Ruling

09182-21 Cassidy v Jersey Evening Post

    • Date complaint received

      19th May 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09182-21 Cassidy v Jersey Evening Post

Summary of Complaint

1. Duncan Cassidy complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Jersey Evening Post breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Vaccinations are not there to use when the horse has bolted. They create that bolt in the first place”, published on 20 July 2021.

2. The article was a comment piece on vaccination uptake in Jersey. The article asked readers to “think back to Christmas where a thousand cases in Jersey resulted in around 60 people in hospital. Roughly double that number of cases has resulted in around a dozen hospitalisations”. The article began by referring to the case of “an unvaccinated man in his 40s with no underlying health conditions [who] died of coronavirus”. It also discussed the effects of vaccinations on coronavirus transmissions, stating that they reduced “the risk of transmission, but also reduc[ed] the number of unvaccinated people in the Island among whom new strains can mutate”; “that EVERY mutation is currently significantly clamped down on by the vaccine”; and that “by strangling that petri dish of people, we’re reducing the chance of a new vaccine-evading strain emerging”. The article also reported that the risks of taking the vaccine “when compared with crossing a road or taking a paracetamol – are equally miniscule”.

3 The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said it was inaccurate to report that the previous Christmas “a thousand cases in Jersey resulted in around 60 people in hospital”. The complainant provided a Freedom of Information response from the Government of Jersey which stated that between 1 February 2020 and 17 June 2021 there “were 40 admissions where clinical codes suggest either only acute care for COVID-19 was provided or the direct symptoms resulting from COVID-19, or where it has not been possible to conclusively state whether another condition required during these admissions from coding alone”.

4. The complainant said that the publication should not have published that the man had died of coronavirus a few days after his death, and that this should have only been published after an inquest which officially confirmed the cause of death had taken place. The complainant also said it was offensive to use the man’s death to promote the uptake of vaccines.

5. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that vaccinating people was “reducing the risk of transmission, but also reducing the number of unvaccinated people in the Island among whom new strains can mutate”; “that EVERY mutation is currently significantly clamped down on by the vaccine”; and that “by strangling that petri dish of people, we’re reducing the chance of a new vaccine-evading strain emerging”. He said that there was no evidence to support these claims as it gave the impression that coronavirus did not mutate in vaccinated people, and the prevalence of the Delta variant in vaccinated people demonstrated that this was not correct, and that this variant had, therefore, not been “significantly clamped down on”.

6. The complainant also said it was a breach of Clause 1 to state that the risks of taking the vaccine “when compared with crossing a road or taking a paracetamol – are equally miniscule”. He said that as of 2 August, the UK yellow card scheme had found there to be 1,512 deaths and 1,102,228 suspected adverse reactions after taking the vaccine, He said that the vaccine, therefore, could not be compared to the risks of taking paracetamol or crossing the road. The complainant also said that the article was clearly biased towards one opinion, and that the publication should not be able to publish conjecture as it did not know what the future would hold.

7. The complainant also said that article breached Clause 12 as he believed it discriminated, ridiculed and segregated people who had chosen not to take the coronavirus vaccine. He also considered the tern “anti-vaxxer” to be discriminatory in itself.

8. The publication said, in its first round of correspondence, that it was not inaccurate to report that “a thousand cases in Jersey resulted in 60 cases in hospital” as it had received these figures from the government. It did, however, say that the figures could have been presented better as the figure of 60 cases did not distinguish between those who tested positive for Covid whilst in hospital, and those who required acute treatment for Covid. It said that the figures from the complainant’s Freedom of Information request were not available at the time of publication, and that it was reasonable to rely on the Covid data reported by the local government which referred to 60 cases. It said, however, that the publication was entitled to compare the statistics roundly as they were like for like, and in the context of the article it was not significantly misleading as the point being made was that substantially fewer people were found to have the virus in hospital after the vaccination program than before.

