Ruling

07939-21 Dix v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      20th January 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 07939-21 Dix v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. David Dix complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Alarm bells should be ringing over mass cycling”, published on 15 July 2021.

2. The article was a ‘notebook’ style column, in which the columnist gave her observations on a variety of subjects. Under the sub-heading “Covid excuse”, the columnist wrote about changes to hotel housekeeping services she had experienced during a recent holiday; she expressed doubt about the justification provided that these were due to Covid-19, noting that “[w]e now know the virus is not transmitted via surfaces”.

3. The article also appeared online, in substantially the same form.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, where the statement that “[w]e now know the [Covid-19] virus is not transmitted via surfaces” was contradicted by government advice, which states that: “Surfaces and belongings can also be contaminated with COVID-19, when people who are infected cough or sneeze near them or if they touch them. If you have COVID-19, there is a risk that you will spread the virus onto surfaces such as furniture, benches or door handles, even if you do not touch them directly. The next person to touch that surface may then become infected.”

5. The publication did not accept that stating that “[w]e now know the virus is not transmitted via surfaces” was a significant inaccuracy in need of correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).  It said that the alleged inaccuracy arose from a single sentence, taken out of context, and a reasonable reader would not have been misled. It also noted the context of the alleged inaccuracy; while it accepted that it was presented as a claim of fact, it appeared in a ‘notebook’ column, and the article was clearly distinguished as comment, rather than a factual news piece. The publication then noted that the tone of the column was sardonic, and was intended to convey the columnist’s view that some of the measures being taken to combat infection are excessive, ineffective and no longer justified by the science on which they claim to rely.

6. It supported this position by providing links to a mixture of sources, including academic studies, articles by epidemiologists, and US government advice from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). While the links and sources cited by the publication did not disprove that Covid-19 is transmitted via surfaces, they indicated that the risk of such transmission was extremely small, especially compared to airborne transmission of the virus. One such link stated that US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “‘now states that transmission through surfaces is “not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads’”; another source said that “[s]urface transmission, although possible, is not thought to be a significant risk”. The publication also said that the writer of the article was fully aware of the previous literature on the subject when writing the article, and had therefore taken care over its accuracy.

7. While the publication did not accept that the claim was significantly inaccurate and required correction, it accepted that the claim could have been worded more carefully. Therefore, 16 days after the article’s publication and 8 days after IPSO passed the newspaper the complaint, it published the following wording in its Corrections and Clarifications column, both online and in print:

We said that coronavirus "is not transmitted via surfaces" (Comment, July 15). While the latest scientific consensus is that the risk of surface transmission is extremely low, UK government advice is that such transmission remains possible and steps should be taken to avoid it

8. The publication also amended the online version of the article 15 days after the article’s publication, so that it read "[w]e now know that the risk of the virus being transmitted via surfaces is extremely low" rather than “[w]e now know the virus is not transmitted via surfaces”. During IPSO’s investigation, on 10 September 2021, it also added the following wording to the bottom of the amended online article:

The article was amended to take account of the following published clarification: We said that coronavirus "is not transmitted via surfaces" (Comment, July 15). While the latest scientific consensus is that the risk of surface transmission is extremely low, UK government advice is that such transmission remains possible and steps should be taken to avoid it

9. The complainant said that he did not accept that he had taken the alleged inaccuracy out of context, or that reasonable readers would not be misled by it. He further said that it was not relevant that the alleged inaccuracy was written by a columnist, rather than appearing in a news report.

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

10. The columnist had written that “we now know the virus is not transmitted via surfaces” and the newspaper accepted that, whilst it had appeared in a comment piece, it was a claim of fact. Nevertheless, the publication considered that readers would not be misled as to what the columnist meant. Whilst the Editors’ Code acknowledges that the press is entitled to publish the views of individuals, there remains an obligation under the Clause 1 to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.

11. The columnist’s claim was made in an irreverent, first-person ‘notebook’ style column.   The Committee further noted that the article was not a piece which focussed on the means by which Covid-19 can be transmitted and it did not attribute the claim to the findings of any particular study or research.  Rather, it was a claim made in a piece in which the columnist was questioning the reasons given by hotels for rooms not being ready in time for guests; it was her view that, given the level of risk presented by surface transmission, the measures being taken in response to Covid-19 were now being used by hotels as an excuse for poor service. The publication provided material which indicated that the risk of surface transmission of Covid-19 was far less significant than first understood and noted that at least one public health organisation had acknowledged that surface transmission was not a “common” way in which the virus was transmitted. 

12. The columnist had taken account of the views expressed in this material prior to publication and the Committee noted that it supported the argument she had advanced.  The publication had, therefore, taken care as required by Clause 1(i) and given the context in which the claim had been made and the nature of the article, the inaccuracy was not significant so as to require correction under Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the action taken by the publication to add further clarification to the article by way of addressing the complainant’s concerns.

Conclusion(s)

13. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

14. N/A


Date complaint received: 21/07/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 21/12/2021