11845-20 Whitehead v telegraph.co.uk

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of correction

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11845-20 Whitehead v telegraph.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. James Whitehead complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that telegraph.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) in an article headlined “When we have herd immunity Boris will face a reckoning on this pointless and damaging lockdown” published 11 July 2020.

2. The article was a comment piece on the “lively debate [which] took place about whether Britain should pursue a strategy of "herd immunity"”. The article reported that “recent data coming out of New York reveals…Sixty-eight per cent of people who took antibody tests at a clinic in the [C]orona neighbourhood of Queens received positive results, suggesting that, in this area at least, the population is already close to achieving "herd immunity"”. It went on to state that “Some will have developed antibodies without knowing they had the disease, while others will have a natural immunity because they’ve already successfully fought off other coronaviruses, such as the common cold. People in that latter category will be immune even though they won’t test positive for Covid-19 antibodies. That means that the population of London is probably approaching herd immunity, even though only 17 per cent tested positive in the most recent seroprevalence survey [for antibodies]”. Finally, the article concluded that “the British population will soon achieve herd immunity, just as the population of Corona has, and the lockdown has done nothing to mitigate the impact of the virus”. It concluded that “this is good news: it means a "second wave" of Covid-19 is unlikely and we can dispense with pointless social distancing measures”.

3. The complainant said it was inaccurate to state “others will have a natural immunity because they’ve already successfully fought off other coronaviruses, such as the common cold”. First, he said only around 20% of common colds are caused by coronaviruses. Secondly, he said prior exposure to coronaviruses might lead to cross-reactive T-cells, which may lessen the impact of Covid-19 but would not confer “natural immunity”: T-cells would not stop people getting infected at all and would not therefore contribute to herd immunity as the article implied. He also said it was misleading to state that “the population of London is probably approaching herd immunity, even though only 17 per cent tested positive in the most recent seroprevalence [antibodies] survey”. He said the scientific consensus is that the threshold for herd immunity is considerably higher than 17%, and those with cross-reactive T-cells do not count towards this as such cells do not stop the virus spreading. He also provided a Lancet article which concluded that European countries had not reached herd immunity. Finally, he said the assertion that “the British population will soon achieve herd immunity, just as the population of Corona has” was a claim of fact that the Corona neighbourhood had achieved herd immunity, which he said was not supported by evidence. He did not dispute the article’s previous claim that antibody tests “suggest[ed] that, in [Corona] at least, the population is already close to achieving "herd immunity"” as he said this was fair comment.

4. The publication did not accept it has breached the Code. It emphasised that the article was clearly presented as an opinion piece on a topic of considerable scientific uncertainty. It said it was not misleading to state “others will have a natural immunity because they’ve already successfully fought off other coronaviruses, such as the common cold”. While it accepted exposure to other coronaviruses would only confer cross-reactive T-cells, which were not mentioned by the article, it stressed that the columnist was entitled to term this “natural immunity” in circumstances where there was evidence that cross-reactive T-cells protected against the adverse effects of Covid-19. Further, it did not consider that the phrase –“other coronaviruses, such as the common cold” –implied that all common colds were coronaviruses; only that the common cold can be caused by coronaviruses, which the complainant accepted. It stated that the claim that “the population of London is probably approaching herd immunity, even though only 17 per cent tested positive in the most recent seroprevalence survey” was clearly conjectural. Even so, it provided an article from the website lockdownskeptics.org that it said suggested that around 20% of individuals having natural immunity might give rise to herd immunity. Finally, it added that the phrase “the British population will soon achieve herd immunity, just as the population of Corona has” was not a claim of fact that Corona has herd immunity but rather speculation. The author was clearly picking up on the earlier claim that antibody tests had shown 68% of Corona residents testing positive which suggested there was herd immunity.

Relevant Code Provisions

5. 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. The article claimed that some people “will have a natural immunity because they’ve already successfully fought off other coronaviruses” and that “people in [this] category will be immune”. In considering the accuracy of these claims, the Committee had regard for what readers would understand by the term “immunity”. The reader could not be expected to have specialised knowledge of developing research into Covid-19 immunity, and it was the Committee’s view that readers would understand “immunity” to refer to the presence of antibodies to a particular disease in an individual’s immune system which would offer future protection from that disease. Indeed, all previous references to “immunity” within the article had been made in the context of antibodies, including a definition of “herd immunity” in the opening paragraph –“allowing coronavirus to spread until so many people had developed antibodies that it no longer posed a threat to public health”.  It therefore concluded that readers would understand from the statements under complaint that people who “will have a natural immunity because they’ve already successfully fought off other coronaviruses” would possess antibodies that would offer protection from contracting Covid-19. The publication was unable to support this. It accepted that these individuals referred to would only have cross-reactive T-cells. Such cells do not stop people getting infected and may only make the symptoms of Covid-19 less severe. The Committee acknowledged that there was ongoing research into the relationship between T-cells and immunity to Covid-19; however, the columnist had at no point referred to “T-cells”, made any effort to explain their relationship to Covid-19 immunity, or even distinguish between the commonly understood definition of “immunity” and the emerging science of “T-cell immunity”. It could not therefore claim that this amounted to “immunity”. The publication had therefore failed to take care not to publish inaccurate and misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i).

