Ruling

11822-21 Law v express.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      13th April 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee  11822-21 Law v express.co.uk


Summary of Complaint

1. John Law complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Plans to dump radioactive Fukushima water in Pacific blasted as ‘appalling’”, published on 24th April 2021.

2. The article reported on plans by the Japanese government for the disposal of “RADIOACTIVE waste water from the decaying Fukushima nuclear power plant” into the Pacific ocean. It stated that in “an exclusive interview with [the publication], Dr Paul Dorfman, a senior researcher at University College London and founder of the Nuclear Consulting Group (NCG), described the move as ‘appalling’”. The article said that “Japan's Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, has said the water would only be dumped after being treated to remove radioactive isotopes. However, the plans do not include the filtering of tritium, a dangerous isotope known to raise the risk of cancer.” The plans described filtering the waste so that it was diluted to harmless levels, however “there is concern that the tritium - which is difficult to remove - will end up in the food chain”. The article further reported that the researcher had explained that “’The pollution will bio-accumulate in the marine environment, concentrating in flora and fauna, and in the people who eat the local fish and shellfish’.”

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because tritium does not accumulate in the marine environment and cannot reach dangerous levels in either marine life or humans as it has a short biological half-life. The complainant said that this was an accepted scientific fact. The complainant also said the article was inaccurate as the researcher was not employed by the university at the time of publication of the article and that he had only ever held an honorary position. Finally, the complainant said the article was misleading in quoting this researcher without making clear that he had received funding from Greenpeace, which the complainant said was for his efforts in opposing nuclear power.

4. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1 because the quote included in the article had been clearly attributed to the researcher. It explained that it had first updated the article on 2nd November 2021 and had added the following footnote:

An earlier version of this article reported that pollution will bio-accumulate in the marine environment, concentrating in flora and fauna, and in the people who eat the local fish and shellfish. In fact, tritium does not bio-accumulate due to its short biological half-life and its physical and chemical properties mean it does not concentrate up the food chain. Prior to release in the ocean, the level of tritium in the wastewater will be at or below 1/40th of the Japanese Government’s  permitted  regulatory  level  and  1/7th  of  the  World  Health Organisation's guideline for safe drinking water. We are happy to set the record straight.          

5. It published a standalone correction on 5th November 2021 on the Corrections and Clarifications page, which read as follows:

On Saturday 24 April, 2021, we published an article "Plans to dump radioactive Fukushima water in Pacific blasted as 'appalling'." The report quoted Dr. Paul Dorfman, a senior researcher at University College London, as stating that the pollution from the disposal of the treated Fukushima wastewater "will bio-accumulate in the marine environment, concentrating in flora and fauna, and in the people who eat the local fish and shellfish.” We now acknowledge that this was not correct. In fact, tritium, the only radioactive isotope not removed from the wastewater in the filtration treatment process prior to release, does not bio-accumulate due to its short biological half-life in fish and humans, and its specific physical and chemical properties mean that it dilutes rather than concentrates up the food chain. Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen, which occurs naturally in the environment and is present at low concentrations in rain and sea-water. It is only weakly radioactive and only dangerous to humans at very high doses.

6. This correction received a separate complaint and the publication decided to remove it and reinstate the original article with a footnote on 15 November 2021 that said:

This article has been edited since first publication. An earlier version of this article reported that tritium pollution may bio-accumulate in the marine environment, concentrating in flora and fauna, and in the people who eat the local fish and shellfish. However, other experts believe tritium does not bio-accumulate due to its short biological half-life and its physical and chemical properties.

Express.co.uk acknowledge that there are differing and opposing views on this topic and would like to make clear that this article explores the views and opinion of Dr Paul Dorfman.

7. Whilst the publication accepted that the scientific consensus is that tritium does not pose a threat to human health, it said that the risk of tritium entering the food chain and being consumed by humans was not zero. The publication supplied correspondence from the researcher who had been quoted in the article, received after the article had been published, in which he had set out the basis for his comments as well as peer-reviewed papers that the publication said supported his view. It also referred to research by the reporter, although this was not provided to IPSO. It said that, on reflection, it had been inaccurate to say that the opinion of the researcher was ‘incorrect’ and so it had decided to remove the correction. It also provided correspondence with “Kick Nuclear” that it said supported the view of the researcher but, as the comment was received after the publication of the article, it was not included in the article.          

