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Re: Complaint by (EL/11/2019:) Elizabeth Lewis

Date of complaint to Panel: 07/07/19


Article complained of: Various
Date of publication: Various

Decision

Introduction
1. The complainant in this matter is Elizabeth Lewis. In this Decision, the Review
Panel will be referred to as “the Panel”, Ms Lewis as “the Complainant” and
the Readers Editor” as “RE”.1 The Panel’s remit is to consider appeals where
the complainant is dissatisfied with the outcome at RE level. The Panel will
only consider whether or not the complaint gives rise to a breach of one or
more of the provisions of the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of
Conduct (“the Code”).

The Articles

2. The Complainant complains about a number of articles, all relating to the


Guardian’s coverage of matters relating to vaccination (“the Articles”). In her
complaint to the Panel, she lists 5 articles about which she has particular
concerns, namely:

(1) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/17/the-guardian-
view-on-vaccination-a-duty-of-public-health
(2) https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/feb/20/pinterest-anti-vaxx-
propaganda-search-facebook
(3) https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/mar/07/facebook-anti-vaxx-
vaccine-hoax-ads
(4) https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/mar/14/are-urban-anti-vaccine-
hotspots-putting-children-at-risk
(5) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/01/revealed-populists-more-
likely-believe-conspiracy-theories-vaccines?
fbclid=IwAR2KfS4K8EAsjTB6eBWoOKzJhPv83Amh9YUZhzJ4OtMM4sydl4BaRFiuhgI

3. Each of the above articles takes what can be described as a ‘pro-vaccination’


stance and are variously focused on the increase in so-called ‘anti-vaxxers’,

1 In this case, the complaint at RE level was initially dealt with be an experienced member of staff
in the RE office rather than the RE himself. For convenience, the abbreviation “RE” will be used
throughout this decision.
The Scott Trust Ltd
Registered in England No. 6706464
Registered office: Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG
the risks to public health associated with decreased vaccination rates (in a
comment piece), research suggesting a that in general people who chose not
to vaccinate their children were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories,
and the rise of ‘fake news’ anti-vaccination adverts on social media sites such
as Facebook. The Articles are a mixture of news items and comment pieces,
including an editorial on the Guardian’s view that vaccination is a public health
duty.

Correspondence with the RE

4. The Complainant first wrote to the RE by email on 15 March 2019. Her


complaint was focused on the Editorial from February 2019 (Article no. 1) and
cited Articles 2-3 as “example articles”. She complained that these articles
wrongly suggested that “all (online) information relating to many of the
undisputed and well documented health concerns surrounding vaccines as
‘mis-information’, ‘false information’ and ‘propaganda’”. A member of the RE’s
office responded by email on the same day asking the Complainant to provide
examples of the articles where she believed this had occurred. The
Complainant provided the examples of Articles 2-4 and pointed out that there is
evidence that “not all vaccines are actually safe and effective”. In light of this,
the Complainant said she did “not feel that The Guardian’s reporting and it’s
(sic) ‘Editorial’ on this controversial is fair, accurate or balanced.”

5. The RE sent a substantive response by email on 31 May 2019.2 The RE


response is extremely detailed and conscientiously attempts to engage with
what she considered were the main concerns being raised by the Complainant.
In summary, she recognized that the Complainant clearly had her own
concerns about the safety of vaccinations and that she felt the Guardian’s
reporting on this issue was not sufficiently balanced. The RE then set out in
great detail the scientific basis for the Guardian’s reporting on this issue and its
view that “the biggest (and increasing) ‘vaccine’ risk [is] that of vaccine
avoidance.” The RE engaged with the material provided by the Complainant
and explained why in her view this did not contradict the stance taken by the
Guardian in the Articles. Finally, the RE set out a number of scientific
publications which she said was part of the Guardian’s “evidence-driven”
reporting.

6. The Complainant responded by email on 4 June 2019. She clarified that while
she had been initially very encouraged by the response, it had not really dealt

2 There were good reasons for this delay which the Complainant graciously accepted. The Panel
would also like to express its gratitude to the Complainant for her patience in awaiting this decision
from the Panel.
The Scott Trust Ltd
Registered in England No. 6706464
Registered office: Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG
with her complaint which was not to challenge the basis of the Guardian’s pro-
vaccination position but rather to complain that it had a tendency to make those
who may have very valid personal reasons for not wishing to be supportive of
vaccinations feel “vilified and demonized by the Guardian; accused of betraying
their civic duty, peddling far right propaganda, spreading deadly hoaxes and
casually linked to holocaust deniers and alien believers”. The Complainant very
fairly recognized the detail and effort put into the RE’s response and that there
was room for differing opinions on the subject.

7. On 4 July 2019, the RE (taking over the matter from the previous staff member
who was now on extended leave), responded to the Complainant concluding
that it was not appropriate to reconsider the complaint afresh. The RE offered
to circulate the contents of the detailed exchange between the Complainant
and the RE to the various editors so that they could be borne in mind as and
when they considered future articles on vaccinations.

