
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
7. The headline had stated that “anthrax” had been released during an experiment. However, it was not B anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, but another bacteria, B globigii, that was released. The text of the article made clear that the bacteria was B globigii, and therefore the question for the Committee was whether the headline was supported by the text.
8. The publication had said that the headline was supported as B globigii and “anthrax” were members of the same family and not necessarily distinct. However, whilst it was accepted by the complainant that both bacteria were part of the Bacillaceae family, they were two distinct types of bacteria which resulted in different effects in humans. The headline was therefore misleading as to the substance involved because it referred only to “anthrax”, which the Committee considered implied B anthracis rather than B globigii. The Committee found, therefore, that the headline was misleading, and was not supported by the text in breach of Clause 1(i). As the headline of the article misleadingly implied that a substance which was known to be more dangerous had been released, this was significant and required correction under Clause 1(ii).
9. The publication had offered a clarification to be published as a footnote to the online article and in print. However, the clarification did not make clear the full position, that “anthrax” (B anthracis) and B globigii are two distinct bacteria. In addition, it was not of due prominence for the clarification to be a footnote to the article in circumstances where the misleading information about the type of bacteria which had been released had appeared prominently in the headline and related to a matter concerning public health. On this basis, the proposed clarification did not meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii) resulting in a further breach.
10. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.
Remedial Action Required
11. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.
12. The Committee considered that the publication did not take the necessary care when it described B globigii as “anthrax” in the headline of the article. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record. A correction was considered to be sufficient, as the text of the article had made clear that the substance was B globigii.
13. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. This correction should be added to the article and appear as a standalone correction in the online corrections and clarifications column, as well as the print corrections and clarifications column. This wording should only include information required to correct the inaccuracy: that it was not anthrax released in the experiment, but B globigii. The wording should also be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, the correction on the article should be published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the correction should be published as a footnote which explains the amendments that have been made.
Date complaint received: 15/02/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 02/06/2021Back to ruling listing