Ruling

02758-21 The Society of Homeopaths v The Sunday Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      18th November 2021

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02758-21 The Society of Homeopaths v The Sunday Telegraph

Summary of Complaint

1. The Society of Homeopaths complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Homeopaths peddling ‘dangerous’ jab myths”, published on 24 January 2021.

2. The article reported on reactions to a Facebook post which had been shared by a Facebook page called 4Homeopathy, which the article reported “stated that a diluted duck heart and liver extract had been distributed to ‘953,416 families’”, and that “a Covid-19 prevention study had received ‘spectacular’ results using the remedy”. The article also reported that “a Sunday Telegraph investigation disclosed some were peddling myths that taking duck extract was as effective as the coronavirus vaccines.”

3. The subheading of the article said that the Head of NHS England had said that “[a]dvice that duck extract is as effective as vaccine is putting lives at risk”. It went on to include a direct quotation from the Head of NHS England, in which he stated that: “It’s one thing for homeopaths to peddle useless but harmless potions, but they cross a dangerous line when making ridiculous assertions about protecting people from Covid infection. Anyone who took those seriously would be putting themselves at higher risk of coming to harm from Covid infection.” The article also included comments from the NHS medical director, a former director at the World Health Organisation (WHO), an operations director at the Charity Commission, and a Facebook spokesperson.

4. The article also reported on responses to the Facebook posting from Facebook users: “The purported success of the product provoked excitement from users, with some asking where they could get the treatment, while others backed up the high efficacy of the product. ‘My homeopath says it takes less than two days to be rid of Covid!’ wrote one. Another stated: ‘I’ve been using this for my family for months.’”

5. The article went on to state that “[t]he 4Homeopathy group is described by the Society of Homeopaths as a banner outfit for 11 combined homeopathic groups to ’campaign and lobby’ on behalf of their users.”

6. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “Homeopaths have 'crossed the line' peddling 'dangerous' vaccine myths”.

7. The complainant said that the article raised several breaches of Clause 1. Firstly, it said that the Facebook post which was the basis for the article related to events in Cuba, and not the United Kingdom. It said that the reporting of the post, which included references to quotations from the Head of NHS England, inaccurately suggested that the post was referring to a study which had taken place in the UK.

8. The complainant next turned to the quotations from the Head of NHS England and the medical director of the NHS. It considered that their comments, which did not refer to the specifics of the post, suggested that they had not had sight of the social media posting and linked study when making their comment to the newspaper. As such, the complainant considered the inclusion of these quotes to be misleading, where it did not believe that the quotes related to or were made in response to the Facebook post which was the subject of the article.

9. The complainant also raised concerns about the accuracy of the subheading. It noted that it referred to “advice”; it considered this inaccurate, as the Facebook post was not ”advice” and was not described as such in the original post. Instead, it had referred to a study which had demonstrated the success of an alternative remedy in a single country by stating that “Perhaps more countries should have tried this initiative?” Therefore, the complainant said, the post had not been framed as advice and it was inaccurate for the article to report that it had.

10. The complainant provided a copy of the full Facebook post, which read:

Perhaps more countries should have tried this initiative?

Cuban COVID-19 Prevention Study Gets Spectacular Results Using Homeopathic Remedy in 1 Million People

Cuban officials have been using a homeopathic remedy for the prevention of COVID. At first almost 46,000 health workers received the remedy yet only 62 of those persons developed COVID. Then 953,416 families received the remedy.

The HP [Homeoprophylaxis] campaign started on 1 April, and a total of 45,914 individuals from the included health facilities received PrevengHo-Vir until 30 April (97.8% of this universe), with only 62 persons positive to Covid-19.”

The medication was distributed to 953,416 families in 43 municipalities when Cuba accumulated 1537 patients positive to COVID-19. Then .... 4 patients from Plaza de la Revolucion municipality in Havana tested positive to COVID-19 after its completion (0,002% of the population from these three municipalities)”.

11. The post concluded with a link to an article on another site.

12. The complainant considered that there were additional breaches of Clause 1 relating to the subheading. The complainant said that, contrary to the claim of the subheading, the Facebook post had not stated that “duck extract is as effective as vaccine” in protecting against Covid-19; the post had contained no reference to vaccination and had not compared the efficacy of the vaccination against the remedy referred to in the Facebook post.

13. The complainant’s final alleged breach of Clause 1 arising from the subheading related to the claim that the “advice” was “putting lives at risk”, as it said that the publication had not substantiated this claim within the article.