8. The Complainant nonetheless felt that her complaint had not been fairly looked
at and asked for the matter to be referred to the Panel.

Complaint to the Panel

9. The Complainant complained to the Panel on 7 July 2019.3 She alleges


breaches of Clauses 1 (Accuracy), 2 (Harassment), and 3 (Intrusion into grief
or shock) arising from the Articles. The focus of her complaint is not really
whether the material published by the Guardian on the subject of vaccinations
is valid but that by taking such a pro-vaccination stance, it has the effect of
“vilifying” any person who may not be wholly supportive of vaccinations.

Relevant aspects of the Code


10.Clause 1 of the Code is headed “Accuracy” and provides as follows:

“Accuracy

1. The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or


distorted information, including pictures;

2. A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once


recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and
- where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the
Commission, prominence should be agreed with the PCC in advance.”

3The Complainant provided subsequent information which has been taken into account by the
Panel but which has no bearing on the substance of this review.
The Scott Trust Ltd
Registered in England No. 6706464
Registered office: Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG
3. The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between
comment, conjecture and fact;4

[…]

11.Although not referred to explicitly in the complaint, the Panel has also
considered Clause 2 “Opportunity to Reply” which provides as follows:

“A fair opportunity to reply to inaccuracies must be given when


reasonably called for”

12.The Panel also takes note of the Guardian’s Code of Practice which refers to
“fairness” and in particular the following: “The voice of opponents no less than of
friends has a right to be heard . . . It is well be to be frank; it is even better to be
fair” (CP Scott, 1921). The more serious the criticism or allegations we are reporting
the greater the obligation to allow the subject the opportunity to respond.

13.Clause 4 “Harassment” provides as follows:

1. Journalists and photographers must neither obtain nor seek to obtain information or
pictures through intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

2. They must not photograph individuals in private places (as defined by the note to
clause 3) without their consent; must not persist in telephoning, questioning, pursuing
or photographing individuals after having been asked to desist; must not remain on
their property after having been asked to leave and must not follow them.

3. Editors must ensure that those working for them comply with these requirements and
must not publish material from other sources which does not meet these requirements.

14.Clause 5 “Intrusion into grief or shock” provides as follows:

“In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries should be carried out and approaches
made with sympathy and discretion. Publication must be handled sensitively at such times
but this should not be interpreted as restricting the right to report judicial proceedings”

Discussion
15.The Panel is tasked with consideration of whether there has been a breach of
one or more of the relevant provisions of the Code. It cannot consider any

4 Emphasis supplied.
The Scott Trust Ltd
Registered in England No. 6706464
Registered office: Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG
matter beyond this. A disagreement in viewpoint between a publication and its
readers will not necessarily mean that the Code has been breached. In this
regard, the Panel notes that the Complainant very fairly recognized the basis
and evidence upon which the Guardian based the views expressed in the
Articles. What the Panel must consider is whether, through those Articles, there
has been a breach of the Code. For the reasons which follow, the Panel is of
the view that there has been no breach.

16. The Complainant has clearly been personally affected by this issue and has
formed a view which differs from that expressed by The Guardian in the
Articles. The Complainant feels that, through focusing its coverage on the
negative impact of “anti-vaxxing” and by coverage which links anti-vaccination
views with conspiracy theorists and far right political beliefs this has the effect
of effectively “tarring her with the same brush” when her reasons for being
skeptical of the pro-vaccination movement are very different. This has clearly
caused her some distress. However, insofar as it is alleged that this amounts to
a breach of either Clauses 4 or 5 of the Code, it is apparent from looking at the
provisions of those clauses that they have not been breached in this case.

17.As to whether the views expressed by The Guardian in the Articles are
inaccurate, misleading or distorted, the Panel notes that the Complainant has
not drawn its attention to any particular passage or assertion in any of the
Articles which she claims is inaccurate. Again, while there may be differing
views, the Panel is not satisfied that this amounts to a breach of Clause 1. The
Panel has considered whether the Articles amount to an allegation or
suggestion that all those who are not pro-vaccination are e.g. conspiracy
theorists, or guilty of spreading “deadly hoaxes”. The Panel cannot conclude
that this is what any of the Articles allege or that what is reported in the Articles
is otherwise inaccurate.

18.Finally, the Panel notes the offer made by the RE to forward the substance of
the very detailed exchange of views at RE level to editors so that future
coverage might take into account the particular position and views expressed
by the Complainant. The Panel considers that to be a fair offer and in keeping
with the Guardian’s own code and recognition of the importance of listening to
alternative viewpoints. The Panel makes no formal recommendation in this
regard but leaves the matter to the Complainant and the RE to take forward
should she wish to do so.

Dated: 13/11/19

Signed:

The Scott Trust Ltd


Registered in England No. 6706464
Registered office: Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG
John Willis, Chair review panel.

Signed:

Elinor Goodman, panel member.

Signed:

Geraldine Proudler, panel member

The Scott Trust Ltd


Registered in England No. 6706464
Registered office: Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG

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