7. The statement was significantly misleading. It misrepresented the nature of immunity and implied that people previously exposed to some common colds might be automatically immune to suffering symptoms and passing on Covid-19 to others. As the publication did not offer to correct this significantly misleading statement, there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).

8. The Committee then considered the claim that the presence of cross-reactive T-cells “means that London is probably approaching herd immunity, even though only 17 per cent tested positive [for antibodies] in the most recent seroprevalence survey”. It noted that this statement could be misleading in two distinct ways. First, whether cross-reactive T-cells could contribute to herd immunity in London and, second, whether London was in fact “probably approaching herd immunity”. It considered each point in turn.

9. As previously noted, the columnist had defined “herd immunity” as “allowing coronavirus to spread until so many people had developed antibodies that it no longer posed a threat to public health”. As individuals with cross-reactive T-cells would still contract Covid-19 and perhaps pass it on to others, these individuals would not create herd immunity. Therefore, it was misleading to claim that people with cross-reactive T-cells mean “the population of London is probably approaching herd immunity”. The Committee then considered whether in fact “London is probably approaching herd immunity” as claimed by the article. While there was an element of conjecture to this assertion in the use of the term “probably”, the newspaper had an obligation to ensure that there was indeed a case to support the claim. The newspaper had provided an article from lockdown.skeptics.org in support of the columnist’s claim. The article suggested that, according to two scientific studies, only 15-25% of the population being infected and becoming properly immune is sufficient to stop the virus spreading, which the newspaper said had happened in London. However, the two studies ultimately relied on did not conclude that London specifically or the UK was “probably approaching herd immunity”. One study acknowledged that standard epidemiological models predict that 60-70% is the herd immunity threshold for Covid-19; and that this can be lower in certain circumstances (such as where there are differences in population mixing and initial susceptibility). There was no evidence presented that such circumstances definitely or probably existed in the UK or London. Moreover, the Lancet article provided by the complainant did apply to the UK and concluded that the herd immunity threshold had not been reached. The newspaper had therefore failed to establish that “London is probably approaching herd immunity”. The newspaper failed to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i).

10. The statement that cross-reactive T-cells mean “that the population of London is probably approaching herd immunity” was significantly misleading. It was misleading both as to how herd immunity is reached and whether it existed in London; and the inaccuracy had been relied on to support the article’s other arguments, such as the claims that “we can dispense with pointless social distancing measures” and that “the lockdown has done nothing”. As the newspaper did not offer to correct this significantly misleading statement, there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).

11. The statement that “the British population will soon achieve herd immunity, just as the population of Corona has” was inseparable from the columnist’s earlier point about the New York neighbourhood of Corona. That earlier point made clear the columnist’s reasons for considering that herd immunity may be close to being achieved in Corona; namely that a survey had found that 68% of a sample of residents had antibodies. This was a reasonable basis for these claims, especially as the author had elsewhere stated this survey only “suggested” there was herd immunity in Corona. Read in the context of the article as a whole, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. The claim that individuals will have “fought off other coronaviruses, such as the common cold” meant only that some, rather than all, common colds are caused by coronaviruses. The complainant had accepted that 20% of common colds are caused by coronaviruses. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

13. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

14. 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.

15. The Committee considered that the article contained multiple breaches of Clause 1 on a topic of public importance. However, it also noted that the disputed claims were on areas of significant scientific uncertainty at the time of publication. In light of these considerations, the Committee concluded that a correction was the appropriate remedy.

16. This correction should be added to the online article and appear as a standalone correction in the online corrections and clarifications column. This wording should only include information required to correct the inaccuracies: that the article had stated that those exposed to other coronaviruses will be immune and this means that London is probably approaching herd immunity; that those exposed to other coronaviruses are not “immune” as they may still contract and transmit the virus; that such individuals would not create herd immunity in London; and that the newspaper had failed to establish that London is “probably approaching herd immunity”. 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 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: 11/7/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 23/12/2020

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