Ruling

04355-21 Allman v liverpoolecho.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      2nd September 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 04355-21 Allman v liverpoolecho.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Joanne Allman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that liverpoolecho.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Sefton's local election candidates make their pitch for votes”, published on 25 April 2021.

2. The article, which appeared online only, reported that “[a]lmost 100 candidates are set to contest just 24 seats on Sefton Council at next month’s local elections”. The article included candidate statements from some of the candidates. The complainant was one of the candidates whose statement was featured. In her statement, the complainant had said “[r]esearch shows that lockdowns do little to reduce virus-related mortality, but have a devastating impact on society, education, the economy, and physical and mental health”. Her candidate statement was prefaced by an introductory paragraph, written by the publication, which asserted that her statement contained “incorrect claims about Covid-19, specifically that lockdowns do little to reduce virus-related mortality. The overwhelming scientific consensus, based on evidence from both the UK and other countries, is that lockdowns are the most effective way of cutting transmission of the virus and thus reducing the number of deaths from Covid-19. All three UK lockdowns have significantly reduced the number of Covid cases”.

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because it claimed that the "overwhelming scientific consensus, based on evidence from both the UK and other countries, is that lockdowns are the most effective way of cutting transmission of the virus and thus reducing the number of deaths from Covid-19".  She considered that this was an opinion, and should not have been presented as a fact. She further stated that the claim was inaccurate: there was a “considerable body of peer-reviewed research based on empirical data” which supported her statement that lockdowns do little to reduce virus-related mortality. The complainant provided links to eleven studies, published in a range of scientific journals, which she said demonstrated that lockdowns had done little to reduce virus-related mortality specifically. As such, she said that this showed that the article stating that there was an “overwhelming scientific consensus” regarding this matter was inaccurate.

4. The complainant also said the article breached Clause 12 because she was the only candidate featured in the article whose statement had included an introductory paragraph questioning the accuracy of its content. She was concerned about the effect this could have had on her campaign and the election.

5. The publication said it did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that there were an “overwhelming” number of scientific studies that demonstrated the effectiveness of lockdowns in reducing deaths related to Covid-19. It further noted that the decrease in the number of cases and deaths within the UK all coincided with lockdowns. The publication provided links to some of the studies which it said demonstrated the efficacy of lockdowns in reducing virus-related transmission – and, by extension, deaths – as well as articles that had reported the findings of these studies. It also referenced a statement made by the Prime Minister, in which he said that the reduction in the number of infections, hospitalisations, and deaths was predominantly due to the lockdown as opposed to the vaccination programme. The publication also stated that there will “always be a small number of researchers who disagree with the consensus” within the scientific field and so all science should not be “reduced” to a matter of opinion. It said that it had published the introductory paragraph as it had an obligation, under the terms of Clause 1, to take care not to publish inaccurate information, and that the introductory paragraph had been published to address what it considered to be inaccuracies in the complainant’s candidate statement. The publication also said it was making a statement of fact on the effectiveness of lockdowns as a policy rather than expressing an opinion on whether such a policy was good. It said, therefore, that there was no need to distinguish this as comment or opinion in order to satisfy the requirement in Clause 1(iv).

6. The publication also said it did not accept a breach of Clause 12. It said that the article did not engage the terms of Clause 12 as it did not include any reference to her race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

7. During IPSO’s investigation, the publication proposed to remove the word “incorrect” from the introductory paragraph, should this resolve the complaint, so that it would read:

“[The complainant’s] statement contains claims about Covid-19, specifically that lockdowns do little to reduce virus-related mortality. The overwhelming scientific consensus, based on evidence from both the UK and other countries, is that lockdowns are the most effective way of cutting transmission of the virus and thus reducing the number of deaths from Covid-19. All three UK lockdowns have significantly reduced the number of Covid cases.”

8. The complainant did not accept this suggested amendment, saying it did not address her concerns. She said the links provided by the publication to support its position referred to the effects of lockdowns on transmissions, or were from political figures and so did not represent empirical, real-world evidence. She argued, therefore, that they did not disprove her position which was specifically focused on the effectiveness of lockdowns as a measure to reduce virus-related mortality.

