18496-17 Wilson v The Times

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 18496-17 Wilson v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. David Wilson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Light drinking ‘does no harm in pregnancy’”, published in print and online on the 12 September 2017.

2. The article reported that a “landmark study” had found that there was “’surprisingly limited’ proof that a little alcohol harms an unborn child,” and therefore “strict government guidelines warning pregnant women against drinking any alcohol are not justified by evidence.” The article reported that while there appeared to be some evidence to suggest a link between light alcohol consumption and potentially harmful outcomes for unborn children, this evidence was limited.

3. The article stated that the study had reviewed data from a number of studies into the impact of light drinking during pregnancy, with “light drinking” being defined as up to four units of alcohol a week. The article outlined which types of possible impact on unborn children had been measured and reported that the study had found “some evidence to link light drinking with pre-term delivery and drinking up to four units a week on average was associated with an 8 per cent higher risk of a small baby,” which the study said supported the government guidelines advising “abstention as a precautionary principle.” The article quoted the findings of the report, which stated that there was “a paucity of evidence demonstrating a clear detrimental effect, or safe limit, of light alcohol consumption on outcomes.” The article included a comment from a University of Cambridge professor who stated, “with luck this [study] should dispel any guilt and anxiety felt by women who have an occasional glass of wine while they are pregnant.” The article also appeared online with the same headline and was substantially the same as the print article.

4. The complainant said that the headline misrepresented the findings of the study. He said that the study had not found that light drinking did “no harm” during pregnancy, but had found that while there was some evidence to support the advice to abstain from all alcohol during pregnancy due to its effects on the unborn child, this evidence was limited.  He noted that the authors had concluded that “describing the paucity of current research and explaining that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ appears warranted”.  He also said it was inaccurate to state that the study had found that government guidelines were not justified by evidence.

5. The newspaper said that the headline had been written by a sub-editor and approved by senior executives who had failed to appreciate the subtlety of the academic research which was the subject of the report. The newspaper said that the reporter had taken care to ensure the article had accurately reported the findings of the study, and said the article made clear that Government guidance encouraging complete abstention was justified on the precautionary principle but not by the strength of evidence.

6. The reporter who had written the article had requested a clarification once she had seen the published article, as she did not believe the headline conveyed the subtle distinction and nuance of the research outlined in the article. The newspaper amended the online headline and published a correction as a footnote to the online article and in its regular Corrections and clarifications column on page 34 of the print edition the next day. It also published a letter the day that day, setting out a position similar to the complainant’s. The corrections stated:

“We wrongly suggested in a headline that a recent scientific study had concluded that ‘light drinking does no harm in pregnancy’ While the study found little evidence that light drinking pregnancy is harmful, it also found little evidence that it is safe, and – as we made clear in our report – its authors support guidance advising abstention as a precautionary principle”.

7. The newspaper said that the Corrections and Clarifications column, was well established and appeared on the Letters page, which was one of the most-read pages of the newspaper. It said that this placement made corrections easy to find and gave corrections more prominence than they might otherwise have on a page further forward in the newspaper. It said that while the headline was inaccurate, the article itself was an accurate report of the study and therefore the publication of the correction in the established column as well as a letter from a member of the public was sufficient to remedy the breach.

Relevant Code Provisions

8. 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

9. The headline had inaccurately reported that a study had made a positive finding that light drinking during pregnancy did not harm unborn children. This was significant because while the study had found the evidence to support the link between light drinking and harm to the unborn child was limited, it had found some evidence to suggest there was a link, and therefore supported abstention as a precautionary principle. This inaccuracy required correction to avoid a breach of 1(ii).

10. The newspaper had been alerted to the inaccuracy by the reporter before a complaint was received. It published a clarification, in print and online, at the earliest opportunity, and had amended the online headline. The correction had identified the original inaccuracy and had set out the correct position clearly. The print clarification had appeared in the newspaper’s regular Corrections and Clarifications column on page 34 of the newspaper. The Committee welcomes established corrections columns, and recognises the advantages of having a consistent position for corrections. However, there are circumstances in which a front-page correction may be required by the Editors’ Code, regardless of the existence of an established Corrections and Clarifications column.

11. The Committee considered whether this was one such case. In assessing the requirement for “due prominence,” the Committee takes into account both the prominence of the original article and the seriousness of the breach.

12. The headline under complaint had appeared on the front page. However, the article, which had appeared in full on the front page, had accurately reported that the study had found some evidence that light drinking may carry a higher risk of a small baby, and made clear that while the study had found that the evidence was limited given the lack of research that has been done in this area, it still supported abstention as a precautionary principle.  The Committee considered that where the full article appeared on the front page, had reported the nuanced findings of the study in depth, and taking into account the importance of maintaining established correction columns in assisting the public in locating corrections, the publication of a clarification in the regular column was sufficiently prominent. The Committee considered that the action taken by the newspaper was sufficient to meet the terms of 1(ii). There was no further breach of the Code on this point.

13. The article stated that the study “supported guidance advising ‘abstention as a precautionary principle’”. The claim that Government guidance was “not justified by evidence” was not misleading, given that the study had found there was a “paucity of evidence” demonstrating a clear detrimental effect, as reported in the article. In the context of an article that had included a lot of detail about the study and had accurately represented its findings, there was no breach of Clause 1.


14. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

15. The newspaper had promptly published a sufficiently prominent clarification, which corrected the inaccurate impression given by the headline, and had amended the online article and appended a clarification to it. No further action was required.  

Date complaint received: 14/09/2017
Date decision issued: 07/12/2017

Back to ruling listing