14. Turning next to the use of term “duck extract” throughout the article to describe the alternative remedy referred to by the Facebook post, the complainant said that this was inaccurate as the Facebook post made no reference to “duck extract”. It said that the Facebook post linked to a study which referred to a novel alternative remedy which contained Anas barbariae, among many other ingredients. It said that Anas barbariae was made from “the filtered liquid produced when duck heart and liver are digested in a pancreatic enzyme for 40 days” and that this process creates bacteria, moulds, and yeasts which are the remedy. Therefore, the organs themselves were not part of the remedy, but rather the liquid resulting from the treatment of the organs was the remedy.

15. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to describe 4Homeopathy as being referred to on the Society of Homeopaths’ website as a “banner outfit”, where it could find no such reference on the website and additionally had not been approached in relation to this description. It further noted that it considered the description to be derogatory, and that it believed that term had been used to “demean and discredit” the 4Homeopathy collaboration.

16. Finally, the complainant said that the article had failed to refer to the 4Homeopathy’s November 2019 statement clarifying the perceived link between the anti-vaccination movement and homeopathy, and made clear that “Questions about vaccination from the public to a registered homeopath should be deferred to those medically trained to answer them, such as GPs”. The complainant said that this omission rendered the article misleading.

17. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It first said that, regardless of where the study had originally been conducted, 4Homeopathy was a UK-based organisation that had shared the post to UK readers on its Facebook page and the post was therefore directed at its followers in the UK as well as abroad; it was, it said, therefore not inaccurate nor misleading to seek comment from the Head of NHS England.

18. The publication then said that it had provided both of the NHS executives quoted in the article with a copy of the Facebook post, which included the link to the study. Their comments had been made in response to the post and after having been given a chance to view it and the study. It said that it had also approached the complainant prior to publication and asked it to clarify the Society’s view on vaccination, but had received no reply. It provided copies of all of these approaches and replies to IPSO.

19. Turning next to the subheading, the publication said that it was not inaccurate to characterise the post as “advice that duck extract is as effective as vaccine”; it said that this was a summary of a comment made by the Head of NHS England, who had said that homeopaths “cross a dangerous line when making ridiculous assertions about protecting people from Covid infection. Anyone who took those seriously would be putting themselves at higher risk of coming to harm from Covid infection". It noted that 4Homeopathy had not simply chosen to share the study, it had also chosen to comment on its effectiveness by stating that “[p]erhaps more countries should have tried this initiative?” The publication considered that, by posting this, the organisation was clearly expressing support for the findings and pitting the alternative solution against, for instance, vaccination. It also said that comments accompanying the Facebook posting made clear that the post had been interpreted as advice, and noted that two such comments were included in the article to make this clear: “My homeopath says it takes less than two days to be rid of Covid!” and “I’ve been using this for my family for months” had both appeared as responses to the post, said the publication.

20. The publication then said that the subheading’s reference to the advice putting lives “at risk” came directly from the full quote from the Head of NHS England, who was quoted in the article as saying that “[a]nyone who took [the claims] seriously would be putting themselves at higher risk of coming to harm from Covid infection”. It further said that it was not inaccurate for the subheadline and article to refer to “duck extract”, where is said the largest ingredient in the remedy is the extract from the heart and liver of a duck.

21. Finally, the publication said that the reference to 4Homeopathy being a “banner outfit” was taken from the website of the Society of Homeopaths, which stated that “[u]nder the banner of 4Homeopathy, the [Homeopath] profession works together to campaign and lobby on behalf of practitioners and patients.”

22.  The complainant maintained that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, stating that it considered that the publication should have approached a representative at the Cuban Health Ministry or a “suitable expert” at WHO for comment to make clear that the study related to Cuba and not the UK.  It also did not accept that characterising the social media post as “advice” was an accurate characterisation, as it considered that there was a substantial difference between reporting on research carried out by government bodies and offering individual advice. It noted that the comments on Facebook were unmoderated, and that it was therefore unfair to make characterisations about the social media posts based in comments made in response.

23. The complainant said that it wished for the publication to publish the following correction, linking to the original online article, to correct what it considered to be multiple breaches of Clause 1:

The Telegraph published an article on 24 January 2021 about a posting made by the professional collaborative 4Homeopathy. The Telegraph wishes to clarify that the 4Homeopathy posting clearly stated that it was a report on homeopathic research being carried out in Cuba only. The Telegraph wishes to acknowledge that 4Homeopathy (a collaboration of 11 homeopathic organisations and charities, which work together to promote the benefits of homeopathy) had issued a collective statement dated 13 November 2019 headed ‘Homeopathy and vaccination are separate topics’ and including the statement ‘Questions about vaccination from the public to a registered homeopath should be deferred to those medically trained to answer them, such as GPs.’

24. The publication did not accept that not contacting the Cuban Health Ministry for comment regarding the article rendered it inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as the article focussed on a Facebook post made by a UK-based organisation. It also noted that a comment from the WHO was included in the article.