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.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

9. The Committee noted that the complaint centred around published statements concerning the effectiveness of lockdowns in reducing Covid-19 mortality, rather than transmissions, and that it was not in a position to determine  the efficacy of lockdowns as a method of reducing Covid-19 related mortality. The publication had described the complainant’s claim on the issue  as “incorrect” on the basis that “[t]he overwhelming scientific consensus based on evidence from both the UK and other countries, is that lockdowns are the most effective way of cutting transmission of the virus and thus reducing the number of deaths from Covid-19.” As such, the article claimed that the “overwhelming scientific consensus” was that lockdowns are the most effective measure to reduce both the transmission of Covid-19 and mortality due to the disease. The question for the Committee was whether the publication had taken care over the accuracy of this statement and in reporting that the complainant's statement had, accordingly, contained an inaccurate claim. 

10. The Committee acknowledged that a “consensus” did not necessarily imply that there was universal agreement regarding the effectiveness of lockdowns and their impact on Covid-19-related mortality, and that a few dissenting voices would not necessarily negate a consensus. However, the publication had described the scientific consensus as “overwhelming”, which suggested a high level of support within the scientific community “that lockdowns are the most effective way of cutting transmission of the virus and thus reducing the number of deaths from Covid-19”.

11. The publication had provided a number of studies and links to support its position. Whilst some of these links suggested lockdowns as an effective way to reduce transmission more generally, most did not describe the effect lockdowns had on deaths related to Covid-19 specifically. In addition, those that did reference mortality did not always have data that supported this finding but cited statements made by politicians or the opinions of scientists. Further, they did not specifically support the idea that lockdowns are the “most” effective way to reduce deaths.

12. The complainant had also provided links to scientific studies published in established scientific journals, which had concluded there was no clear association between lockdown and stay-at-home policies and a decrease in mortality rates relating to Covid-19.

13. Having considered the material provided by the publication, the Committee concluded that it had not been able to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of its claim that the complainant’s statement was “incorrect” and that “[t]he overwhelming scientific consensus, based on evidence from both the UK and other countries, is that lockdowns are the most effective way of cutting transmission of the virus and thus reducing the number of deaths from Covid-19”. As such, there was a breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point.

14. The inaccuracy about the scientific consensus on the efficacy of lockdowns related to a matter concerning public health. Furthermore, the publication’s statement was presented as a correction to the complainant’s statement on the issue. The inaccuracy was, therefore, significant and required correction under Clause 1(ii). The amendment proposed by the publication had not identified the respect in which the article had been inaccurate prior to its revision and so there was a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

15. The complainant suggested that the publication had presented opinion as fact regarding its claims about the effect of lockdowns on Covid-19-related mortality. The publication had stated that it was presenting a claim of fact regarding the existence of an “overwhelming […] consensus” on the efficacy of lockdowns in reducing mortality related to Covid-19, rather than making a comment or expressing an opinion. Notwithstanding the Committee’s finding on the accuracy of the claim, there was no failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture, and fact. Therefore, there was no breach of Clause 1(iv).

16. Regarding Clause 12, the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that she had been the only candidate whose statement was prefaced by such a paragraph. However, Clause 12 relates to the publication of irrelevant, pejorative, or prejudicial references to specific protected characteristics of an individual. The article included no such reference, and there was no breach of Clause 12.

Conclusions

17. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

18. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, 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.

19. The Committee found that the publication was unable to demonstrate that it had taken care over its claim that there was an “overwhelming scientific consensus” regarding the effect of lockdowns in reducing virus-related mortality. Whilst there were studies and claims from politicians in support of lockdowns as an effective way to reduce mortality related to Covid-19, the publication had not demonstrated that there was an “overwhelming […] consensus” that supported correcting the complainant’s view in this way. The Committee noted the importance of accurately reporting claims about Covid-19 and in reporting the matters relating to elections. Taking all factors into consideration, the Committee concluded that a correction was an appropriate remedy to the breach of Clause 1. The correction should make clear that the publication had been unable to demonstrate that “overwhelming scientific consensus” existed in favour of lockdowns reducing mortality from Covid-19, thus demonstrating that the complainant was incorrect.

20. The correction should appear as part of the online article, where the article did not appear in print. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without further amendment, the correction on the article should be published immediately beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the correction should be published as a footnote which explains the amendments that have been made. The wording should also be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

 

Date complaint received: 25/04/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 11/08/2021