08417-19 Cooney et al. v The Times

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 08417-19 Cooney et al. v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Rosie Cooney, Amy Dickman, Dilys Roe, Paul Johnson and Maxi Pia Louis complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Funding secret of scientists against hunt trophy ban”, published on 25 October 2019.

2. The article reported that a letter to a science journal signed by more than 100 scientists had claimed that trophy hunting encouraged wild-life conservation but "what it failed to mention was that four of the scientists who made the claims had financial links with hunting bodies". The article reported that the letter was organised by a group primarily from Oxford University's wildlife conservation research unit and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and argued that the UK government's proposal to ban imports of hunting trophies would undermine efforts to protect endangered animals. It went on to report that their connections to various hunting bodies were later disclosed in an addendum published by the journal which had originally published the letter and had "in effect admitted that it was wrong" to have done so "without including their potential conflicts of interest". The article reported the details of the links the scientists had to the various bodies. It went on to include a quote from the journal's editor-in-chief, who said that the journal was revising its policy "to ensure that authors of letters also make readers aware of the financial and advisory competing interests". The article featured a photograph of one of the scientists with the caption "Amy Dickman signed a letter opposing a trophy ban but did not say that her lion conservation project in Tanzania has accepted funds from hunting groups".

3. The article also appeared in much the same format online under the headline "Funding secrets of scientists against trophy hunt ban".

4. The complainants, the authors of the original letter, said that the article was inaccurate. They said that the article directly and explicitly alleged that they had deliberately concealed their affiliations and kept their funding sources secret; this was demonstrated by the article's headline and the claim that the letter had omitted details. The complainants said that the journal did not ask them to submit a competing interests statement when they first published their letter and there was no opportunity to do so or to declare any interests, as this was not the journal's policy at the time and that, to their knowledge, the journal had never published a statement of interests in its 139 years of publication. Nonetheless, they had gladly complied with the journal's later request to provide a competing interest statement. Regardless, the complainants emphasised that at no point did they withhold or keep information, or was it secret; all the information regarding their funding connections was already in the public domain through their published reports and websites. Dr Dickman said that the article and caption had directly accused her of having kept her affiliations secret and that there was some way for her to disclose this information to the journal, when there was not.

5. The complainants said that the article had inaccurately reported the potentially competing interest of the organisation of which two of the complainants, Drs Cooney and Roe are the past and present chair: The International Union for Conservation of Nature Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (IUCN SULI). They said that the article reported that IUCN SULI received "'less than 5 per cent' of its funding from hunting bodies" and that "the group was partly funded by the Russian Mountain Hunters' Club". However, this was inaccurate as the addendum made clear that that SULI received 0% core funding from hunting-related organisations and less than 5% of project funding from hunting-related sources. They said the declared project funding related to a single meeting co-convened by IUCN SULI, which received part funding from hunting related organisations, but that this was not money received directly by IUCN SULI and therefore it was inaccurate and an exaggeration to claim that SULI was "partly funded by it". The complainants said that the inaccuracy was exacerbated by virtue of this information being made clear in the published addendum. Further, the article had inaccurately reported that Drs Cooney and Roe were past and present chairs of IUCN as a whole and not IUCN SULI, which is a subsidiary organisation.

6. The complainants said that the article's statement that "four of the scientists who made the claims had financial links with hunting bodies" had inaccurately exaggerated the competing interest of Drs Cooney and Roe; they had never received any funding from hunting related bodies. The only information qualifying that the funding related to a group or project in which they were involved featured some eight paragraphs later in the article. The complainants also said that in light of there being no links between Drs Cooney and Roe and hunting groups, the aforementioned line also represented a straightforward inaccuracy as it referenced four of the scientists, when the financial links related to only three of the authors. This was inaccurate in regards to the figure as well as to the substantive allegation, and Dr Roe had made this clear to the newspaper prior to publication.

7. The complainants also said that the article inaccurately reported that "the journal has in effect admitted that it was wrong to have published a letter from scientists without including their potential conflicts of interest". They said this wrongly implied that the journal had taken issue with publishing the complainants' letter rather than with their letter policy in general; the journal had changed its position to align their policy with that of other areas. Further, the journal changing their policy did not amount to an admission that previous policy was wrong, and using the term admission suggested culpability.

8. The publication denied any breach of the Code. Firstly, it said that the article did not accuse or report that the authors kept their interests secret; rather those interests were secret to any readers of the letter who had not taken steps to investigate the authors' publicly available disclosures. It emphasised that the basis of the article was to report a significant change of policy by the journal as a result of receiving complaints; it had not stated that the complainants should have declared their interests or had refused to publish a competing interest statement. Nevertheless, and regardless of the journal's previous policy, the publication highlighted that such declarations are increasingly commonplace and that there was presumably nothing stopping the complainants from declaring their interests. The publication also emphasised that the article did not report that any of the signatories directly received funding and made clear that the links were with groups or projects with which they were closely involved.

9. The publication denied that it was misleading to report that "the journal has in effect admitted that it was wrong to have published a letter from scientists without including their potential conflicts of interest". It said that the journal had changed its policy as a response to complaints, and decided to extend to the writers of letters its requirement that potential conflicts of interest be declared and therefore this statement was an accurate summary of the events.

