Ruling

07870-16 Taylor v The Sun on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      8th December 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 6 Children, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07870-16 Taylor v The Sun on Sunday

Summary of complaint

1. Anthony Taylor complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 6 (Children), Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an online article headlined “’Doc’ Death”, published on 7 February 2016.

2. The article reported that the complainant had sold a “potentially lethal home-made bleach solution” to parents who were using it to treat autism in children. It said that Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS), which he sold on his website, contained sodium chlorite and hydrochloric acid, which combined to form chlorine dioxide, a type of bleach. It said that the substance can cause nausea, ulcers and vomiting, and had been linked to at least one death in Mexico. The article stated that an autism campaigner had contacted the newspaper and alleged that the complainant was “touting a cure”, so a reporter had telephoned the complainant claiming to be the worried father of a six-year-old child with autism. The article said that the complainant had not claimed that MMS cured autism, but he had said that “a lot of [his] clients use it for autistic children”. The article said that after the telephone call, the reporter had visited the complainant “at his £700,000 home”, and he had said “the only problem is I don’t have the skull and crossbones on so legally I have done nothing wrong”. The article noted that the Food Standards Agency had said that MMS “should not be sold as a supplement”, and was accompanied by a comment piece in which a doctor said that harmful autism treatments such as MMS were a “form of child abuse”.

3. The complainant said that he had sold MMS as a water purification aid, not as a cure for autism. He expressed concern that the article, and particularly its headline, had wrongly implied that he had harmed or abused children, and had been responsible for killing a child. He said that chlorine dioxide is commonly used to purify water and it is found in tap water; it is dangerous when used in large amounts, but he had only ever advised that it should be taken one to five drops at a time, diluted in water. He said that none of his clients had ever complained about his product or reported the matter to the police.

4. The complainant considered that the newspaper had attempted to entrap him by posing as a father of a child with autism. The undercover reporter had asked him if MMS was the product used by Kerri Rivera, an American who promoted chlorine dioxide as a cure for autism, and the complainant had said yes, and that three of his clients had had some success with his product. The complainant accepted that he should not have said this, but he had wanted to help the man. He considered that he had made clear that he did not know how to treat an autistic child using MMS.

5. The complainant also considered that the article had inaccurately stated that he owned a £700,000 house. In fact, he lived with his mother in her house.

6. The newspaper said that its reporter had been contacted by a woman who campaigns against dangerous cures for autism. She had heard reports from other parents that the complainant was selling such a cure, and she considered that he could be the first person to be manufacturing the product in the UK. The campaigner provided a recording of her telephone conversation with the complainant in which she asked him about MMS because she wanted to follow the “Kerri Rivera protocol” to treat her autistic daughter. During the telephone call, the complainant told her that he was not a “specialist in autism”, but that he did get “a lot of people coming to [him] for it”. He said that MMS was a form of bleach, “which sounds horrendous”, and there was a “part of [him] that completely hates it”, but that he also understood that “it works”. He then explained how the treatment worked and the potential side effects. He said that the dosage should be reduced at any sign of nausea or diarrhoea, and that most people found the product “easy to work with”; he quoted the price for two bottles.

7. The newspaper noted that the Food Standards Agency had warned against taking MMS as a supplement as it can be “harmful”. It said that it and other publications had previously published stories about MMS being imported from America and sold to British people as an autism treatment online, but the complainant was potentially the first person to be manufacturing the chemical in Britain. It considered that there was a clear public interest in investigating the claims about the complainant further, and it was necessary for a reporter to pose as a parent of an autistic child because a straightforward approach would not yield truthful responses. The decision to engage in subterfuge was made by the Acting News Editor with clearance from the newspaper’s legal department.

8. The newspaper provided the recording and transcript of the reporter’s conversation with the complainant. During the conversation, the complainant confirmed that he made MMS himself. He said that he had no first-hand experience of using MMS to treat autism, but that a lot of his clients had used the product. He said “I can’t really say too much about it because obviously I’d get into trouble…as soon as I can say oh you can treat this and this with it, it’s dangerous territory – especially with only earning a few quid on it”. He went on to say that he was “relatively new” to the treatment, but that all he could do was “supply you with a good product”, and he quoted the price. He noted that like his other clients who had used the product to treat autism, the undercover reporter was from London, so “word’s getting around so hopefully it will help”.

