Ruling

10762-21 Peer v thesundaytimes.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      7th July 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 10762-21 Peer v thesundaytimes.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Marisa Peer complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, via a representative, that thesundaytimes.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Celebrity therapist Marisa Peer makes millions from ‘dangerous’ therapy”, published on 2 May 2021.

2. The online article reported on the rapid transformational therapy (RTT) created and promoted by the complainant and her company, More Than Enough. It reported that the complainant was a “celebrity self-help guru with no proper medical qualifications”, who had “trained others to use a technique that ‘breaks’ clients” and who promoted RTT as a “miracle cure for problems including eating disorders, depression and infertility”. It went on to report that “for two decades [the complainant] has been quoted as an expert ‘psychologist’ and ‘doctor’, despite being neither”. It further noted that the complainant had once been described by a separate publication as a “winning sports psychologist” although she has “never qualified as one”, adding that “misquoting the 15-year-old article, [the complainant] refers to herself as ‘Britain’s best therapist’”.

3. The article included comments from an unnamed individual who had practised RTT and described it as “dangerous” in inexperienced hands. It also included comments from an unnamed user, who said that the sessions were sold to her by the therapist as “a miracle cure” and “left her feeling ‘broken inside’”; she urged others to be wary of RTT and called for tighter regulation. The article went on to report that the claims made for RTT were “not supported by evidence” and have “prompted warnings from NHS England and the government”. The article included statements from the national director for mental health at NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), with the latter stating that “it was not aware of any evidence that demonstrates the therapeutic effectiveness” of RTT. The article also reported that the complainant had been “accused by psychologists of giving false hope to the desperate” and included the comments of two named academics in the field of psychology and the deputy chief executive of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). One academic said they were “agog” at claims the therapy could cure complex mental illness rapidly, which they described as “morally wrong” and “nonsense”, adding “in terms of current understanding of psychological problems like anxiety and depression… it had absolutely no foundation in what we understand about these problems.” It further stated that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) was “looking into claims on [the complainant’s] website” and reported that the “in a call with a prospective student, an RTT sales adviser” had said the courses “’normally’ cost ‘up to “12,000’.The article concluded by stating that the complainant had “declined to comment”.

4. The complainant said that the article included numerous inaccuracies, in breach Clause 1 (Accuracy). The complainant disputed the accuracy of the claim that RTT was “dangerous”. She said that the therapy was safe and denied that the technique sought to “break” its clients. She said the article was misleading to report that she had “no proper medical qualifications”; the services she provided in the UK did not require licensing or medical qualifications. She said that the inclusion of this information compounded the misimpression that RTT was “dangerous”. Furthermore, the complainant denied that she had promoted RTT as a “miracle cure” and disputed that the technique was “not supported by evidence”, noting it was currently the subject of an independent study by academics from the University of Central Lancashire, and her organisation had its own research team. She denied that she had been “accused by psychologists of giving false hope to the desperate”. She also disputed that RTT training “courses ‘normally’ cost “up to £12,000”; she said they never cost more than approximately £9,000.

5. In addition, the complainant said the article was inaccurate to report that the technique had “prompted warnings from NHS England and the government”; neither had issued any warnings specifically related to RTT, nor could the statements included within the article reasonably be characterised as “warnings”. She also said that the article was inaccurate to report that the ASA were “looking into” claims made on her company’s website. Though she accepted that the advertising regulator had subsequently launched an investigation into her organisation, she said that it had not yet done so at the time the article was published.

6. The complainant said the article was inaccurate to report that she had been “quoted as an expert ‘psychologist’ and ‘doctor’”; she had never asked to be quoted as such. She also said that the article was inaccurate to quote a description provided by a separate, named publication (“winning sports psychologist”); she had never claimed to be qualified as a psychologist, nor was a qualification required for the practice of hypnotherapy or similar therapies.

7. Finally, she said that the article was inaccurate to report that she “declined to comment”. She had received a request from the publication for comment 48 hours prior to publication, with a representative at the time confirming receipt and indicating that they would respond in due course.

8. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It said that the suggestion that RTT was “dangerous” and “breaks” clients was clearly presented as the personal view of a former student. It said that the use of single quotation marks in the headline was a standard journalistic practise, indicating that a claim had been made. They were statements of opinion, which the text of the article made clear, and the publication was entitled to report it.

9. While the publication accepted that the practice of hypnotherapy required no medical qualification, it noted that the complainant had previously described RTT as “beyond hypnosis” which could assist with a multitude of clinical and medical conditions. Taken in this context, where vulnerable people seeking assistance may avoid more appropriate medical treatments, the publication said it was appropriate and necessary for the article to raise the issue of medical qualifications and to make clear the complainant had none.

