Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11054-20 Buchanan v Telegraph.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Mark Buchanan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Telegraph.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) in an article headlined “'The science' was right – it was the Government that was wrong” published 12 June 2020.
2. The article reported on the concern about “the explosion of fake news about the [Covid-19] virus”. The writer commented that the “biggest fake news about the virus has been disseminated by the mainstream media. I’m thinking of the myth that the government’s scientific advisors urged Boris Johnson to impose a full lockdown long before March 23”. It went on to state that “This narrative received a boost on Wednesday when professor Neil Ferguson…told MPs that if the government had locked down a week earlier the death toll would be considerably lower. ‘The epidemic was doubling every three to four days before lockdown interventions were introduced,’ he told a select committee”. The writer commented that “What’s so odd about Professor Ferguson’s remarks on Wednesday is there’s no reason to think infections were doubling every three or four days in the week before lockdown. Simon Wood, professor of statistical science at Bristol University, published a paper on June 1 showing that the R number in England and Wales was less than 1 before March 23. The same conclusion has been reached by Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford…The myth that’s grown up around the lockdown, then, is the opposite of the truth” and has led to ”one of the worst decisions in our history [the decision to lock down]”.
3. The complainant said the phrase “there’s no reason to think infections were doubling every three or four days in the week before lockdown” was inaccurate. Official ONS statistics showed that cases of Covid-19 had doubled every 3.1-3.3 days in the week prior to March 23; and a member of the cabinet, Michael Gove, had publicly said this at the time at a daily government briefing. Further, the complainant said that the disputed claim was clearly presented as a claim of fact.
4. The publication did not accept it had breached the Code. It said that the article was readily recognisable as a comment piece. It said that the phrase -“there’s no reason to think”- was clearly rhetorical. It said the phrase was not meant to be taken literally; and that readers would know the columnist did not think that Professor Ferguson, an eminent epidemiologist, had literally no reason for making his statement that the epidemic had doubled in the week to March 23. It considered that readers would infer that the columnist thought there was “no [good] reason” to think infections were doubling as he preferred the evidence to the contrary, which had been elsewhere mentioned in the article. Further, it said that a more recent statement from the government’s chief medical officer -to the effect that the R number had gone below 1 before 23 March- also supported the columnist’s view. Finally, whilst it did not dispute that the official figures showed that recorded cases of Covid-19 had doubled over the period, it disputed whether these figures where a reliable guide to the number of infections. It said that the figures on recorded cases were likely to have been distorted by the increased rate of testing over this period; the unreliability of the test; and the fact that high-risk groups such as medical professionals were being disproportionately tested. This meant that the recorded cases did not accurately reflect the rate of infections in the population at large.
5. In response to the publication’s position that the official figures for recorded Covid-19 cases were not a reliable guide for the number of infections, the complainant accepted that no data is beyond questioning but said that this did not support the columnist’s unequivocal statement that there was “no reason” to think infections were doubling every three or four days in the week before lockdown. He also said that basic epidemiological models predict early exponential growth in infections if a virus enters into a population with no pre-existing immunity. The data appeared to reflect this, indicating its reliability. He said that concerns that increased testing would have made the figures unreliable as a measure of infections in the population at large were unfounded; it was unlikely that a rapid increase in testing over a week would materially distort the official figures, especially given the widely perceived failure of the government to get adequate testing in place at the time.
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 correction, promptly and with due prominence, and –where appropriate– an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
6. Columnists are free under the Editors’ Code to campaign, to be partisan, and to express an opinion. This includes offering an opinion on the state of scientific evidence and critiquing the views of leading scientists or questioning official data. Such a right accords with the fundamental right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Preamble to the Editors’ Code. Nonetheless, newspapers must still abide by the terms of Clause 1, which require a newspaper to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and to correct significant inaccuracies promptly and with due prominence.
7. The columnist described the claim that infections “were doubling every three or four days in the week before lockdown” as “odd”, a “myth”, part of an “explosion of fake news” and the “opposite of the truth”, and he cited two sources which he said demonstrated that the R-number had reduced to below 1 by this time and that the pandemic was subsiding. In these circumstances, his claim that there was “no reason” to believe that infections were doubling constituted a claim of fact that evidence for this position was not merely weak but so absolutely lacking that it constituted a demonstrable falsehood.
8. The complainant challenged this on the grounds that the ONS’ recorded case data did provide a basis for the claim that infections were doubling during this period.
9. The Committee considered in detail the publication’s argument that the ONS figures on recorded cases could not be relied upon in any way as a guide to infections. For example, the publication had said that the PCR tests used to identify cases were unreliable; however, the scientific paper the publication relied upon for this claim estimated that false-positive results could represent somewhere between only 0.8% and 4% of overall test results. Additionally, the publication had said that the numbers of people tested had rapidly increased in the weeks before lockdown; however, the article’s claim was about the infection rate over the seven days before lockdown only. The publication did not provide evidence that the rate of testing had increased rapidly during this specific period. The Committee concluded that the publication had not established that the ONS figures in the week before lockdown were so unreliable to the extent that they did not constitute “reason to think” infections had doubled over the period.
10. The Committee concluded that the presentation of the claim that there was “no reason” to think that infections were doubling constituted a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, and that the result was a significantly misleading statement, requiring clarification under Clause 1 (ii).
11. The misleading statement was on a topic of public importance and was used to support the article’s broader point that the lockdown was “one of the worst decisions in our history”. As the publication had not offered to correct the significantly misleading statement, there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).
12. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial Action Required
13. Having upheld the complaint, 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 adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.
14. The Committee noted that the disputed claim was on an issue of significant scientific debate and was made in the context of a polemical opinion piece. Notwithstanding the Committee’s conclusion that the claim under complaint had constituted a claim of fact that the publication had not been able to support, it acknowledged that it had been made in the context of expression of opinion, and it should be slow to inhibit the right of columnists to debate on important issues. In light of these considerations, the Committee concluded that a clarification was the appropriate remedy.
15. This clarification should be added to the online article and appear as a standalone clarification in the online corrections and clarifications column. This wording should only include information required to correct the misleading claim: that the article had claimed that there was ”no reason to think [Covid-19] infections were doubling every three or four days in the week before lockdown”; and that this was significantly misleading given that evidence was available to support this claim, albeit disputed. The wording should 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 intended to continue to publish the online article without amendment the clarification should be published immediately beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the clarification should be published as a footnote which explained the amendments that have been made.
Date complaint received: 29/06/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 20/07/2021
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