Ruling

28882-20 Amet v dailystar.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      11th November 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 28882-20 Amet v dailystar.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Lorene Amet complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that dailystar.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Brit doctor claims 'vaccine causes autism' and 'chicken nuggets can help cure it'”, published on 3 November 2020.

2. The article reported on an investigation into an autism specialist. The article reported how an investigator “went undercover” to have a video consultation with the specialist. It said that there was a “probe after worried parents complained about a treatment for autistic children”. The article contained a still image of the specialist taken from the video consultation.

3. The article claimed that the specialist had said that the child’s diet could solve her “challenging behavioural issues” and that “organic chicken nuggets” could alleviate autism and “help cure it” and that the specialist had sent the investigator “vegan recipes” as part of the consultation. It also stated that the specialist had suggested that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism. The article contained a quote from a named doctor who said it was “disgraceful” that private practitioners misinform patients. The article said that the investigator had been sent an email with the tagline “Autism is treatable”. The article also said that the specialist had recommended various tests and anti-inflammatories for the child and that “further ‘treatment’ would involve working with other doctors in Geneva.”

4. The complainant was the specialist referred to in the article. She said that the article had breached Clause 10 of the Editors’ Code as the video consultation had been recorded and an image had been taken of her without her knowledge with a clandestine device. She said that the investigator had engaged in subterfuge by inventing a child and by concealing the fact she was working for a newspaper in order to arrange the session. The complainant said that the article was not in the public interest, as the allegations against her were false and the article was inaccurate. She also said that the investigator had an undisclosed conflict of interest as: she worked as an activist for a company whose work focused on people with autism; she had worked with the press previously and had been paid for this work; and she believed the investigator and journalist were biased against her.

5. The complainant also said the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said that she had not said that the child’s diet could solve her “challenging behavioural issues”, nor that “organic chicken nuggets” could alleviate or “help cure” autism. She said that in fact she had recommended a self-restrictive diet overall, and that chicken nuggets were simply an example of how a food that the specific case had been said to consume previously and which could be made with healthy ingredients and less inflammatory food, in line with this diet. She also said that it was a contradiction within the article to state she recommended both “chicken nuggets” and “vegan” recipes.

6. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report that the probe was triggered after a parent raised concerns about the complainant. The complainant said she was not aware of such concerns, nor did she think such a parent would have contacted the publication.

7. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that she had suggested that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism, as she had never said this, and that she had mentioned other possible factors that may have contributed to the child’s autism. She also said that it was the investigator who had repeatedly brought up the MMR vaccine and asked her whether there was a link.  

8. The complainant said it was misleading to include the quote from a named doctor as she disputed that she had made the comments in the article, and it was therefore inaccurate to report the quote that had been supplied on this basis.

9. The article claimed that the investigator was sent an email with the tagline “Autism is treatable”. The complainant said she did not send an email with this tagline. She supplied both the email sent and a questionnaire she intended the investigator to answer, which did not have this tagline. The investigator had also sent the complainant screenshots of the survey she had completed, which the complainant provided and which did not contain the tagline “Autism is treatable”. She accepted that the third-party website that this questionnaire came from used the tagline “Autism is treatable” but noted that she did not send a document with this tagline personally.

10. The complainant said it was misleading to report that she had recommended various tests and “anti-inflammatories”. She said that in fact, after the investigator asked what testing was available, she made her aware of such tests in response to her request. She said she also made clear there were no benefits to testing, and that therefore she could not be described as having “recommended” tests. The complainant also said she did not recommend “anti-inflammatories”, but a diet that was anti-inflammatory in nature. She said that as she did not recommend such consultations or tests, it was inaccurate to report that “further ‘treatment’ would involve working with other doctors in Geneva.”

11. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 2 (Privacy), as it included a screenshot of the video consultation showing her face, in her home where she worked.

12. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It accepted that Clause 10 was engaged, but said that there was sufficient public interest to justify the investigator’s actions. It said that a source made the publication aware of the complainant's firm and that a further source told it the complainant's firm had been mentioned to them by concerned parents in the course of their work campaigning for government regulation over unproven autism treatments. The publication then commissioned an investigator it had worked with previously to pursue the story. The publication said that, prior to engaging in the subterfuge, there was a discussion with the editor as to what information would be collected, the means of collecting it, and whether it was in the public interest.