8. In addition, the publication noted that the quote from the researcher did not specifically refer to tritium, but instead raised a concern about the bioaccumulation of “pollution” more generally. Nevertheless, the publication accepted that it might be inferred that the generic reference to “pollution” was a reference to tritium and, for this reason, it had amended the article and added the above footnote to make clear the article “explore[d] the views” of the researcher.

9. The publication said the researcher was a consistent, reliable, and trusted source of information to the publication and the reporter had no cause to doubt his credentials. It said that the researcher had served as Secretary to the UK Government scientific advisory Committee Examining Radiation Risk from Internal Emitters (CERRIE), and co-authored the Final Report, which included a substantive section on tritium risk.

10. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1 with regards to the description of the individual as a researcher at UCL, which it said was not inaccurate even if the position held was an honorary one. In addition, the publication provided a link to an article published by UCL which referred to the researcher as an “Honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL Energy Institute”.

11. Regarding the complainant’s concern that the article failed to mention the researcher’s links to Greenpeace and the funding he said he received to promote an anti-nuclear position, the publication said this information was not relevant. As such, omitting it did not make the article inaccurate or misleading.

12. The complainant said that CERRIE was not a success and involved non-mainstream scientific sources in policy formulation. He also disagreed that the claim in the article that “’pollution will bio-accumulate in the marine environment’” represented an opinion as suggested by the publication. He maintained that it was a clear statement of fact. He said the researcher had used the word “will” rather than “may”, indicating that he was certain of the position. Further, given that it was presented as coming from a senior academic, the complainant said readers would take it as a fact, not an opinion.

13. The publication acknowledged that the original article had used the term “will” rather than “may” and so amended the correction to reflect this:

An earlier version of this article reported that tritium pollution will bio-accumulate in the marine environment, concentrating in flora and fauna, and in the people who eat the local fish and shellfish. However, other experts believe tritium does not bio-accumulate due to its short biological half-life and its physical and chemical properties.

Express.co.uk acknowledge that there are differing and opposing views on this topic and would like to make clear that this article explores the views and opinion of Dr Paul Dorfman.

Relevant Clause 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

14. The publication had accepted – given that the article had mostly referred to tritium – that the reference to “the pollution will bio-accumulate” might have been understood to suggest that tritium itself bioaccumulates, whether or not that had been the intention of the researcher who had been quoted. The Committee first considered the care that had been taken by the publication over the claim that “pollution will bioaccumulate”.

15. The Committee noted that the article under complaint presented a perspective on a matter of scientific controversy. The publication had spoken to an individual who was trusted by it as a reliable source of information, and it was aware of his credentials in the area of tritium and nuclear waste. While the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that CERRIE, the committee which the source had served, included non-mainstream scientific sources, it was not in dispute that it had provided advice to Government regarding tritium. the Committee considered that the publication had established that the complainant had relevant credentials to express a view about tritium bioaccumulation; in presenting his position on this issue it had not failed to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information in doing so.

16. The Committee then considered whether the statement that pollution, namely tritium “will bio- accumulate”, was significantly inaccurate so as to require correction. During the course of the investigation, the publication had demonstrated that there was a measure of disagreement regarding the potential of tritium to bioaccumulate. It linked three studies that it said supported the researcher’s viewpoint, including one that stated, “Tritium was bioaccumulated into organic tritium in phytoplankton cells. Linear uptake of tritium into mussels indicates a potential for biomagnification”. Where the publication had been able to demonstrate that there is a basis for such a viewpoint and where the researcher’s quote had been reported in full, the Committee found that including the quote in the article – which had clearly been attributed to the researcher – did not amount to a breach of Clause 1.

17. With respect to the description of the individual as a “researcher”, it was not in dispute that he had held a position at UCL, and the Committee did not consider that any difference between being a “researcher” and an “Honorary Senior Research Associate” was significant. There was no breach of Clause 1.

18. The Committee then considered whether it was misleading that the article did not disclose the researcher’s affiliation with Greenpeace. The Committee noted that the researcher and the group with which he was associated had received a grant from Greenpeace for a project to influence UK and pan-EU policy and community away from risky and uneconomic nuclear power and towards a more sustainable and cost-effective renewable and energy efficient future. In light of the nature of the grant, omitting this information did not render the article inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

19. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial action required

20. N/A 

 

Date complaint received:  16/11/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  20/03/2023