Back in November last year, I complained about a Daily Mail article on the HPV vaccine. Another individual also complained (about the Mail and other newspapers) and the PCC decided that theirs would be the main complaint, with mine being considered alongside it. It’s taken over three months, but the PCC have now made an adjudication.
The ruling, in a nutshell
The PCC ruled that the headlines were misleading and that the newspapers had failed to take care to avoid publishing misleading information, in breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Editors’ Code [PDF]. They considered that the remedial action taken/offered by the newspapers was sufficient to comply with their obligations under Clause 1 (ii). They also decided that the headlines had failed to present the concerns about HPV vaccination as conjecture clearly distinguished from fact as required by Clause 1 (iii) and that as a result of this they had the potential to mislead readers. This was judged to have constituted a breach of Clause 1 (i).
In the case of the Daily Mail, their headline, “Girl, 13, left in ‘waking coma’ and sleeps for 23 hours a day after severe reaction to cervical cancer jabs“, was deemed to be misleading and the remedial action offered (and accepted) was the addition of quotation marks to the text “severe reaction to cervical cancer jabs” and an explanatory note.
My thoughts on the judgement
The PCC note that the complaint about the misleading headlines was considered in the context of the article as a whole rather than as a standalone statement. In my view, the decision that the Daily Mail headline was misleading was correct. However, this is the only part of the judgement where elements of the article other than the headline are referred to by the PCC. My complaint was about more than just the headline. Here are some of the complaints I made about the Mail article that the PCC didn’t rule on:
The sub-headings and first two paragraphs reinforce the impression that the girl had a reaction to the HPV jab.
The HPV sidebar plays down the seriousness of HPV infection.
The section on “controversy” smuggles in a Daily Mail viewpoint attributed to ‘critics’: “Some critics also believe that the HPV injection can give teenagers a false sense of security, encouraging them to be more sexually active because they no longer have to fear cervical cancer.”
Undue prominence given to non-expert anti-vaccine viewpoints (including the unsupported assertion that chronic fatigue syndrome is caused by vaccination).
Now, I’m pleased that the PCC ruled that the Daily Mail had published a headline that (considered in the context of the article as a whole) was misleading and that remedial action was required. I do wonder, though, whether the remedial action in question (amending the headline and adding an explanatory note) was sufficient in this case. If the sub-headlines, introductory paragraphs, sidebar, and section on controversy might be misleading, inaccurate, or presenting a distorted picture (as I believe they were) then should they not have been amended too?
It took three months just to get the headline amended. The other elements of the Daily Mail article that I considered to be distorted, misleading or inaccurate remain untouched. Sometimes even a successful complaint doesn’t really feel like a win.
I’m not sure whether this case and my comments on it show the PCC in a poor light as a regulator or whether they actually demonstrate my curmudgeonliness and unreasonableness in (a) expecting newspapers to publish articles that do not mislead or present a distorted picture and (b) whingeing when they fail to live up to my high expectations and yet do not incur the wrath of the PCC. (The next section ends with a link to the Daily Mail article and the final section of the post is a reproduction of the entire ruling, so you can make your own minds up about that…)
As the PCC had decided that my complaint was to be considered alongside another, with the other individual being designated as the lead complainant, their investigation did not involve me. I’m not sure what went on during the three months in which I waited to hear the verdict, as the PCC negotiated with the newspapers and the lead complainant. This meant that I did not know what progress (if any) had been made. More importantly, it meant that I was unable to provide any input. I couldn’t give an opinion on any defence or any remedy offered by the Mail, and I could not complain that only the Daily Mail’s headline was to be amended – with the article remaining untouched.
I’m not quite sure how the PCC dealt with my complaint. While I complained about the entire Daily Mail article, the PCC only seem to have investigated and ruled on the headline. The lead complaint seemed to be about the headlines only, and not the articles. Perhaps the PCC used the detail of my complaint about the Mail article as supporting evidence for the complaint about the Mail headline. Whatever the case, it seems that the PCC did not actually investigate the complaint I made. So apart from the addition of quotation marks in the headline and an explanatory note buried at the bottom of the article the Daily Mail’s piece is still as it was three months ago. Caution: this link leads to the Daily Mail website.
I complained about the Daily Mail’s ‘controversy’ section claiming that “Some critics also believe that the HPV injection can give teenagers a false sense of security, encouraging them to be more sexually active because they no longer have to fear cervical cancer.” Since the article complained of was published, there has been this: No association was found between HPV vaccination and risky sexual behavior. I’d like to imagine that the Daily Mail will be careful not to repeat their claim given that researchers have now found no association between HPV vaccination and risky behaviour.
I’d also like to imagine that the Mail will take more care, generally, when writing about vaccination and other medical topics. Particularly given the PCC’s comment that: “While it was on balance satisfied the steps offered or taken would sufficiently remedy the breaches of the Code in these cases, the Commission expected that greater care would be taken when presenting articles on health issues in the future.”
CFS and vaccination: Appel, Chapman and Shoenfeld seem to think it is at least plausible that vaccination could be linked to CFS and call for further research, but state that: “Little is known about this issue. There are some reports on CFS occurring after vaccination, but few prospective and retrospective studies failed to find such an association” and point out that a working group of the Canadian Laboratory Center for Disease Control (LCDC) that was founded in order to examine the suspected association between CFS and vaccinations concluded that there is no evidence that relates CFS to vaccination. A Norwegian study found “no statistically significant association between vaccination against meningococcal disease in teenagers and occurrence of CFS/ME”, and a double-blind, randomized study of the effects of influenza vaccination on the specific antibody response and clinical course of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome found that “no difference could be detected between immunized and placebo CFS patients in immunization side effects”.