13. The publication stated that no other methods had been used to obtain the complainant’s views; however, the misrepresentation and subterfuge was proportionate, and had to be used in this case in order to see how the complainant engaged with a potential client, rather than a newspaper. It said that a video consultation was the usual practice in the complainant’s booking process and therefore it used this method as it was not aware of a way to receive a similar result with a lower level of subterfuge, a less intrusive method, or no clandestine device.

14. The publication also stated that the investigation was in the public interest on the grounds that it would help protect public health and safety, and would protect the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation. The publication also said that previous investigations had found that the complainant did not disclose that her doctorate was not medical. It also stated that if parents are paying or considering paying for the therapy on the understanding that this is a legitimate 'medical' treatment, then they were potentially being exploited and the general public need to be made aware.

15. With regards to the accuracy of the article, the publication provided a transcript of the recording, and shortly afterwards the audio recording of the meeting. The complainant subsequently made amendments to the transcript, which were accepted by the publication.

16. The publication referred to a section of the transcript which stated the following:

Complainant: Number one is the diet – the diet, we have to change it. It is almost certain that your daughter is in pain and that’s why she wakes up. This is in part because of the diet.

[...]

Complainant: Well as I said, we remove the food which are pro-inflammatory. These foods contribute to maintaining inflammation. The inflammation could have been triggered by the genetics or the vaccine but it is maintained. She is displaying issues of health because of a sudden onset of challenging behavioural and self injurious behaviour; she is in pain. Until you change the diet, that pain will not stop. There is no magic pill in autism. Zero. I cannot give you one pill which will take it away.

The publication therefore said it was not inaccurate to report that the complainant had said that the child’s diet could be solve her “challenging behavioural issues”. It added that the article as a whole made clear that the complainant’s advice was change to the child’s diet in general, but stated that the complainant went into a lot of detail regarding a recipe for organic chicken nuggets. It said where the complainant had said that “number one is diet” and that “this is in part because of the diet” and that she stated in another part of the transcript that children had “fully recovered” from her plan, it was not misleading to report that she had said that organic chicken nuggets could alleviate or cure autism. Whilst it did not accept a breach of Clause 1, the publication offered to publish the following as a footnote to the article:

We are happy to make clear Dr Amet's suggestion of removing gluten from home-made chicken nuggets is part of her wider diet plan, to help people with autism. Always seek medical advice before starting any new treatment or diet.

17. The publication said that where many of the recipes supplied by the complainant were vegan, it was not inaccurate to report that she had recommended “vegan recipes”.

18. The publication stated that the complainant not being aware of the concerns being raised by parents was not a breach of Clause 1. It reiterated that this was an important factor for the publication’s investigation.

19. The publication stated that the complainant had linked the MMR vaccine to autism. It supplied the following passage from the transcript:

Complainant: Yes,…basically, as you know the NHS and the official position is there’s no link between vaccination and it.

[…] There’s been quite a number of studies which have suggested otherwise and of course, quite a lot of the opinion has been suppressed and people have been attacked for questioning the safety of vaccination, especially MMR.

[…]

As far as I’m concerned I have heard the story you are sharing, over and over - I have no doubt there are children who are affected by this. It actually fits very well with what we understand autism for some children to be. The animal model where you mimic infections when you basically cause a burdening of the immune system and vaccination is a means to cause the system to be overwhelmed. That causes inflammation, this affects brain function. This can link to gut issues, this can link to behaviour And unfortunately sometimes these changes are essentially irreversible.

Investigator: It’s terrible they’ve been getting away from it for so long.

