Decision of the Complaints Committee 17505-17 Wholistic Life v Sunday Mail
Summary of complaint
1. Wholistic Life complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “We’ve got cash that’s there to help poor kids. Instead it’s being used for lessons in happiness. It’s like selling them snake oil”, published on 6 August 2017. The article was also published online headlined “Cash to boost children’s academic performance spent on ‘snake oil’ holistic classes.”
2. The article reported that several schools in Lanarkshire had hired Wholistic Life, an educational charity, to run courses aimed at increasing self-esteem and confidence among pupils. The article stated that at least one school had paid for the programme using their government financed Pupil Equity Fund, which it said was earmarked to improve the academic performance of disadvantaged children. The article included quotations from an education expert, who commented generally on the concept of holistic workshops, stating that they, “could actually introduce the idea of stress and anxiety where none exist” as well as quotations from politicians, who expressed concern that schools may be using their Pupil Equity Fund to pay for the programme run by Wholistic Life, as they believed the course “may not make a material difference to the quality of [children’s] academic education.”
3. The article included a comment from the charity’s representative, stating that Wholistic Life’s course “has been academically evaluated by psychologists and professors at Heriot-Watt University,” and “there is no reason why they wouldn’t pay for our course through the PEF money because that’s what it’s there for.” The article reported that the Wholistic Life course cost £1300 per 15 pupils, and stated that the charity had been founded by a finance worker and a police inspector. The article went on to state that the co-founder of Wholistic Life had gained a certificate to practice “the art and science of neuro-linguistic programming” from a training provider that offers courses costing up to £950 and included photographs of the charity’s founders. The online article was substantially the same as the print article. The caption under the photograph of one of the charity’s founders stated that she had said that “the classes help kids.”
4. The complainant said that the article’s claim that the Pupil Equity Fund was “earmarked to improve the academic performance of disadvantaged kids” was inaccurate. It said that the key aim of this fund was to improve attainment and that this applied to broader educational outcomes rather than just academic performance. The complainant highlighted the reference in the fund’s operational guidelines to improvements in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, stating that the newspaper’s characterisation of the fund misleadingly suggested schools were misusing the fund by using it to pay for courses run by Wholistic Life. The complainant also said the article was misleading as, to date, they had only received payment from one school for the implementation of their course.
5. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to state that the course had been academically evaluated by Heriot-Watt, as this study had not yet been undertaken. It raised concern that the quotations from the educational expert that were included in the article misleadingly suggested she had been talking about Wholistic Life specifically, and said that the use of the term “snake oil” in the headline was offensive and unfounded. The complainant also said that the professional credentials of the charity’s co-founder cost more than £950 and that the article had inaccurately stated that the course the charity ran cost £1300 per 15 pupils, when in fact it cost £1350. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to refer to one of the co-founders as a finance worker when she was a qualified accountant.
6. The complainant said that the inclusion of the charity’s founders’ photographs in the article without their consent was a breach of their privacy and stated that the caption under a photograph of the co-founder misleadingly suggested she had spoken to the journalist, when in fact it was her colleague.
7. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the overall aim of the Pupil Equity Fund, as outlined in the operational guidelines, was to improve the educational outcomes of children affected by poverty. It said that the guidelines made clear that the fund could be used to pay for health and wellbeing initiatives, so long as they materially contributed to the educational outcome of children. Therefore, the newspaper said it was not inaccurate to state that the fund was intended to improve the academic performance of disadvantaged children. It also said that the article had accurately reported the views of the education expert, and had made clear that these were general comments relating to the concept of holistic education more widely.
8. The newspaper said that during an interview with the journalist, a charity representative had stated that “this course that we are doing is a course that has been academically evaluated by Heriot-Watt” and provided a recording of the conversation, as well as the journalist’s notes.
9. The newspaper said that the photographs included in the article were publicly available on Facebook and did not contain any private information about the individuals pictured. However, as a gesture of goodwill, they offered to remove the photographs of the founders and the captions from the online article.
Relevant Code Provisions
10. 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.
Clause 2 (Privacy) *
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Findings of the Committee
11. The operational guidelines for the Pupil Equity Fund made clear that the objective of the fund was to close the attainment gap and improve the educational outcomes of children affected by poverty. This could be used to fund improvements in health and wellbeing. However, these initiatives were intended to contribute to the overall objective of closing the attainment gap. In these circumstances, it was not inaccurate to state the fund was to be used to improve “academic performance,” and it was not misleading for the headline to state that money that was “there to help poor kids” was instead being used to fund “lessons in happiness.”
12. The article had accurately reported the education expert’s general criticism of the academic benefit of holistic courses for disadvantaged children, and had not stated that she was talking about Wholistic Life specifically. The inclusion of the background of the debate surrounding schools paying for holistic classes provided context to the article, and was not misleading in the way the complainant had suggested.
13. The newspaper was also entitled to report on particular concerns raised about the appropriateness of using the government funded initiative to finance Wholistic Life courses in schools, and where these concerns were accurately attributed to the individuals who made the comment and not presented as fact, the article was not misleading.
14. The charity’s co-founder had stated in an interview with the journalist that they ran a course “that has been academically evaluated by Heriot-Watt,” which was the quotation the newspaper had relied on to support its claim that the course had been evaluated by the university. While the Committee noted that the representative had gone on to refer to the details of this study in the future tense, where the statements provided by the representative had been contradictory as to whether the course had already been evaluated, stating that the course has been evaluated did not represent a significant inaccuracy.
15. Also, the article had not reported that the professional credentials of the charity’s co-founder had cost £950, as the complainant suggested, but had stated that the company with which she had gained at least one qualification, charged up to £950 for their courses. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that the course undertaken by its founder was more expensive, in the context of the article, the general comment on the cost of courses offered by the provider did not create a significantly misleading impression of the founder’s qualifications. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
16. Similarly, in the context of an article reporting on the use of government money to fund holistic courses, reporting that the course cost £1300, when the precise cost was £1350, did not represent a significant inaccuracy. Also, where the co-founder of the charity was an accountant, it was not significantly inaccurate to refer to her as a finance worker. This did not represent a breach of Clause 1.
17. The newspaper had spoken to the co-founder of the charity, who had provided statements on behalf of the organisation. While the online article had attributed this quotation to the other co-founder of the charity, where the individual concerned was responding on behalf of the charity, and was general in nature, it was not significantly inaccurate for the article to state this quotation had come from the other co-founder. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to remove the photograph and caption as a gesture of goodwill.
18. Further, where several schools have hired the charity to run their holistic course in their school, and the charity would receive payment once these courses had been implemented, it was not inaccurate for the article to state that several schools had hired the charity. The complainant had also said the use of the term “snake oil” was offensive, however the Code does not cover issues of taste and offence. Where the article made clear that the term had been used by an education expert when discussing the benefits of holistic courses, the basis for the use of the term was made clear. There was no breach of Clause 1.
19. The photographs included in the article were publicly available on Facebook. The photographs did not show the individuals pictured engaged in a private activity, and did not disclose any private information about either individual. There was no breach of Clause 2.
20. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 14/08/2017
Date decision issued: 23/11/2017
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