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
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
“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
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
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
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