9. The publication said that, whilst the inquest had not yet officially determined the cause of death of the man referred to in the article at the time of publication, it did not consider it to be inaccurate to report that he had died of Covid. It supplied a press release that had been issued by the government which was titled “Covid 19 death at Jersey General Hospital”, and stated that a “patient who had tested positive for COVID-19 has died at Jersey General Hospital. The patient was an adult under 50 years of age and not classed as clinically vulnerable” and contained a quote from the Deputy Medical Officer of Health who “emphasise[d] the importance of being vaccinated to be protected against COVID”. In addition, the newspaper said it had also been in contact with a friend of the deceased who was aware he had contracted Covid and that he was suffering severely with symptoms before his death. The newspaper said a number of other people close to the deceased also corroborated this and had stated that the man was unvaccinated. It noted that, after the publication of the article, the man’s death certificate had been released and his cause of death was listed as Covid.

10. The publication said that widely published scientific data made clear that it was accurate to report that vaccines reduced transmission and led to fewer mutations of the virus, and that at the time of publication the vaccines had “significantly clamped down on” every mutation. It said that as vaccinations reduce the rate of transmission, and as mutations are more likely with increased transmission, it followed that vaccines reduced the risk of mutation.

11. The publication, did, however, offer to publish a clarification on page 2 of the newspaper:

On 2O July, the JEP published a column by Gary Burgess headlined ‘Vaccinations are not there to use when the horse has bolted. They create that bolt in the first place’. In it, he wrote: ‘Every extra jab adds to the community cloak of protection. One by one, we’re collectively reducing the risk of transmission, but also reducing the number of unvaccinated people in the Island among whom new strains can mutate.’ The JEP is happy to clarify that, while vaccination reduces the risk of infection, and in doing so, helps reduce the risk of mutation, mutations can occur as a result of infection and transmission associated with both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Deputy medical of health Ivan Muscat explained: ‘Mutations can only happen when the virus multiplies. If a mutation confers an advantage that mutation will become more prevalent. Vaccination reduces infection and therefore reduces multiplication and mutation rates. Thus, the more we vaccinate the less opportunity there will be for mutations to arise which is one reason why mass vaccination is so important.’ Referring to the second wave of Covid-19 over Christmas 2020, the article also stated: ‘A thousand cases in Jersey resulted in 60 cases in hospital.’ The article quoted government statistics on the number of people who had been admitted to hospital and who also tested positive for Covid. A week after the article was published, the response to a freedom of information request was published which stated that between 1 February 2020 and 17 June 2021 40 people had been admitted to hospital because of Covid to receive treatment for its symptoms.

12. After further questioning, which was delayed due to exceptional circumstances, which meant that it was no longer possible for the journalist to provide information to the newspaper regarding his sources for the article, the newspaper was able to establish that the government had published inaccurate data on its website. It provided an email from a named government source, which had stated that the information relating to Covid hospitalisations had been displayed incorrectly on the government website; the correct position was that 29 people were in hospital and 66 were in care homes, but the government had inverted these figures. Once the publication became aware of the error, it amended its offered correction to state the following:

On 20 July, the JEP published a column by Gary Burgess headlined ‘Vaccinations are not there to use when the horse has bolted. They create that bolt in the first place’. In it, he wrote: ‘Every extra jab adds to the community cloak of protection. One by one, we’re collectively reducing the risk of transmission, but also reducing the number of unvaccinated people in the Island among whom new strains can mutate.’ The JEP is happy to clarify that, while vaccination reduces the risk of infection, and in doing so, helps reduce the risk of mutation, mutations can occur as a result of infection and transmission associated with both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Deputy medical of health Ivan Muscat explained: ‘Mutations can only happen when the virus multiplies. If a mutation confers an advantage that mutation will become more prevalent. Vaccination reduces infection and therefore reduces multiplication and mutation rates. Thus, the more we vaccinate the less opportunity there will be for mutations to arise which is one reason why mass vaccination is so important.’ Referring to the second wave of Covid-19 over Christmas 2020, the article also stated: ‘A thousand cases in Jersey resulted in 60 cases in hospital.’ The article quoted government statistics available on the gov.je website showing the number of people who had been admitted to hospital and who also tested positive for Covid. It came to light after publication, and as a result of the article, that this data on the government website was displaying incorrectly. The government has confirmed that the headings for hospital occupancy and care homes had been inadvertently switched and the table should have read that there were 66 cases in care homes and 29 in hospital, and not the other way around. The government corrected the mistake immediately after realising the error on its site. A week after the article was published, the response to a freedom of information request was published which stated that between 1 February 2020 and 17 June 2021 40 people had been admitted to hospital because of Covid to receive treatment for its symptoms.