10. The publication maintained that it was entitled to report that the complainant had been wrongly quoted for two decades as an expert “psychologist” and “doctor”, despite being neither. In order to demonstrate this, the newspaper provided a number of articles from a range of publications from 2006 to 2016. It also noted that the complainant had actively contributed to a number of these articles, with several referenced on the complainant’s own website, and these misdescriptions remained uncorrected.

11. The publication did not consider the article was inaccurate to report that the complainant had promoted RTT as a “miracle cure”. It noted that complainant’s website had repeatedly asserted that RTT could “heal” or “fix” complex conditions – including medical conditions – and that this could be achieved in one session. In addition, it noted that the unnamed former client had described RTT in such terms, stating: “What I was sold by [the therapist] was a miracle cure”.

12. Furthermore, the publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate or misleading in its reporting of the comments issued by psychologists; specific concerns about RTT had been expressed by a number of experts with relevant experience in this field. The publication provided the full responses from those quoted, as well as the comments provided by other professionals, to support its position in relation to this point.

13. In addition, the publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate to characterise the statements issued by NHS England and the DHSC as “warnings”, and to report that RTT was “not supported by evidence”. The publication had approached both authorities with specific enquires about RTT prior to publication, with the statement issued by NHS England “urg[ing] the public to be extremely wary of untested expensive therapies provided by charlatans that claim to cure serious conditions such as anxiety, eating disorders or addiction in one session” and contrasted it with the services available through the NHS. It also noted that the DHSC statement made clear it was “not aware of any evidence that demonstrates the therapeutic effectiveness” of RTT and did “not currently recommend that RTT should be used in the treatment of any health condition”.

14. The publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate to report that the ASA was “looking into claims on [the complainant’s] website”. The publication had contacted the ASA on 22nd April, 10 days prior to the article’s publication, asking whether promotional material for RTT would “break their rules” and regulations. The following day, the ASA had responded saying that it could not comment on specific cases “without investigation”. However, following further correspondence with the reporter, on 28th April, 5 days before the article’s publication, the ASA then stated that “following internal discussions”, it was “currently assessing what next steps” it might take in relation to claims made. It also noted that the regulator had subsequently investigated and ruled on the claims made by the complainant’s organisation about RTT, concluding that the presentation of RTT on its website as a stand-alone therapy for addressing multiple health conditions – including addictions, physical health problems and post-traumatic stress disorder – was misleading and could not be substantiated.

15. In relation to the complainant’s concerns about the reported costs of RTT training, the newspaper said that an undercover reporter, posing as a potential RTT trainee, had contacted the complainant’s company on multiple occasions prior to publication to discuss exploring the course. On the issue of course fees, the reporter was told: “In terms of funding the training to get to the level of the RTT certification, normally it would have been up to £12,000, but with this new course in the form of blended learning, to get to the level of RTT certification, it would be £5,850.” The publication said it was entitled to rely upon the figures provided by the individual at the complainant’s organisation who was responsible for liaising with potential trainees.

16. Finally, the publication maintained that the complainant had been given a full and fair opportunity to respond. It had contacted the complainant on 29th April, four days before the article’s publication, via the email address provided on the complainant’s website specifically for press enquiries. This enquiry set out what the article was about, asked for the complainant’s response, put a number of specific questions to her, and included a deadline for the following day. When no response was received by the publication, this request was forwarded to a separate address given on the complainant’s website. To this, the publication received an acknowledgment. This made clear that that the enquiry had been received by the complainant’s organisation, they were looking into it and they would be back in touch shortly. However, the publication did not receive a response to this request despite following up a further three times before the article’s publication. In such circumstances, the publication said it was reasonable to infer and report that the complainant “declined to comment”.

17. Prior to IPSO’s investigation, the publication had offered to update the online article to record the complainant’s position, and proposed wording based upon the correspondence between the two parties:

"RTT is not dangerous, is not generally regarded as such and has never been the subject of any Government warning to that effect. It is not designed or intended to 'break' clients. Equally it is not a miracle cure and we cannot guarantee that it will work for everyone. But there are many thousands of practitioners and therapists utilising RTT and many thousands of people who have benefitted from it. In order to practise as a therapist in the UK no medical qualifications or licences are legally required. RTT therapists do not diagnose patients or offer any other services that would require licensing or medical qualifications. We believe RTT training is far more comprehensive than that offered by the majority of hypnotherapy training providers. The minimum requirement is 230 hours of rigorous training, which includes four livestreamed training days, six observed practice sessions, six masterclasses, four mentoring sessions, submission of a robust readiness-to-practise portfolio and submission of a case study, consultation notes and audio for appraisal and validation. If students do not meet the required standard they do not pass. We also have a programme of ongoing CPD to ensure standards are maintained, and mentoring and on-going training and support for therapists."

