04923-16 Brown v The Times

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04923-16 Brown v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Katherine Brown complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Anti-drink lobby drew up official safety limits”, published on 30 May 2016. 

2. The article said that the panel of experts who recommended in a report to Britain’s chief medical officers that the weekly alcohol advisory limit should be reduced contained several “anti-alcohol lobbyists”. It said that the lobbyists included four “members” of the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) – Petra Meier, Gerard Hastings, Linda Bauld and Katherine Brown. It said that Ms Meier and Mr Hastings were both expert advisers to the IAS, while Ms Bauld was a trustee of the organisation; it said that the three were part of the alcohol guidelines development group (GDG), while the complainant, the director of the IAS, was on the behavioural expert group (BEG). It said that the biographical notes of the panel of 20 referred to their academic posts, but not their relationships with the IAS, which could only be found in other documents. 

3. The article reported the comments of one scientist said to have a knowledge of the panel’s workings who said that there had been a “determined effort by ‘temperance activists’ to ‘demonise alcohol in the same way as cigarettes but without the justification’”. The article included the reaction of the complainant who said that “the process was heavily scrutinised and the final decisions were made by the four chief medicals officers”. A panel accompanying the article explained the links between the IAS and the temperance movement. It said that the IAS “says it is an independent body which seeks to promote the use of scientific evidence to influence policy”, and explained that its roots were in the temperance movement, but that it does not advocate temperance. However, it said that the organisation is primarily funded by and shares an address with the Alliance House Foundation (AHF), which is a total abstinence association.  

4. The article published online was the same as the version that appeared in print.

5. The complainant said that it was inaccurate of the headline to report that an anti-drink lobby drew up official safety limits, and that the headline was not supported by the text of the article. She said that the decision to lower the limits set out in the guidelines was made by the four chief medical officers for the UK nations, who were advised by the GDG. She said that no members of the GDG were “anti-alcohol lobbyists”, nor do they have any links to “anti-alcohol organisations”.

6.The complainant said that the IAS was not an anti-alcohol organisation, and it did not have a view on whether individuals should drink or not drink. She also said that the IAS does not “seek to eradicate alcohol”, and that it had never published any work promoting total abstinence from alcohol, and does not share the aim of its funding body in promoting total abstinence. In any event, she said Ms Meier and Mr Hastings, while members of the GDG, were expert advisors to the IAS, not members of the organisation. She said that she had been a member of the BEG, responsible for reviewing the old drinking guidelines, not the GDG, and that Ms Bauld was a trustee of IAS, but not a member of the GDG. The complainant also disputed the views expressed by the publication’s source on the influence of the “anti-alcohol lobby” on the GDG’s workings; she provided a statement from the co-chair of the GDG supporting her view.

7. The newspaper said that the headline was a reference to the dominant presence of individuals involved in lobbying against the alcohol industry on the review group which devised the Chief Medical Officers alcohol consumption guidelines. It said that the IAS was more heavily represented on the committees drawing up the guidelines than any other body, and did not consider that it was significantly inaccurate or misleading to describe the four people named in the article as “members” of the organisation. However, as a gesture of goodwill, it had amended the online article to read “closely involved with” rather than “members”, and published the following clarification on its use of the word in both the newspaper, and online:

We reported that four key figures behind the latest government guidance on safe drinking limits were “members of the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS)”, a lobby group financed by the temperance movement (“Anti-drink lobby drew up official safety limits”, May 30). Professor Petra Meier, one of those named in our report, has asked us to make clear that she is a member of the IAS's panel of expert scientific advisors, not of the IAS itself, which is not a membership organisation.

8. The publication said that in characterising the process as being dominated by "anti-alcohol lobbyists", it also relied on information from a confidential source with close knowledge of the meetings that had taken place over a period of years, as well as sources who were “concerned at the tone and nature of some of the discussions they witnessed”. It also provided a blog, published by The Spectator, which it said corroborated the content of its report. It further explained that it considered the IAS to be part of an “anti-alcohol lobby” because it was inextricably linked with the AHF, which was formerly registered at Companies House as the UK Temperance Alliance, and whose purpose, as described in its annual return to Companies House, is to “spread the principles of total abstinence from alcoholic drinks”. It also highlighted an overlap in personnel between the IAS and AHF. 

Relevant Code Provisions

9. 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.

Findings of the Committee

10. While the article had reported that four figures involved in drawing up the guidelines were “members” of the IAS, it went on explain each of the four’s precise relationship with the organisation. While the Committee welcomed the clarification published in the newspaper, as well as online, it did not consider that it was significantly misleading to refer to the four as “members” of the IAS in light of their links with the organisation. There was no breach of Clause 1.

11. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that the IAS did not seek to eradicate alcohol. However, the article had made clear its basis for the characterisation of the IAS as an anti-alcohol organisation: details were provided of its relationship with AHF, and the newspaper’s source had provided its view on the influence they had on the GDG’s work. The Committee wished to make clear that it was not making a judgement on whether the IAS was anti-alcohol; rather, it had to decide whether the newspaper had provided sufficient evidence to support this characterisation. Overall, given the information of its relationship with the AHF outlined in the article, the Committee considered that the newspaper had provided a sufficient basis to support its characterisation; there was no breach of Clause 1.

12. While the headline reported that the “anti-drink lobby” had drawn up the official safety limits, the article’s first-line referred to the “panel of experts that helped reduce” the limits, and went on to make clear that their report was provided to Britain’s chief medical officers, who “announced the new limit in January”. In circumstances where it was not in dispute that the GDG’s report had advised the chief medical officers to reduce the limits, and the article reported that the final decision was made by the chief medical officers, it was not misleading for the headline to say that the “anti-drink lobby” – the basis for which the publication had explained – had drawn up the limits; this headline had also been supported by the text of the article. There was no breach of Clause 1.

13. The complainant disputed the view of the newspaper’s source about the influence IAS members had on the GDG, and provided an alternative view from the chairman of the panel. In circumstances where the views expressed had been clearly presented in the article as the opinion of the source, and this source had “close knowledge” of the meetings that had taken place over a period of years, there was no breach of Clause 1.


14. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required


Date complaint received: 14/07/2016
Date complaint concluded: 14/10/2016 

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