9. The newspaper said that the reporter had followed up the telephone call by visiting the complainant at his home where he admitted that he was no longer selling MMS. The newspaper also provided an email from the local Trading Standards authority, which said that one of its officers had visited the complainant who had confirmed that he had stopped selling the product and had disposed of his stock. The newspaper considered that the response from Trading Standards demonstrated that the publication of the story was justified in the public interest.

10. The newspaper noted that the article had not asserted that the complainant was personally linked to the death in Mexico, and that it was a doctor’s opinion that administering bleach to cure autism was a “form of child abuse”. Although the newspaper did not consider that its presentation of the story had been misleading, it amended the article’s headline to read “Exposed: Businessman peddles deadly bleach touted as a cure for kids’ autism”. The newspaper did not consider that the reference to value of the complainant’s house was significant, but it offered to amend the reference if requested.

Relevant Code provisions

11. 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 6 (Children)

i. All pupils should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.

ii. They must not be approached or photographed at school without permission of the school authorities.

iii. Children under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents.

iv. Children under 16 must not be paid for material involving their welfare, nor parents or guardians for material about their children or wards, unless it is clearly in the child's interest.

v. Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child's private life.

Clause 9 (Reporting of crime)

i. Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.

ii. Particular regard should be paid to the potentially vulnerable position of children who witness, or are victims of, crime. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)

i. The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.

ii. Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

The public interest

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.
  • There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
  • The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will or will become so.
  • Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

Findings of the Complaints Committee

12. To comply with the Code, the newspaper had to demonstrate that it was reasonable to believe that subterfuge would uncover material that was in the public interest, that the level of subterfuge employed was proportionate to the public interest identified, and that the material required could not be obtained by open means.

13. The newspaper had been informed by an autism campaigner that the complainant was potentially the first person in the UK to be manufacturing a product sold as a dangerous treatment for autism. She provided a recording of their conversation in which the complainant appeared to be happy to sell MMS to a parent who was going to use it to treat autism in their child. During the conversation, he acknowledged that MMS was a form of bleach, described how it was administered, claimed that he had heard reports that “it works”, and gave a price. The newspaper had also noted that the Food Standards Agency had previously issued a warning against taking MMS as a supplement.

14. There was a clear public interest in protecting the heath of autistic children by carrying out an investigation to confirm the campaigner’s findings and to establish whether MMS was being manufactured in the UK. It was reasonable for the newspaper to conclude that it could not have verified the complainant’s practices by open means.

15. The subterfuge had involved the reporter misrepresenting himself during one eight-minute telephone call in which he had claimed to be the father of the child previously mentioned to the complainant by the autism campaigner. He had not presented an involved backstory, and he had not met with the complainant face to face. The Committee considered that this level of subterfuge was proportionate to the public interest identified.

16. The recording of the conversation demonstrated that the complainant was manufacturing chlorine dioxide himself, and was selling it to a parent in the knowledge that it was to be used to treat their autistic child. There was a clear public interest in reporting the complainant’s practices in order to protect the health of autistic children. The newspaper had justified its methods, and its decision to publish the material obtained. There was no breach of Clause 10.

17. The complainant sold MMS as a water purification aid on his website. However, the recordings of his conversations with the autism campaigner and the undercover reporter demonstrated that he had also sold it to parents who were looking to treat their autistic children with the product, and he had claimed to have heard reports that treatment was successful. The article had made clear that he had not claimed that MMS cured autism during his conversation with the undercover reporter. The newspaper had not given a significantly misleading impression of the complainant’s actions; and there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

18. The Committee noted the complainant’s particular concern that the article and its headline had implied that he had abused children and had been responsible for a child’s death. However, the headline needed to be read in context with the article itself, which explained that chlorine dioxide had been linked to at least one death in Mexico; it had not suggested that anyone had died as a result of being administered MMS which had been manufactured and sold to them by the complainant. The headline was not therefore significantly misleading. Furthermore, the article had not stated that the complainant had abused children. The newspaper was entitled to publish the doctor’s opinion that administering MMS as an autism treatment was “child abuse”. There was no suggestion that the complainant himself had treated children with the product. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on these points.

19. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant did not own the house in which he lived, this was not a significant point in the context of this article. It did not therefore require a correction under the terms of the Code. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The complainant had not raised a concern which engaged the terms of Clause 6 and Clause 9. The Committee did not consider these aspects of the complaint further.

Conclusion

21. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

22. N/A

Date complaint received: 12/08/2016
Date decision issued: 21/11/2016