HPV vaccination: here “no serious adverse events were observed… Almost all of the local and general reactions proved to be of negligible intensity and duration and required no medical intervention”; and here “the HPV vaccines appear safe and effective”. Information is Beautiful on HPV, cervical cancer, and vaccination.
If you have any complaints about the headline or body of this article being misleading or inaccurate, or presenting a distorted picture, then please do comment below and let me know.
Edit: the ruling has now covered by Tabloid Watch.
Copy of the text of the decision
The complainant considered that the headlines of the articles were misleading as they incorrectly stated that there was a causal link between the HPV vaccine and Lucy Hinks’ illness.
The Commission made clear that, due to their necessary brevity, headlines can represent only a limited summary of a potentially complex set of circumstances. As such, the Commission considers headlines in the context of the article as a whole rather than as a standalone statement. However, this does not negate the newspapers’ obligations under Clause 1 (i) of the Code not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or, as set out in Clause 1 (iii), to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. The overarching concern raised by the complainant over the headlines published on the websites of The Sun and the Daily Mail and both the print and online versions of the article in the Metro was that they presented the link between the injection and the illness as established – in the case of The Sun, it claimed the jab “puts” the child in a ‘waking coma’, the Daily Mail headline claimed that Lucy Hinks was left in a waking coma “after severe reaction” to the jab, and the Metro claimed that the jab “leaves” Ms Hinks in a waking coma. These all presented as fact that the jab was responsible for the subsequent illness. However, this was not the case. The claims in fact reflected the belief of Lucy Hinks’ parents that the vaccine had led to their daughter’s illness. There could be no dispute that the newspapers were fully entitled to report the concerns raised by the Hinks; however, Clause 1 required them to present the concerns as conjecture clearly distinguished from fact. It was the view of the Commission that the headlines had failed to comply with this requirement and as a result that they had the potential to mislead readers into understanding that the connection had been established. This constituted a breach of Clause 1 (i).
The newspapers were accordingly required under Clause 1 (ii) to correct the misleading impression created, promptly and with due prominence. The Sun had already taken steps to remedy any misleading impression given by the headline – it had amended the online headline to make clear that the article reflected the parents’ claim and had recorded this alteration, reiterating that the headline reflected an allegation. The Commission was satisfied, in accordance with Clause 1 (ii), that the action taken by the newspaper was sufficient to remedy any misleading impression. The newspaper was not required to take any further action.
The Daily Mail had altered the headline by placing the assertion that the ‘waking coma’ had occurred after a “severe reaction to cervical cancer jab” in quotation marks. It was common practice to identify a claim or allegation in a headline by placing it in quotation marks. The newspaper had also offered to publish the following statement: The headline has been amended to make clear it reflects only an allegation that Ms Hinks’ illness was linked to the jab. In the Commission’s view the wording offered, in addition to the amendment already made, would amount to sufficient compliance with Clause 1 (ii). It was appropriate for the newspaper to delay publication of the clarification pending possible agreement of its terms, but in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii) – and subject to the complainant raising any objection – it should now be published without further delay.
Unlike the other publications, the Metro had carried the headline under complaint in its print edition in addition to on its website. It had offered to alter the online headline – placing the assertion in quotation marks to identify it as a claim – and publish the following wording as a footnote to the article: The headline has been amended to make clear it reflects only an allegation that Ms Hinks’ illness was linked to the jab. It had also offered to publish the following wording in the print edition of the newspaper: In an article published on 15 November, we reported concerns raised by Lucy Hinks’ parents that the cervical cancer jab had caused their daughter’s chronic fatigue syndrome. We are happy to make clear that it has not been established that the jab causes CFS. Again, the Commission considered that the offers made by the newspaper in regard to online and print clarification would amount to sufficient compliance with Clause 1 (ii). It was appropriate for the newspaper to delay publication of the clarifications pending possible agreement of its terms, but in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii) – and subject to the complainant raising any objection – it should now be published without further delay.
The Commission emphasised the importance that newspapers take adequate care when reporting on health issues to present the situation in a correct and clear light. This is due, in part, to the potential effects misleading information may have on readers’ decisions in regard to their health. It was clear in these cases that the newspapers had roundly failed to take the required care with their headlines not to mislead readers. While it was on balance satisfied the steps offered or taken would sufficiently remedy the breaches of the Code in these cases, the Commission expected that greater care would be taken when presenting articles on health issues in the future.
One final point had been raised by the complainant. He was concerned that The Sun had made an amendment to the online article but had failed to record it in the footnote. The Commission made clear that, given the article related specifically to the illness of Lucy Hinks, to whom it did not appear the complainant was connected, it would require the input of her family in order to be in a sufficiently informed position to enable it to make a ruling as to whether The Sun had misrepresented the circumstances of her illness. In the absence of their involvement – or the involvement of their official representative – the Commission could not make a finding as to whether The Sun had misrepresented the course of her ailment, such as to breach Clause 1 (Accuracy), and consequently whether the newspaper was required to correct an inaccuracy or misleading statement. As such, it was not in a sufficiently informed position to make a decision as to whether the newspaper’s failure to record the alteration raised a breach of the Code.