18. The complainant, however, did not consider this sufficient and requested the removal of the online article. The matter was passed to the Complaints Committee for adjudication

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

19. The complainant said it was inaccurate to describe RTT as “dangerous” and to report that it sought to “break” its users. While the complainant clearly disagreed with these assessments of RTT, the newspaper was entitled to report the views which had been expressed by others and the accounts of their experiences of the therapy provided it took care not to mislead readers in doing so. In this case, the article had, in the view of the Committee, accurately distinguished these descriptions as comments on RTT based upon the experiences (first-hand or second-hand) of those quoted in the article, rather than presenting them as statements of fact. The headline used quotation marks around the term “dangerous”, which indicated that it was a claim that had been made, and the text of the article also included a quote from an unnamed former practitioner who had described the therapy in such terms, and in which she gave her account that she had “watched clients ‘break’” and “felt completely out of [her] depth” whilst using RTT. There was no failure to take care in relation to the presentation of these claims in breach of Clause 1.

20. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that she had promoted RTT as a “miracle cure”. The Committee noted that the paragraph in which the statement was made reported that the complainant had sold training courses for RTT “…on the premise that RTT can fix several ailments in one session”. In circumstances where RTT marketing materials asserted that the therapy can “heal” and “fix” a number of complex medical conditions, and where several academics and institutions in the sector had expressed concerns about the claims made, the Committee considered that the publication had provided a sufficient basis for reporting that the complainant had promoted RTT as a “miracle cure”. There was no breach of Clause 1 in regards to this.

21. The Committee next turned to the complainant’s concerns that the article reported that she was “accused by psychologists of giving false hope to the desperate”; RTT was “not supported by evidence”; and that the therapy had “prompted warnings from NHS England and the government”. During the course of IPSO’s investigation into the complaint, the publication had supplied responses which had been provided by a number of academics and institutions in the field of psychology who had expressed concerns about the claims made in regard to RTT’s effectiveness and the vulnerability of individuals seeking treatment. Taking account of these responses, and those included in the article, the Committee did not consider that it was inaccurate to report that psychologists had accused the complainant of giving false hope to the desperate. The Committee noted that the publication had approached NHS England and the government department, DHSC, seeking their comments on RTT prior to publication of the article. In circumstances where, in response, the statement provided by the former urged the public to be “extremely wary of untested expensive therapies” and the latter stated it was “not aware of any evidence” that demonstrated the effectiveness of RTT, the Committee did not consider that the article was inaccurate to characterise the statements issued as “warnings” or to report that the claims made about RTT were not “supported by evidence”. There was no breach of Clause 1 in regard to these points.

22. The Committee then considered whether the article was inaccurate to report that the ASA “were looking” into claims made on the complainant’s company’s website. In circumstances where a member of the ASA had provided a statement prior to the article’s publication that said that it was “currently assessing what next steps” it may take in relation to the claims made “following an internal discussion”, the Committee considered that there was adequate basis to report that the ASA were “looking into” it; there was no failure to take care under Clause 1 (i)and no published inaccuracy requiring correction under Clause 1(ii). There was no breach of Clause 1.

23. While the Committee acknowledged that a qualification was not required to practice hypnotherapy or similar therapies, it did not consider that reporting the complainant had “no proper medical qualifications” rendered the article inaccurate or misleading where it also considered the regulation of therapy and counselling, and where it was not in dispute that the complainant did not have medical qualifications. Although the complainant said that she had never described herself as an expert ‘psychologist’ and ‘doctor’, she did not dispute that she had been previously described by others as such on numerous occasions, including in articles cited on the complainant’s website; the inclusion of this information did not render the article inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1.

24. The article had reported that the RTT training courses “normally” cost “up to £12,000”, when the complainant said they never cost more than £9,000. The newspaper was entitled to report the figure provided to its reporter by a member of the complainant’s organisation. In any event, the Committee did not consider the difference in these figures to be significant within the overall context of the article, given its focus on the efficacy of RTT. There was no breach of Clause 1.

25. Finally, the complainant said that the article was inaccurate to report she had “declined to comment”. It was not in dispute that the complainant had been afforded the opportunity to provide comments on multiple occasions before publication of the article; a reporter had contacted the complainant about the matter on five separate occasions over the course of four days. In circumstances where she had exercised her right not to provide comment despite being given adequate time and opportunity to do so, it was not inaccurate or misleading for the publication to state that the complainant had “declined to comment”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion(s)

26. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

27. N/A


Date complaint received: 13/10/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 22/06/2022