Complainant: Yes, it is terrible. I remain - I don’t remain hopeful - but I believe eventually it will be accepted. I believe it will be. It only needs the right person in the right place -a president whose child has the same issue could completely change the whole thing and completely stop it. One person alone in the right place a the right time could do that but at the moment all scientists, all doctors, who have raised their concern have been attacked. Basically you can’t do anything. Even doctors do not do their job because normally when there is an adverse reaction you have to complete a form which is called a yellow card to flag the adverse reaction to this. But they don’t do this because they say oh no, there is no link - therefore they’re not even reporting it, saying autism is starting off at 18 months of age, it’s just a coincidence. But the reality is we have children who have been given the vaccination earlier than planned and they’ve devvloped the signs of autism at eight months , we equally have children who receive the vaccination much later, even age of eight, and they develop sign of autism at that point. And that doesn’t fit with the textbook description of autism and when you develop it.

15. The publication provided the emails that had been sent to experts, and the response of the doctor named in the article, which included the quote that was reported. It also stated that two other experts had commented, but had asked to remain anonymous.

20. The publication said that the investigator had been sent links to two forms to complete with questions about her daughter ahead of the meeting. One of the questionnaires that was sent to the investigator was from a website which used the tagline 'Autism is Treatable'. It said it was not significantly inaccurate to report that this was a tagline to the email, rather than to a form linked to by an email. It changed the article to state that it was a tagline to a questionnaire, rather than an email, but did not offer a correction on this point.

21. The publication did not accept that the complainant had not recommended tests and anti-inflammatories. It acknowledged that the complainant had initially advised that “before investing in tests I would suggest you would start with the diet” but said that the complainant had said that the child should “go on to” anti-inflammatory supplements straight away. The complainant also explained that there were multiple tests that could be done at home in order to assess the patient’s health.

The publication noted that after the session, the complainant sent a document describing tests she would “recommend”, which gave information on blood, urine, hair and stool tests, the total cost of which was £971.90. The publication also noted that during the interview, the complainant had said she worked with medical doctors who worked in Geneva.

22. The publication did not accept that the use of the image of the complainant in the article breached Clause 2 (Privacy). It said the image simply showed her likeness and there was no information included in respect of which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The publication also said that the use of the image was justified as it demonstrated that the investigation had taken place. It also said that in any case, there is a strong public interest in relation to protecting public health and safety and preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of that individual.

23. The complainant said that the offered correction did not resolve her complaint, as she did not suggest removing gluten from homemade chicken nuggets or a wider diet plan “to help people with autism”, but in order to help the specific case of the fictitious child presented to her by the investigator. The complainant noted that she had been told the child ate chicken nuggets every day with no fruit or vegetables, and that she had only offered chicken nuggets as tailored to this individual.

24. After reviewing the email that was sent to the expert by the publication seeking a comment for inclusion in the articles, the complainant said it contained multiple inaccuracies. She said that the quote from the expert was, therefore, gained on false pretences, and consequently that it was misleading to include the expert’s comments in the article. The email from the publication included the following information: it said the complainant had “insisted” and had “no doubt” the MMR jab was linked to autism, which the complainant disputed; it said she had recommended “anti-inflammatories” would help the child, which she said  gave the appearance that she had recommended drugs, when in fact she had recommended supplements with anti-inflammatory properties and an anti-inflammatory diet; it stated “given that parents may be taken in by claims and persuaded to spend a lot under the belief their child's autism can be 'treated'”, which the complainant said was inaccurate as she did not persuade parents who were free to choose what care they thought would be helpful to them and she did not “make claims”; it referred to “concern about unregulated private clinics in general”, which the complainant said was misleading as she was not required to register with a regulatory body; it did not list all of the recipes sent and only set out a few, describing them as “vegan” recipes; it referred to the National Institute of Health Care and Excellence discrediting exclusion diets; it said that the complainant had blamed the child’s behaviour on her diet which caused her to be “in pain”, which the complainant said was not accurate and omitted that she had also recommended laboratory testing for the further health causes.

25. The publication did not accept that the email sent to the expert was inaccurate. It said that the allegations specifically about the complainant were accurate, for the reasons previously cited, and that it was not inaccurate to describe nutritional supplements with anti-inflammatory benefits as “anti-inflammatories”.  It said that the reference to parents being “taken in by claims and persuaded to spend a lot under the belief their child's autism can be 'treated'” and “unregulated clinics” was context for the expert and more general rather than being specifically about the complainant. It noted the complainant was not named in the email.