10. The publication denied that it was inaccurate to report that four scientists had links to hunting groups and disputed the complainants' position that the fourth scientist, Maxi Pia-Louis did not have funding links to hunting groups. The publication said that although the fourth scientist's name and the nature of the link were edited out of the article in error, she was one of the four signatories of the letter who had later declared a competing interest to the journal. The publication said the nature of the link was included in the addendum and was intended to be referenced in the article in the following terms: "the addendum says Maxi Pia Louis, a fourth lead signatory, is affiliated with NASCO, a Namibian body with links to trophy hunting companies".

11. The publication accepted that as a result of an error in the editing process it had reported that Drs Cooney and Roe are the past and present chair of IUCN, and not IUCN SULI. The publication also accepted that it had mistakenly reported that IUCN SULI received less than 5% of its core funding as opposed to less than five percent of its project funding from hunting bodies. The publication published the following correction online and in print on 26 October in its corrections and clarifications columns: 

Because of an editing error in later editions of a story about trophy hunting (News, Oct 25) we wrongly identified the organisation of which Rosie Cooney and Dilys Roe are past and present chairwomen as “the International Union for Nature Conservation”. The organisation, as was clear in the first edition, is a group within the union. The story also included a quote that this group receives “less than 5 per cent” of its funding from hunting bodies. This figure in fact refers to project funding.

12. The publication said that the significance of the distinction between core and project funding was a matter for the Committee but noted that funding would cover both and as an everyday term, its meaning to readers would be clear. The publication also said that the addendum published by the journal made clear that SULI received funding for meetings involving hunting groups and that its website suggested that meetings of the group were a core part of its work. It also noted that the most recent entry in its list of recent activities remained a meeting from September 2018 co-funded by hunting groups.

13. The complainants said that the correction was inadequate and that the wording needed to distinguish between core and project funding. They said that core funding is the only funding that IUCN SULI receives itself to spend on SULI activities, whereas project activities are invariably partnership activities carried out in collaboration with other groups and may not even be received directly by SULI and therefore had a completely different status to funding provided directly to SULI for its work. The complainants emphasised that the two strains of funding are separate for these reasons and for accounting purposes.

14. The complainants also said that the publication's position regarding Maxi Pia-Louis was inaccurate. They said that NASCO received no funding from hunting bodies and that this had been made clear prior to publication. NASCO also had no financial links to hunting bodies and any supposed link as claimed by the publication was third-hand as NASCO provided support to various NGOs and conservation groups, who then in turn had their own separate arrangements with local hunting groups to gain income and manage their lands; this did not constitute a financial link between NASCO and hunting groups and certainly did not mean that it received funding.

Relevant Code Provisions

15. 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

16. The article had inaccurately reported that IUCN SULI received less than 5 percent of its overall funding from hunting groups, when it was accepted that this figure related specifically to funding for project work. Where this information was publicly available via the published addendum, and where the addendum made clear that IUCN SULI received no core funding from hunting groups, not making this distinction clear in the article represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1(i). This was significant in the context of the article as it suggested that SULI had stronger links to hunting groups than was actually the case. Further, the publication had misreported the group of which Dr's Cooney and Roe are and were chair, this was publicly available information and there was a failure to take in breach of Clause 1(i). In the context of an article which reported on alleged links between trophy hunting bodies and specific conservation groups, suggesting they were chairs of an organisation as opposed to a sub-group within that organisation represented a significant inaccuracy. A correction was required to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

17. The Committee then considered whether the published correction was sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). The correction made clear that the funding received from hunting bodies related specifically to project funding as opposed to overall funding. The Committee did not consider that a further reference to core funding was required. The correction also made clear that Drs Cooney and Roe were past and present chair of a subsidiary group of IUCN and not IUCN itself. The Committee considered that the published remedy corrected the inaccuracy and made the accurate position clear. The correction was published the day after publication, this was sufficiently prompt. Further, publication in the online and print corrections and clarifications columns represented suitably prominent positions in which to correct the inaccuracies. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

18. The complainants had signed the letter but had not disclosed their links to various groups when doing so as reported. The article did not report that they had personally and intentionally withheld information or kept information secret and it was not in dispute that not including this information had influenced a change of policy by the journal. In these circumstances the Committee did not consider that there was a breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The article had explained the basis of the financial links between Drs Cooney and Roe and trophy hunting groups: they had chaired a group which received funding from hunting groups. Where it was not in dispute that ICUN SULI had received project funding in some capacity from hunting groups and where the basis of this link was explained there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The journal had published an addendum, the wording of which made clear that the letter and subsequent complaints brought the issue of conflicts of interest to its attention and had prompted it to take steps to ensure further letters were not published without disclosing conflicting interests. As such, it was not misleading to report that the journal had "in effect" admitted it was wrong to publish the letter; this had influenced policy. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. The article did not report that Maxi Pia Louis had received funding or had links to hunting groups as these details were edited out of the copy.  However it was not inaccurate to report that four of the signatories had links to hunting groups. The Committee noted that the published addendum stated that Maxi Pia Louis had links to NASCO, and although NASCO did not receive money from hunting groups, there were financial links via a network of NGO's that it provided financial support to, which in turn worked with hunting groups. The Committee acknowledged the complaints' position that this could not be considered a link but where there was a chain, albeit potentially diffuse and where this was lodged as a competing interest in the addendum this was not significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

22. The complaint was upheld in part.

Remedial Action Required

23. The published correction put the correct position on record and was offered promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required.

 

Date complaint received: 21/10/19

Date complaint concluded: 24/04/20

 

 

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