25. The publication said that it would not be content to publish the proposed correction, and that it wished for the matter to proceed to the Committee so that they might make a determination as to whether the Editors’ Code had been breached.

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

26. The complainant said that the subheading to the article inaccurately referred to “advice” which was “putting lives at risk”; its position was that this was inaccurate as the Facebook post was not advice and that the publication could not demonstrate that lives had been put at risk. The subheading was a summary of the quote from the Head of NHS England, in which he stated in response to the Facebook post that homeopaths “cross a dangerous line when making ridiculous assertions about protecting people from Covid infection. Anyone who took those seriously would be putting themselves at higher risk of coming to harm from Covid infection.” The Committee found that this was sufficient basis for the subheading’s summary that the Head of NHS England considered that the “advice” was “putting lives at risk”. While the Committee noted that the complainant disputed this summary, where it was supported by the full quote included in the article there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

27. The complainant further denied that the post suggested that the remedy was “as effective as the coronavirus vaccines” in protecting against Covid-19 or could be described as an example of a “vaccine myth”, on the grounds that the post had contained no reference to vaccination and had not compared the efficacy of the remedy with vaccination. However, the Committee noted that the post presented the substance as a “remedy for the prevention of Covid”, which invited comparison with vaccination, currently the only widely accepted method of preventing the virus. The comment on the post, “Perhaps more countries should have tried this initiative?” made a further, more direct comparison between the remedy and the vaccination campaign under way in many countries at the time, including in the UK. Taking the comment together with the extremely high prevention rates described in the post, which appeared to be higher than for conventional vaccines, the Committee did not consider that it was misleading to summarise the post as suggesting that the substance “is as effective as the coronavirus vaccines”. With this context in mind, the Committee found no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

28. The publication had demonstrated that all of the quoted individuals in the article had had access to both the original Facebook post and the link to the study when making their comments. It was not inaccurate, misleading, nor distorted for the article to include their comments made in response to the Facebook post, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. The Committee also noted that it would be for the quoted individuals to complain should they consider that their comments has been reported inaccurately, or had been obtained in a way misleading manner; the complainant was not in a position to know the intent behind the comments.

29. The Committee turned next to the use of the term “duck extract”, which the complainant considered raised another breach of Clause 1. While the post itself had not used the term “duck extract”, it had referred to a study in which a remedy, including the filtered liquid produced when duck heart and liver are digested in a pancreatic enzyme for 40 days, was distributed to many families. As such, the Committee found that no breach of Clause 1 arose from the use of the term “duck extract”, where it was not in dispute that liquid obtained from the treatment of duck organs was the main ingredient of the remedy, and where “duck extract” was shorthand for the process by which the ingredient was obtained. There was no breach of Clause 1.

30. In addition, the Committee did not consider that there was a significant difference between describing the Society of Homeopaths as being “under the banner of” 4Homeopathy – as stated on the Society of Homeopaths website – and describing 4Homeopathy as a “banner outfit”, which was the description in the article. The Committee understood that the complainant considered the term “banner outfit” to be demeaning; however the terms of Clause 1 relate to the publication of inaccurate, misleading, and distorted information, and the need to correct significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information. As such, concerns that the term “banner outfit” was demeaning did not engage the terms of Clause 1.

31. While the complainant had said that the omission of 4Homeopathy’s November 2019 statement on vaccination rendered the article inaccurate, the Committee noted that the statement predated the Facebook post by over a year, and the global outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic by several months; it was not a statement specifically about Covid-19 vaccinations. In addition, the publication had approached the complainant prior to publication to clarify the Society’s stance on vaccination and had received no reply. There had been no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, nor distorted information on the part of the publication by the absence of reference to the 2019 statement in the article, where the statement was potentially outdated and it had approached the complainant to clarify its current position on vaccination prior to the article’s publication. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

32. While the Facebook post pertained to a study which had been carried out in Cuba, the post had been shared on a Facebook group operated by a UK organisation to a UK audience, with relevance to a UK public health issue. In this context, the Committee considered that it was not misleading to omit reference to Cuba as the location of the station or to include comments from NHS executives. In addition, newspapers have the right to choose which pieces of information they publish, as long as this does not lead to a breach of the Code. Where no inaccuracy arose from the omission of reference to Cuba, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

33. The Committee did not find that the publication breached Clause 1 by not approaching the Cuban Health Ministry prior to publication. The article reported on the contents of a public social media post which linked to a publicly available study; there was no obligation for the newspaper to approach the Cuban Health Ministry in circumstances where the newspaper had access both to the Facebook post and the study to which it linked. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

34. The complaint was not upheld

Remedial Action Required

35. N/A


Date complaint received: 15/03/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 28/10/2021