Ruling

00322-21 Evans v The Mail on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      5th August 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00322-21 Evans v The Mail on Sunday

Summary of Complaint

1. Richard Evans complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Shot down by Facebook’s idiot censors”, published on 13 December 2020.

2. The article was a comment piece which reported on Facebook censoring posts. It reported that the columnist had “been given Facebook’s seal of disapproval” after he posted about “Covid muzzles” (face masks) and had stated that “a major experiment shows they’re useless”.

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that the study the article referred to must have been the Danmask-19 experiment. He said that the article was therefore misleading for three reasons: firstly, the study suggested that those wearing masks had a 14% lower risk of contracting Covid-19; secondly, the study had stated that the numbers of Covid-19 cases amongst participants was not high enough to reach statistical significance and the study was therefore inconclusive; and thirdly, because the study did not test whether masks stop the wearer transmitting the virus, only whether it stops the mask wearer being infected themselves, when the former was the main reason behind Government advice to wear masks. He said that on this basis it was inaccurate to report that the study had found them useless.

5. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It confirmed that the study referred to was the Danmask-19 study. It said the findings of this study were that 1.8% of people wearing masks got Covid-19, compared to a control group without masks of which 2.1% got Covid-19. It said that the researchers found that this was not statistically significant and that the data was “compatible with lesser degrees of self-protection”, which it said meant mask wearers were not better protected than non-mask wearers to the extent that it was statistically significant. The publication said that the study was large and rigorous, and the fact that the study only considered whether wearing masks protected the wearer did not make it inaccurate to describe the findings as stating masks were “useless”. It said that there were no randomised control studies which tested whether wearing a mask lowered transmission from the mask wearer. The publication said the columnist had previously described this study in greater detail in other articles. It also referred to several quotes about the effectiveness of masks, including that in March 2020 the World Health Organisation had stated: “There is currently no evidence that wearing a mask (whether medical or other types) by healthy persons in the wider community setting, including universal community masking, can protect them from infection” and that in March 2020, England’s Chief Medical Officer said wearing a face mask had almost no effect on reducing the risk of contracting coronavirus, stating: ”In terms of wearing a mask, our advice is clear: that wearing a mask if you don’t have an infection reduces the risk almost not at all. So we do not advise that”, while noting that if someone was infected, they might reduce the danger of spreading the disease by covering their faces, he said wearing a face mask had almost no effect on reducing the risk of contracting the illness. The publication said that these quotes demonstrated that, prior to the study referred to in the article, the default position was that there was no specific evidence to show that wearing masks prevented the spread of Covid-19 from the wearer or protected the wearer from others.

6. The publication also said that the statement that the study showed masks were “useless” was the columnist’s opinion, and that it was a passing reference in a comment piece. It said it was the complainant’s view that the study was “inconclusive” and that the columnist did not accept this view, and it was his personally held belief that a result of not statistically significant was conclusive.

7. The complainant responded by saying that the 0.3 percentage points difference was a function of the low number of Covid-19 cases in people in the study, rather than the size of the effect of wearing masks. He also noted that in the population of the UK, even the difference observed in the study had the potential to stop thousands of people contacting Covid-19, which was not “useless”. The complainant said it was not a matter of opinion that the study was inconclusive, but that the first point listed in the limitation section of the study was “inconclusive results”, and the study also reported that “The most important limitation is that the findings are inconclusive”. The complainant also said that there is a point at which stating an opinion becomes an assertion of fact and that the article had passed this point, and therefore it was not a defence that the inaccuracy was within a comment piece.

8. The complainant accepted the quotations provided by the publication, but noted that they were from March 2020 and disagreed that the default position before the study was that masks were useless. He also said that other quotes on the efficacy of masks were not relevant to his complaint, which was that reporting that the Danmask-19 study said that masks were “useless” was inaccurate.

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.

Findings of the Committee

9. The Committee firstly made clear that newspapers have an obligation to take care not to publish inaccurate information, even in comment pieces. The columnist was entitled to share his interpretation of the study in the column, provided it was clearly presented as such and readers would not be misled as to the study’s conclusions. Both parties were in agreement as to which study was being referred to: the Danmask-19 study. The objective of the study had been to assess whether the use of a mask reduced the wearer’s risk of contracting Covid-19; it had not assessed whether wearing a mask affected the onwards transmission of Covid-19 from the mask wearer to others. The statement in the article that the study found masks to be “useless”, without explaining what function of mask wearing was being assessed, was misleading:  the study had not found masks to be ineffective in the onwards transmission of Coivd-19 from wearer to others. Furthermore, the article had not mentioned that the study had made clear that the findings concerning the effectiveness of masks in reducing the risk of infection for the wearer were “inconclusive”. The newspaper had, therefore failed to take care not to publish misleading information and there was a breach of Clause 1(i). The fact that the columnist had previously written about the study in more depth in other articles did not justify the omission of crucial details in this article. Where the article had stated that the study had shown that wearing masks was useless, when the study had not found this, the misleading statement was significant and required correction under Clause 1(ii). No correction was offered, and there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).

10. The publication had also provided commentary on the efficacy of masks from other sources, however, this was not relevant to the reporting of the results of the Danmask-19 study.

11. The publication said that the assertion that the results of the study showed masks to be “useless” was the columnist’s opinion, which he was entitled to express. The Committee noted that, while columnists are indeed free to comment on research and share their interpretation of data, this must be based in fact and clearly distinguished as comment or conjecture. In this instance, whilst the quote had appeared in a comment piece, the statement that the study had found masks to be “useless” was presented as a fact, and not distinguished as comment. There was a breach of Clause 1(iv).

Conclusions

12. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

13. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1(i), Clause 1(ii) and Clause 1(iv), 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 an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

14. The Committee considered that the publication did not take the necessary care when reporting the outcome of the study. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record. A correction was considered to be sufficient, as the result of the study was not the focal point of the article.

15. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. It should appear as a footnote to the article online if the article is amended, and under the headline if the article is not amended. It should also appear in the print version of the paper in the established corrections and clarifications column. The correction needed to record that the article had claimed that the study had found that wearing masks were “useless” when in fact the study had only considered whether mask wearers were less likely to contract the virus, and that the results were inconclusive. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position should be agreed with IPSO in advance

 

Date complaint received: 08/01/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 07/04/2021

 

Independent Complaints Reviewer

The publication complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.