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 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)*

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

The Public Interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

(1.) The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

·         Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.

·         Protecting public health or safety.

·         Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

·         Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.

·         Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.

·         Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.

·         Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

(2.) There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

(3.) The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

(4.) Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

(5.) An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.

Findings of the Committee

26. The Editors’ Code makes clear that subterfuge and misrepresentation can be justified in the public interest, which includes protecting public health and safety. The Committee considered that the investigation into a practitioner who offers paid services to help children with autism could be in the public interest as it was an issue which may concern the protection of public health and safety.

27. The publication had commissioned an investigator who had knowledge of the subject, who engaged in misrepresentation and subterfuge in order to create a fake persona to pose as a parent of an autistic child and participate in a video consultation. The Committee noted that the complainant had concerns that the investigator was not impartial, but made clear that this is not a question that fell under the Editors’ Code, or relevant to the requirements under Clause 10.

28. The newspaper said it had been contacted by a source, and had been put in touch with a further source – both of whom wished to remain anonymous – who raised concerns about the complainant’s firm and the treatments which it recommended for autism. The publication also noted several parts of the complainant’s website which provided advice which appeared to contradict NHS and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines and advice for autism. The newspaper had demonstrated that it considered what information might be obtained from the use of clandestine devices and subterfuge in advance of the investigation, by discussing several questions with the editor. It had also considered the proportionality of the investigation, and it was reasonable for the journalist and newspaper to believe that they would be unable to ascertain the complainant’s usual advice for children with autism, without employing subterfuge and misrepresentation. The Committee noted that a video consultation was the complainant’s usual method of consulting potential clients, and that the newspaper arranged a consultation by the same method. The use of misrepresentation and subterfuge was justified in the public interest, in order to investigate whether the public might be being misled by the actions of the complainant.

29. The publication considered that its investigation had demonstrated that the complainant had recommended exclusion diets against NHS advice and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines; that the complainant had suggested that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism; and that the complainant believed that studies confirming a link between the two had been supressed. Where these views appeared to have been expressed by a health professional, the Committee considered that the material gathered during the investigation concerned the protection of public health and safety and that its publication was justified in the public interest.

30. The publication had appropriately and satisfactorily considered the issues raised under the Code, prior both to the investigation and the publication of the information. The Committee found that the newspaper had satisfied the requirements of the public interest section of the Code; there was no breach of Clause 10.

31. With regards to the accuracy of the article, the headline stated that the complainant had said that chicken nuggets could “help cure” autism and the body of the article reported that she had claimed that child autism could be alleviated by an exclusion diet which includes chicken nuggets. For the purposes of the investigation, the publication had created a profile for a child who was said to predominantly eat chicken nuggets... The complainant had recommended a change of diet as part of her assessment and, on the basis of the specific case study that had been presented to her, had explained how a recipe for chicken nuggets could contribute to this. It was a distortion to the extent of an inaccuracy to report that the complainant had said organic chicken nuggets would alleviate, or help cure, autism, when in fact the complainant had suggested a change of diet in general, and had referred to chicken nuggets in response to the particular profile she had been given. In addition, the complainant had made clear during the investigation that she believed there was “no cure” for autism, and it was therefore inaccurate to report that she had said chicken nuggets could “help cure it”. The publication had not taken care not to publish inaccurate information on this point, and there was a breach of Clause 1(i). As this claim was one of the factors used to discredit the complainant and appeared in the headline, it was a significant inaccuracy requiring correction under Clause 1(ii).

32. The publication offered a correction in its first response to IPSO’s investigation, which was appropriately prompt in the circumstances. However, the correction offered did not address the initial inaccuracy, that chicken nuggets had been discussed in the context of a specific case study and that the complainant had not said that they would “help cure” autism. For this reason, the correction offered did not satisfy Clause 1(ii) and there was a further breach of the Code.