13. The publication said that, in relation to the claim that the risks of taking the coronavirus vaccine had comparable risks to crossing a road or taking paracetamol, the reporter was entitled to express this opinion based upon the well documented data, including the Yellow Card Reporting referred to by the complainant. It said that, whilst there were known to be risks associated with vaccination, these risks were known to be small, as was the case with crossing the road or taking paracetamol. The publication also noted that the newspaper was entitled to be biased, and that the article was clearly marked as an opinion piece.

14. The publication did not consider Clause 12 to be engaged.

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

15. The article had reported that the previous Christmas “a thousand cases in Jersey resulted in around 60 people in hospital”. The information had been taken in good faith from an official government website and appeared to reflect what the government website has stated. The newspaper was entitled to rely on government statistics as a source of information, and there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information under Clause 1(i). The Committee did not consider it significantly inaccurate to report that Covid cases had “resulted in” people in hospital rather than reporting that they had been in hospital “with” the disease, where readers had long been familiar with the way Covid hospitalisations had been reported. After publication, however, the complainant provided a freedom of information request that stated that between 1 February 2020 and 17 June 2021, a longer period than “Christmas”, only 40 patients had been admitted for either acute care for Covid-19, its direct symptoms or where it was not possible to conclusively state this was not the only reason. After further investigation, it was established that the figures relied upon by the publication and published on the government website were inaccurate, and the true figure was under half of that reported. Where the article was drawing a comparison between “around 60” cases and a dozen, and the correct position was between 29 cases and a dozen, the inaccuracy was significant and required correction under Clause 1(ii).

16. The publication had offered a correction in its first substantive response to IPSO’s investigation. When further information came to light regarding the mistake on the government website, the publication amended the offered correction in line with this. The correction identified the original inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. This represented due promptness, and page 2 of the newspaper, where the article had originally been published on page 14, represented due prominence. Where the publication had offered a correction which put the correct position on record in its first substantive response, and amended I it as further information came to light, the Committee was satisfied that the offer was made in a sufficiently prompt manner. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

17. In the circumstances where the publication had been told by both a government press release a man had died of Covid, which had been repeated by multiple friends of the deceased, it was not a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information to report that he had died of Covid and was unvaccinated. Where the cause of death was later confirmed to be Covid on the man’s death certificate, there was no inaccuracy to correct. The Committee also made clear that the Editors’ Code does not address issues of taste and offence. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. The Committee noted that it was widely, albeit not universally, accepted that vaccines reduce the transmission of Covid-19, that lower levels of transmission reduce mutation rates, and that the vaccine leads to less severe cases of Covid. It therefore did not consider it inaccurate for the newspaper to report this, nor to describe the vaccine as “clamp[ing] down” on “EVERY” strain. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

19. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to compare the risks of taking the vaccine to those of crossing a road or taking a paracetamol. The Committee noted that the comparison did not state that there were no risks to taking the vaccine, but that they were comparable to other everyday activities that had extremely low levels of risk attached. Where the vast majority of people who take the Covid-19 vaccine suffer no long lasting or serious side-effects, the Committee did not consider it misleading to compare this to the risk of taking paracetamol or crossing the road. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. In addition, the complainant was concerned that the article was biased, and used conjecture. The Committee noted that the article was prominently labelled as an opinion piece and the Editors’ Code of Practice makes clear that the press has a right to publish the views of individuals, to be partisan, to give its own opinion and to campaign, as long as it takes care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. The Committee considered that the article distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact, and therefore there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. Finally, Clause 12 is designed to protect specific individuals mentioned by the press from discrimination based on their race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or any physical or mental illness or disability. Choosing not to take the Covid-19 vaccine is not a characteristic protected by the Code, and therefore there was no breach of Clause 12.

Conclusion(s)

22. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

23. The correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.


Date complaint received: 12/08/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 26/04/2022