1026/2022 - Mr Piotr Malek and Independent.ie
A Sub-committee of the Press Council of Ireland has decided that an article published by Independent.ie on 4th November, 2021 did not breach Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) or Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
Twenty complaints were received by the Office of the Press Ombudsman about an article published by Independent.ie on 4th November, 2021 headlined “Not getting the Covid jab unless you’ve health reasons is like drink-driving – we need to wake up those resisting.” The twenty complaints were identical in nature and were all made under Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Press Council’s Code of Practice. The complaints procedures of the Office provide that where a number of identical complaints about the same article are received, the Office will establish a ‘lead’ complainant, and the complaint will be processed through the lead complainant. In this instance, the complaint received from Mr Piotr Malek is being processed as the lead complaint.
Mr Malek complained that the online article infringed Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) because it presented a distorted view of vaccinated and unvaccinated Covid 19 patients admitted to Intensive Care Units (ICU) and that the statistics used in the article were inaccurate. He identified a discrepancy between one of the statistics taken from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) publication entitled Vaccination status of Covid 19 cases admitted to ICU in Ireland between April 1st and October 30th 2021 and that used in the article. The HPSC stated that 64 per cent of cases admitted to ICU were reported as not having received a Covid 19 vaccine whereas the article stated that this figure was 66 per cent. Mr Malek furthermore complained that the analysis of the data was flawed and not sufficiently contextualized which resulted in the article presenting an inaccurate and misleading picture of ICU hospitalisation figures.
Mr Malek complained that the article infringed Principle 8 (Prejudice) because it contained material intended or likely to cause grave offence, or stir up hatred against an individual or group protected under equality law. He complained that the reference in the article to “more force” being needed in calls for vaccination ignored the detrimental impact that such terminology may have on individuals and groups protected under equality law. He said that the article equated choosing not to get vaccinated with drink-driving and that this comparison could potentially stir up hatred against unvaccinated people protected under equality law. He complained that excluding from criticism those who do not get vaccinated for health reasons meant that the article implied that it was “fair game” to cause grave offence to other unvaccinated people.
Response from the Editor of Independent.ie
In response to the complaint, the editor stated that the article was carried in the comment section and was an opinion piece. He accepted that there was a statistical inaccuracy in the article and this was corrected online. He stood over the accuracy of the remainder of the article pointing out that the article used government vaccination information and HPSC data, all publicly available. He accepted that there were different views on the efficacy of the Government’s Covid 19 vaccination programme and highlighted a number of articles that the newspaper had published in an effort to reflect these different views.
The editor rejected the complaint made under Principle 8 (Prejudice) stating that the article was clearly referring to people who choose not to be vaccinated without good cause and that there was nothing in it that was directed at an individual or group on the basis of the characteristics protected by the Press Council’s Code of Practice.
In response to Mr Malek’s complaint that the use of the phrase “more force” in the article incited the use of violence against unvaccinated people, the editor said that this was a fundamental misreading of the article. He said that the use of the word “force” in the article was clearly referring to the “plea” to strengthen messaging around uptake of the vaccine and that no other meaning could be taken from a plain reading of the article.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation, it was referred to the Press Ombudsman for his consideration. The Press Ombudsman exercised his right to refer the complaint to the Press Council of Ireland and the Press Council’s Chairman activated a Sub-committee to consider the complaint. The Sub-committee comprised the Deputy Chair, one industry member and one public interest independent member. The complaint was considered by this Sub-committee at a meeting on 6th January, 2022.
Decision of the Press Council Sub-committee
The complaint contained a number of references to equality law. The Sub-committee did not consider the complaint under equality law as it is outside the remit of the Press Council which considers complaints of breaches of its Code of Practice.
Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy)
The Preamble to the Code of Practice states that the freedom to publish “is vital to the right of the people to be informed …. and includes the right of the press to publish what it considers to be news, without fear or favour, and the right to comment upon it.” The Preamble is a core component of the Code as it sets out the basic values on which the Principles of the Code are based and how they are applied. As set down in the Preamble, comment and opinion articles enjoy wide protection in the interests of freedom of the press. The article complained of was an opinion piece published in the ‘Comments Section’ of the online newspaper Independent.ie. It contained strong views on the topic of people who chose not to be vaccinated other than for health reasons. Disagreement – no matter how strongly or sincerely held – with the views expressed in an opinion article, does not override the protection provided by the Code of Practice to the press to publish and advocate strongly its views on topics. This article, as an opinion and comment piece which advocated robust and controversial views on the topic of vaccination, enjoyed wide protection under the Code of Practice.
This article was a mixture of comment and fact. The factual information used in the article was based on official data, publicly available. Mr Malek correctly identified a discrepancy between one of the HPSC statistics and that used in the article. The HPSC stated that 64 per cent of cases admitted to ICU were reported as not having received a Covid 19 vaccine whereas the article stated that this figure was 66 per cent. Any inaccuracy must be significant to constitute a breach of Principle 1. This inaccuracy was insignificant in the context of the article and did not mislead the reader, or distort the article. Furthermore, when this discrepancy was brought to the attention of the editor by the complainant, it was promptly corrected. In his complaint, Mr Malek provided an alternative analysis and contextualization of the official data to that contained in the article. While his analysis and contextualisation of the data provided an alternative view and conclusions, they do not invalidate or render the analysis of the data and conclusions presented in the article untruthful or inaccurate.
Taking into account the wide protection enjoyed by opinion and comment articles under the Code of Practice, and that the statistical error in the article was insignificant and promptly corrected by the editor, the article did not breach Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy).
Principle 8 (Prejudice)
Mr Malek also complained that the article breached Principle 8 of the Code which states that:
The press shall not publish material intended or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against any individual or group on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, membership of the travelling community, gender sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age.
Mr Malek complained that the article targeted, as a group, people who chose not to be vaccinated other than for health reasons, and that the use of the term ‘more force’ and the comparison with drink-driving were intended to, or could, stir up hatred and violence against unvaccinated people.
Mr Malek complained that the article referenced the relatively low take-up of vaccination in Central and Eastern European communities and among British nationals. This reference was based on publicly available CSO data and was included in the article as a statement of fact. Apart from this reference to the nationality of some unvaccinated people, there was no other identifying characteristic in the article which would place people who are unvaccinated other than for health reasons, into one of the protected categories listed under Principle 8 above. Individuals, or groups of people, who chose not to be vaccinated for health reasons or any other reason, are not a protected category under Principle 8 of the Code of Practice.
On the question of the use of the term ‘more force’ in the article as an incitement to violence against unvaccinated people, the relevant sentence reads:
Recently, the plea to get the vaccine has been pushed more, with some gentle success – it is mentioned almost daily by our health officials – but more force is needed as we try to break the waves to prevent our health system from getting overwhelmed as cases soar and we inch toward a festive season we all deserve.
The term ‘more force’ used in this context clearly meant strengthening pleas to get the vaccine and could not be read as an incitement to the use of physical violence against unvaccinated people.
Mr Malek is correct in stating that the comparison with drink-driving may have caused offence given that drink-driving is considered socially unacceptable in a societal context. In the opinion of the writer of the article, this was a valid comparison. Causing offence can only be considered a breach of the Code of Practice when the article was intended or likely to cause grave offence to, or stir up hatred against, any individual or group of one of the protected categories under Principle 8. Individuals, or groups of people, who chose not to be vaccinated for health reasons or any other reason, are not a protected category under Principle 8 of the Code of Practice.
As the article did not contain material intended or likely to cause grave offence to, or stir up hatred against, an individual or group belonging to a protected category, it did not breach Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice.
10 January 2022