Decision of the Complaints Committee 08775-20 Bromley v The Spectator
Summary of Complaint
1. Adam Bromley complained to the Independent Press Organisation that The Spectator breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Beast from the east” published on 6 June 2020.
2. The article was a comment piece in which the columnist drew upon comparisons between the Russian influenza pandemic of 1889-20 and the current Covid-19 pandemic. The columnist noted that if a specific strain of coronavirus had caused the Russian influenza pandemic and “given that it is the cause of perhaps one in ten colds today, then it has evolved towards lower virulence.” The columnist then stated “that milder strains will gradually displace even nastier ones”, and that “this is why so many cold viruses affect us but so few kill us, except maybe when new to our species.” The columnist went on to state in relation to Covid-19, that ”Perhaps, too, a degree of immune response in the population helps moderate the effects of the virus, even if not achieving full and permanent immunity. Some cross- immunity seems to exist today, whereby those who have had coronavirus colds do not catch, or do not suffer severely from Covid-19.”
3. The article was also published in much the same format online under the headline “Could the key to Covid be found in the Russian pandemic?”
4. The complainant said that the article’s claim that some cross immunity to Covid-19 exists whereby those who have suffered from coronavirus colds do not catch Covid-19 or suffer as badly was inaccurate. The complainant said that given the age of the virus, and the fact that Covid-19 patients were not tested for prior non-Covid-19 coronavirus infections, there was no data to support the claim
5. The publication denied that the article was inaccurate, and disputed the complainant’s assertion that there was no data to support the position advanced in the article. The publication emphasised that the columnist stated that “perhaps, too, a degree of immune response” helps moderate the effects of the virus, and that the columnist went on to state that “some cross immunity seems to exist today.” The publication said that the claim was cautious and suggestive and the columnist did not state categorically that this was the case. Nevertheless, the publication denied that the statement was inaccurate, and it said that it had taken care over the accuracy of the claim based on the evidence available at the time of publication. It cited two published papers, which found that immune responses seen in the blood of patients who had not previously been exposed may be, as quoted in the first study, “reflective of some degree of cross-reactive, pre-existing immunity to Cvid-19.” The publication noted that the first study from other influenza viruses helped protect the population during the outbreak of H1N1 swine flu in 2009.
6. The complainant said there was a significant difference between what the cited studies found and the columnist’s claim. The complainant accepted that the findings could indicate potential resistance; however, the studies’ authors did not claim their results proved that having caught a coronavirus cold granted immunity to Covid-19 or that cross immunity existed; their claims were tentative in contrast to the columnist’s. The complainant disputed the suitability of the studies to support the columnist’s claim as they were not peer reviewed and because they only used between 15-25 human blood samples as opposed to human subjects; validation of the columnist’s claims would require studies of the human population with large data sets. Furthermore, the complainant cited studies which he said found that coronavirus colds do not provide immunity to further infection by coronavirus colds in the long term, and that herd immunity did not exist and had not slowed the spread of the virus, which logically would render the columnist’s claim inaccurate. The complainant emphasised that the effect of publishing inaccurate material about the virus during the pandemic was significant for public health, and that the publication had a moral obligation to ensure its reporting was accurate given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Relevant Clause Provisions
7. 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 noted that the article was a comment piece and that the columnist had said that “perhaps” a degree of immune response could be effective and that some cross immunity “seems” to exist in circumstances where resistance to Covid-19 had been identified. The columnist’s position reflected the findings of some studies which had found that tests of human blood had indicated some potential resistance to Covid-19 in people who have had coronavirus colds. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern over the validity of these studies, as well as the fact that there were other studies with conflicting findings. Scientific consensus clearly did not exist on the question of cross-immunity to Covid-19 – this was a developing area of research. The publication was entitled to draw upon published research to support its claims, and the existence of conflicting research did not render its reference to the study misleading or inaccurate. The columnist's position had not been presented as indisputable fact and, in providing the study which supported this position, the publication had demonstrated that it had taken care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i).
9. The article was a comment piece, and so readers would be aware that it would reflect the position of the columnist and his views on the research on this issue. The use of the term “seems” in the disputed comment clearly demonstrated that a level of conjecture was involved, and he did not categorically assert as fact that cross-immunity existed. Accordingly the publication had taken care to distinguish between comment, conjecture, and fact in accordance with Clause 1 (iv).
10. In circumstances where there was a sufficient basis for the columnist to comment that cross immunity appeared to exist, and where also the article took care to distinguish between comment, conjecture, and fact, there was no significant inaccuracy warranting correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
11. The complaint was not upheld
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 04/06/20
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 12/11/20Back to ruling listing