33. Where many of the recipes sent by the complainant to the investigator were vegan, it was not inaccurate to report that the complainant had sent “vegan recipes”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

34. The complainant said she doubted that a parent had raised concerns about her, as she was not aware of any parents having concerns, and did not believe that they would approach a newspaper about them. Whilst it may have surprised the complainant that a parent had gone to the newspaper with such concerns, this complaint was based on speculation alone, and the publication had a duty to protect its sources under Clause 14. There were no grounds for the Committee to support a breach of Clause 1 on this point.

35. The complainant said she had never suggested that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism. However, the complainant accepted the accuracy of the transcript as detailed in paragraph 19 of this decision. The Committee considered that the complainant’s position as recorded in the agreed transcript of the meeting, as quoted above, could accurately be characterised as the complainant suggesting a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The fact that the investigator had asked questions specifically about this did not make reporting the complainant’s response misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

36. The complainant accepted that the third-party website she used for questionnaires contained a tagline stating, “Autism is treatable”. In addition, the Committee noted that whilst the complainant had said that there is no “cure” or “treatment” for autism, the name of her company was “Autism Treatment Plus”. Where the complainant accepted that the third-party website used this tagline, and that the investigator had been sent a questionnaire from this website, it was not significantly inaccurate to report that the investigator had been sent an email with the tagline “autism is treatable”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

37. The complainant accepted that the third-party website she used for questionnaires contained a tagline that stated “autism is treatable”. The link to the third party website was included in the questionnaire sent to the investigator. In addition, the Committee noted that whilst the complainant had said that there is no “cure” or “treatment” for autism, the name of her company was “Autism Treatment Plus”. The publication appeared to acknowledge that the email did not carry the tagline. Nonetheless, where the third-party website linked to in the questionnaire emailed to the investigator used this tagline and the complainant’s company name referred to “Autism Treatment”, it was not significantly inaccurate to report that the investigator had been sent a questionnaire with the tagline “autism is treatable”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

38. The complainant accepted that she had said “We will need to assess the full extent of your daughters’ health through laboratory testing” and had then sent a document to the investigator after the session which stated “I enclose below some information below on the tests we recommend”. The complainant had also accepted that the tests would be analysed, and prescriptions would be made by doctors in Geneva. On this basis, it was not misleading for the article to report that the complainant had recommended tests, or that treatment would involve working with “medics in Geneva”. In addition, the Committee found that it was not significantly inaccurate to describe supplements with anti-inflammatory properties as “anti-inflammatories”.  There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

39. For the reasons given above, the Committee found that the email which had been sent by the publication to the expert, which contained the same allegations as within the article, was not inaccurate. It was, therefore, not inaccurate to include the quote provided by the expert in the article in response to the allegations. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

40. The Committee noted that the image of the complainant used in the article was taken through a video platform whilst she was in her home  and was taken without the complainant’s consent or knowledge. However, it noted that it was taken whilst the complainant was acting in her professional capacity, and provided a view of her that she openly shared with her clients and potential clients without restrictions, through her video consultations. In such circumstances, the Committee considered that the complainant did not have the same expectation of privacy as someone’s home would normally afford. In addition, the Committee noted that the image had been published to demonstrate that the investigation had taken place.  In all the circumstances, the Committee did not find that the publication of the image intruded into the complainant’s private life, and there was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusion(s)

41. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

42. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

43. The Committee considered that the publication did not take the necessary care when reporting that the complainant had stated that chicken nuggets could “help cure” and alleviate autism. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record. A correction was considered to be sufficient, as the claim was not the central point of the article, which reported on the full recommendations provided by the complainant in the video consultation, and the publication had promptly offered a correction to address the claims that had been found to be inaccurate, notwithstanding the Committee’s finding that the wording offered was not sufficient to address the inaccuracies fully.

44. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. This correction should be added to the article and appear as a standalone correction in the online corrections and clarifications column, as the wording which required correction had appeared in the headline. This wording of the correction should only include information required to identify the inaccuracies and provide the correct position: that the complainant had not stated that chicken nuggets could “help cure” autism, and that chicken nuggets had been referenced based on the specific case study presented to the complainant and as part of a wider meal plan. The wording should also be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, the correction should be published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the correction should be published as a footnote which explains the amendments that have been made. 


Date complaint received: 02/11/2020

Date decision issued: 21/09/2021


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.