Decision of the Complaints Committee – 12885-21 Kay v Daily Mail
Summary of Complaint
1. Anthony Kay complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “It's time to punish Britain's 5 million vaccine refuseniks”, published on 10 December 2021.
2. The article was a weekly column, which commented on measures the columnist believed Britons who had chosen not to receive the Covid-19 vaccine should face, while also making clear he was not in favour of compulsory vaccination. The columnist compared Britain’s approach to vaccine hesitancy to other countries which had brought in greater measures to encourage people to get the vaccine such as vaccine passports and fines. The headline stated, “It's time to punish Britain's 5 million vaccine refuseniks”, and this figure was repeated in the article: “There are still 5 million unvaccinated British adults, who through fear, ignorance, irresponsibility or sheer stupidity refuse to be jabbed.” The columnist also commented on the efficacy of the vaccine: “Of course, it’s not foolproof. Nothing is. People who have been vaccinated can still contract and pass on the virus. But vaccination substantially reduces the risk of serious illness and hospitalisation, which is why medical experts are unanimous in their view that the more people who are vaccinated the better the chance we all have of beating this virus.” The columnist also asserted that “We are all paying a heavy price for this hard core of the unvaccinated”.
3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “It's time to punish Britain's five million vaccine refuseniks: They put us all at risk of more restrictions, says ANDREW NEIL. So why shouldn't we curb some of their freedoms?”
4. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1 as he considered the five million figure referring to unvaccinated Britons to be inaccurate. The complainant said that figures published by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shortly after the publication of the article indicated that 23.5 million people in England were unvaccinated, which would suggest a figure of 15 million unvaccinated people, once children were deducted.
5. The complainant also said the headline was sensationalist and that the article contained intemperate language as well as presenting the view that everything is the fault of the unvaccinated. He said that the publication was too willing “to accept the Government’s narrative that ‘5 million vaccine refuseniks’ are to blame.” In addition, the complainant said the article ignored what he considered to be relevant information about the efficacy of the vaccine and the frequency with which vaccinated people have been infected with variants. The complainant also said that the UKHSA indicated that four out of five Covid-19 deaths in December had occurred among the double and triple vaccinated, and that the triple vaccinated were three times more likely than the unvaccinated to catch the latest variant.
6. The complainant said the article breached Clause 3 and Clause 12 as it used language to shame, vilify and demonise unvaccinated people, which served to harass and discriminate against this group. He also expressed concerns that it incited hatred and violence towards the “unvaccinated community”.
7. The publication said it did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It said that the figure of five million eligible unvaccinated adults in Britain had been widely reported and was accurate. It noted that the Chief Medical Officer for England had said in September 2021 that “there are five million or so people who are eligible for vaccines now who haven’t been vaccinated”. The publication also stated that the figure corresponded with analysis by another publication and provided several examples of instances in which this figure had been reported in the press at the time of publication. It further mentioned that the Health Secretary had made reference to this number shortly after publication, when he was urging people to take up the vaccine in December 2021.
8. The newspaper said the 23.5 million figure advanced by the complainant was published by an anti-vaccine website and was irrelevant as it claimed to be the total number of unvaccinated people in England, whereas the article under complaint was referring to unvaccinated British adults who are eligible for the vaccine but have refused to take it. The publication also supplied a link to a fact-checking website which had been published since the publication of the article, which debunked the complainant’s alternative figure of 23.5 million, and found that, based on an ONS estimate of the population, 5.1 million eligible people had not received a dose of the vaccine in England.
9. The publication added that the columnist was free to express his views and to be critical of those who have chosen not to be vaccinated, and that the Code specifically enshrined the right for newspapers to inform, be partisan, to challenge, shock, be satirical and to entertain. It also said the complainant’s points querying the efficacy of the vaccine did not undermine the accuracy of the article.
10. The publication also did not accept a breach of Clause 3 or Clause 12. It said while it appreciated the complainant disagreed with the scope of these Clauses, the complaint did not engage them.
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 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.
Clause 3 (Harassment)*
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
Clause 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Findings of the Committee
11. The Committee considered the disputed figure of five million British adults who refuse to get jabbed. It acknowledged that this figure had been widely reported during the time the article was published, and that the publication had provided several examples of contemporaneous articles which also published the figure as well as the Chief Medical Officer for England who had quoted this figure. The Committee considered that the publication was entitled to rely on the figure which had been cited by the Chief Medical Officer for England, who was closely associated with the vaccination programme. It was therefore satisfied that the publication had taken sufficient care over the accuracy of the claim that there was five million British adults who refuse to get jabbed. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i).
12. The complainant had cited research, published subsequent to the article under complaint, which he considered demonstrated that the figure of five million was inaccurate, and in fact was considerably higher. The Committee did not agree that the research cited by the complainant demonstrated that the figure given in the article was significantly misleading and noted the five million figure had been cited by the Chief Medical Officer for England and the Health Secretary. Where the publication had been able to provide a basis for the figure contained in the article and the complainant had not demonstrated it to be inaccurate, the Committee did not find a significant inaccuracy which required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii) on this point.
13. The Committee also considered the complainant’s concerns that the headline was “sensationalist” and that the article included intemperate language. The article was distinguished as an opinion piece and the columnist was entitled to express his views on the benefits of restrictions against the unvaccinated; the strain he felt they placed on the NHS; and the “heavy price” paid by the vaccinated “for this hard core of the unvaccinated”. Concerns that the headline was sensationalist did not engage the Code where the Committee was satisfied there was no breach of Clause 1.
14. Further, the Committee considered the complainant’s concerns about the article’s claims regarding the efficacy of the vaccine. It noted that the article did make clear that vaccinated people could still contract and infect others with the virus. The article did not make any claims of fact regarding the specific variant of Covid-19 infecting patients who were being treated in hospitals, and whether they were vaccinated or not, but simply claimed that “vaccination substantially reduces the risk of serious illness and hospitalisation” and “As long as they [the unvaccinated] can be numbered in the millions, the nation will remain unnecessarily vulnerable to the latest variant”. As the vaccine has been demonstrated to reduce serious illness and hospitalisation, the Committee was satisfied that there was a basis for these claims. The Committee also had regard for the context in which the claim appeared: it was clearly presented as a comment piece, and therefore necessarily reflected the columnist’s interpretation of the situation. There was no breach of Clause 1.
15. With regards to the complaint under Clause 3, the complainant believed the article was demonising and shaming towards unvaccinated people. Clause 3 generally relates to the way journalists behave when gathering news, including the nature and extent of their contact with the subject of the story. The complainant’s concerns did not relate to this, and there was no breach of Clause 3.
16. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 12, again, as he considered that the publication vilified, demonised and shamed unvaccinated people. As Clause 12 is designed to protect specific individuals mentioned by the press from discrimination based on their race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or any physical or mental illness or disability. The complainant’s concern did not relate to an individual, nor is choosing not to take the Covid-19 vaccination a protected characteristic. There was no breach of Clause 12.
17. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 12/12/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 06/06/2022Back to ruling listing