Ruling

21877-23 Wieser v Mail Online

  • Complaint Summary

    Anthony Wieser complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Why LOCKDOWNS may be to blame for bed bug plague”, published on 21 October 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      14th March 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 21877-23 Wieser v Mail Online


Summary of Complaint

1. Anthony Wieser complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Why LOCKDOWNS may be to blame for bed bug plague”, published on 21 October 2023.

2. The article – which appeared online only – reported on a “rapid rise” in bed bug callouts, and said, in its opening sentence, that “Covid lockdowns may be behind the surge in bed bug outbreaks in the UK, experts have warned”. It then reported that a “lull in travel activity during the pandemic inevitably slowed the spread of the insects, which can be picked up in hotels, public transport and restaurants. But a return to pre-pandemic norms, with their primary means of transit often being in suitcases, has encouraged their resurgence helping them spread faster, it is claimed”.

3. The article reported a statement given by a “technical manager at British Pest Control Association (BPCA)”: “’Reports of bed bug activity tend to increase in the summer as people travel more. The lack of travel during Covid lockdowns meant bed bug issues were few and far between, so it's not surprising we're now seeing a rapid rise in call outs’”. It also reported on a statement from an “entomologist at the IHU (medical research centre connected to hospitals) in Marseille, [who] told a French newspaper: ‘The spread has been going on for years now. There was a lull with the lockdown due to the Covid pandemic, then an upturn over the last two years with tourism back in full swing as people want to enjoy themselves’”.

4. Toward the end of the article, a named professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine was quoted as having said: “’'It's because the weather has been so mild and we've had an extended summer, and most insects like warmth and humidity because then they can reproduce rapidly. So I think the weather has extended the season for different insects, including bed bugs.’” The article then said that:

“[a]n increase in travelling and movement of people since Covid lockdowns will also have contributed to the rise, [the professor] said. 'During Covid there would have been a decrease in bed bug infestations', she added. 'But now people are travelling a lot more and they can carry the bed bugs in their luggage from a hotel room to back home, and also they can be on public transport too. That will all contribute to an increase in bed bugs’”.

5. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1 because the headline was not supported by the text of the article. He said the headline reported that lockdowns had caused the rise in bed bugs, whereas the text of the article reported that it was the “return to normal” which had caused the rise.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It stated that the headline acted as a “precis” of the article and briefly summarised its themes, and that the article went on to make clear the basis for the headline claim – the opening sentences referred to a rise in travel, following lockdowns, which led to an increase in bed bug callouts. It added that the term ‘lockdown’ was used in the headline to refer to the cycle of restrictions on travel, so included both the event of the lockdowns, as well as their end.

7. The publication also stated that the article did not definitively attribute the rise in bed bug solely to lockdowns – it reported that they “may be to blame”. It also added that care was taken over the accuracy of the article, where it reported expert comments including alternative theories on the topic.

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

8. The headline reported that lockdowns “may be to blame for [the] bed bug plague”; the Committee noted it did not definitively state that lockdowns had caused the “bed bug plague” as the use of the word “may” qualified this claim. In circumstances where Clause 1 requires that headlines are supported by the text of an article - a publication may breach Clause 1 where the headline lacks a sufficient basis in the text - the Committee therefore considered whether the text of the article set out the basis that lockdowns “may” have caused a bed bug “plague”.

9. The Committee noted that the article made clear, in its second paragraph, that “a return to pre-pandemic norms, with their primary means of transit often being in suitcases, has encouraged their resurgence helping them spread faster, it is claimed.” The article also reported the views of experts: “An increase in travelling and movement of people since Covid lockdowns will also have contributed to the rise, [the professor] said. 'During Covid there would have been a decrease in bed bug infestations', she added. 'But now people are travelling a lot more and they can carry the bed bugs in their luggage from a hotel room to back home, and also they can be on public transport too. That will all contribute to an increase in bed bugs.'”

10. The complainant did not dispute that there had been an increase in bed bug callouts - which had dipped while people were unable to travel due to lockdown restrictions - or that some experts claimed this may have been due to “resurgence” in their numbers which would, in turn, have helped them “spread faster” once restrictions were lifted. The article also made clear that other factors may have contributed to the rise, such as an ”extended summer”, and the “warmth and humidity” this had brought.

11. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s view that the text of the article reported that the return to normal caused the beg bug “plague”. However, although the body of an article cannot be relied upon to correct an actively misleading impression given by a headline, articles should be read as a whole. The Committee was satisfied that, when done so, the article made clear the reported causal link between “lockdowns” and the “bed bug plague” – in the view of some experts, a return to pre-pandemic norms had reportedly caused the faster spread of bed bugs. This was particularly the case given the qualifying language of the headline, and where the article also reported on other factors which may have contributed to an increase in numbers. In these circumstances, the article supported and clarified the headline. The Committee was therefore satisfied that the headline was not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted, and was supported by the text of the article. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

13. N/A


Date complaint received: 05/12/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 27/02/2024


Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.