1515/2023 - Ms Joan Burgess and Independent.ie
The Press Ombudsman has decided not to uphold a complaint from Ms Joan Burgess about an article published on Independent.ie in January 2023. The article is an opinion piece about Irish farming, its relationship to veganism, and how it promotes itself to consumers. The complainant states that it breaches Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty).
In terms of Principle 1, the complainant takes issue with references the article makes to the adverse health effects of veganism. She says there are no such effects and that “a vegan diet is very healthy”. She also says that it is “outrageous” to suggest that vegans have “disposable incomes” and that in reality they come from all walks of life. Reacting to the article’s commentary on what it says vegans claim about their diet, the complainant states that there is “endless science” to back up these claims, whereas the publication “would have us believe it’s untrue”.
In terms of Principle 3, the complainant states that the use in the article of the term “recovering vegans” links a vegan diet with terms used for drug or substance abuse, and that this is “unfair and unethical”.
In general, the complainant finds the article to be “very offensive and misleading”, and she accuses its author of “bias”.
The publication denies any breach of the Principles of the Code of Practice. It states that the article applauds the strong ethical and environmental values which it attributes to vegans, and that while it asserts that some vegans have reverted from veganism because of adverse health impacts, it does not claim that this is every vegan’s experience. It says the term “recovering vegan” is a commonly-used phrase and that the article is not linking a vegan diet to drug or substance abuse. It says the article “simply offers a perspective on a particular cohort who ‘tend to’ have disposable income”. It says the article does not say that what vegans claim are the benefits of their diet are wrong but offers a different perspective.
Independent.ie rejects the claim of bias, stating that the piece is written by someone who is “upfront and truthful” about the fact that she is a beef and dairy farmer, and that she is a “good and fair commentator” who gets readers to think about her points.
The Press Ombudsman’s decision is framed by her observation that this article is an opinion piece and not an investigative report on veganism and Irish farming. The fact that its author is a beef and dairy farmer is made clear from the start. She will be expected to have a certain perspective. Its headline “How modern farming created Veganuary” indicates that the article will challenge farmers as well as vegans, and it does so, referring at one point to “misunderstanding on both sides”. The article also criticises farmers for their part in creating consumers who “do not hold farming in high esteem”.
That said, it is clear the article does not accept that veganism should replace a diet based on produce from beef and dairy farms. It argues in favour of addressing the challenges posed by the “new anti-farming lobby” and stresses the importance of showing that farmers are “human beings with hearts … who care about the animals in their charge and the food they produce”. There is a reference to “happy cows and calves”. The Press Ombudsman is of the view that this is not bias - it is opinion.
The Press Ombudsman finds that the article is respectful in its references to the “exacting” requirements of those contemplating a return from veganism to an omnivorous diet. It refers to people having ethical and environmental values, and wanting to know if food is local and organic, and how animals are treated. It does not state that a vegan diet has adverse effects on all who follow it.
The article refers to the claims it attributes to vegans as to the beneficial impacts of veganism in order to highlight the author’s view that farmers are wrong to ignore such challenges and must instead begin to address them. The suggestion that vegans are misinforming people is bound to provoke debate about the science. Opinions expressed in an article like this one are debateable – they are written for that purpose.
The article comments that vegans “tend to have disposable incomes”. An investigative report on the issues addressed in the piece might be expected to offer some research-based information on the socio-economic backgrounds of various cohorts of consumers – but this is not such a report. The comments follow a reference to a conversation between the CEO of a store selling farm produce and the author, who in her role as a farmer, is one of the store’s suppliers. Both parties are qualified to have opinions on such matters.
The Press Ombudsman finds no breach of Principle 1 of the Code of Practice.
The article takes its subject seriously, but it is framed as a personal reflection and the tone is at times light-hearted. It mocks the idea that “vegan misinformation” can be countered by “the slapping of a picture of a smiling farmer on a sirloin steak sitting on a supermarket shelf”. The Press Ombudsman considers that the use of the term “recovering vegans” to be playful rather than unethical. There is no absence of fairness or honesty. The Press Ombudsman finds no breach of Principle 3 of the Code of Practice.
30 May 2023