What A Surprise – Not

[BPSDB]The Press Complaints Commission has rejected my complaint about the Daily Mail’s HPV scare story. Text of decision (with my comments interjected) follows:

The Commission noted the complainant’s concern that the headline “Concerns over safety of cervical cancer vaccine after 1,300 girls experience adverse side effects” was misleading as it gave the false impression that the vaccine had serious side-effects. It also noted his concern that the newspaper had failed to distinguish between conjecture and fact when it had linked the vaccine to severe adverse side effects and promiscuity.

The Commission considered the complaint under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code, which states that the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. In this instance, the complainant had argued that the headline was misleading as the newspaper had failed to state that, whilst 1,300 girls might have been negatively affected by the injection, this was out of a significantly larger figure of 700,000 vaccinated individuals.

In coming to a view on this matter, the Commission emphasised that headlines were necessarily a brief summary of a more complex set of circumstances. It was therefore appropriate to consider the headline in the context of the article as a whole


True, headlines are a brief summary but as I remarked in a previous post, “99.8% of Recipiants of Life-Saving Vaccination Report No Side Effects” would have been just as accurate a summary. The Mail’s sub-editor did not select this because it does not fit in with the Mail’s anti-vaccination stance (in the UK). Do not forget that the Mail ran with the spurious MMR-autism link for years and since the original article they have published other HPV scare stories like this one.

What is particularly obnoxious about the Mail’s anti-vaccination stance, though, is the fact that they clearly do not believe it themselves. As Martin at Lay Science discovered, the Irish edition is castigating the Irish government for not rolling out the vaccine and is campaigning to have it introduced. It would appear that their stance is governed simply by what allows them to sell papers and knock a government of which they disapprove. This makes them far worse than the likes of JABS who, grossly misinformed though they may be, are almost certainly acting for what they believe to be the best. The Mail clearly does not care about the affects on public health its stories have.

On this occasion, the Commission noted that the article made clear that “more than 700,000 girls were vaccinated last year” and, of the 1,340 who reported side effects, “most were minor complaints such as rashes, swelling on the injection site, pain or allergic reaction”. Although the article referred to five particular cases of paralysis and other more serious reported side-effects, the Commission noted that the piece had also made clear the position of “Government health experts” who “insisted the Cervarix vaccine was safe” given the large number who had received the jab. The Commission considered that the newspaper had sought to present the true nature of the side effects reported to doctors and, indeed, their full spectrum of severity. Against that background, the Commission was satisfied that readers would not have been misled by the article when read as a whole. No breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) was found on this point.

The story did indeed say that Government experts “insisted” that the vaccine is safe. What the story did not do was present the evidence of safety, so the story became one of remote authority figures insisting their view was correct and seemingly dismissing the concerns of parents out of hand. Just like the MMR hoax.

In regard to the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had failed to distinguish between conjecture and fact when it had linked the vaccine to adverse effects and promiscuity, the Commission noted that the article clearly set out the position of the Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. For example, the view that “the number of reported reactions [did] not necessarily mean they [were] side effects of the vaccine” and “for the isolated cases of [conditions other than the listed side effects] reported, the available evidence does not suggest that the vaccine caused the condition and these may have been coincidental events”. Clause 1 (Accuracy) sets out that newspapers are entitled to be (sic) present individual opinion, provided that they distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. On this occasion, the disputable nature of the reported reactions would have been clear to readers generally. Similarly, the claim that “some have dubbed [the injection] the ‘promiscuity jab'” was clearly presented as opinion. The Commission considered that readers would not have been misled into believing that there was no alternative view on the matter of the injection and, indeed, its possible advantages and disadvantages. No breach of the Code has been established by the complaint.

The views of the MHRA were buried towards the end of the story and given nothing like the prominence of the alleged side effects. And again, the evidence supporting the MHRA’s stance was not given. If one reads the comments that follow the on-line version of the story one would realise that the claim that “the disputable nature of the reported reactions would have been clear to readers generally” does not stand up to scrutiny.

It is also nonsense to claim that the ‘promiscuity jab’ line is clearly presented as opinion. It is thrown out in the middle of a (supposedly) factual article and no suggestion was made that it was merely the opinion of the writer.

I expected very little from the Press Complaints Commission and I was not disappointed.

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7 Responses to “What A Surprise – Not”

  1. pv Says:

    Yes, it’s hardly a surprise. Complaining to the PCC about press accuracy is no different from complaining to the SoH about homeopath malpractice or ethics. The PCC are run by and for the press. They are there as a sort of damage limitation exercise when things go seriously wrong, and they can slap some editor over the wrist and issue a stern warning about what won’t happen next time they’re a naughty boy.
    I mean, really,

    It was therefore appropriate to consider the headline in the context of the article as a whole…

    That is just so arse about face. Pathetic.

  2. Alan Henness (zeno) Says:

    Disappointing, but probably not entirely unexpected.

    Have you read Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News (www.flatearthnews.net)? I mentioned some of his figures about the PCC’s success rate here: http://tinyurl.com/d2fko9

  3. Barry Williams Says:

    This makes me wonder has there ever been a study into how many people will just read a headline and not the whole article, as I am sure there are many more cases where the headline is misleading and further explained in the context of the article. I know I often get sucked in by a headline start to read the article and then sometimes get bored due to my limited attention oh look a puppy 🙂

  4. jdc325 Says:

    The link from Zeno comes up as a 404 error on my browser. I think this is the relevant comment:
    Think Humanism.

    The punchline was this: “just 197 of the 28,227 complaints made […] were upheld by the PCC”.

  5. Zeno Says:

    Strange. It seems OK now.

  6. Do The PCC Need Expert Help? « Stuff And Nonsense Says:

    […] themselves of the expertise that currently exists but is not being utilised. JQH, for example, expected very little from the Press Complaints Commission and was not disappointed. I expect there are others who have been similarly unimpressed with PCC adjudications. Personally, […]

  7. A Second Year of Steam « Letting Off Steam Says:

    […] At the end of January, I covered the Daily Mail’s attempt to revive the MMR hoax here. A few month’s later, I noted that Paul Dacre is now in denial about his paper’s anti-MMR stance. Perhaps tiring of MMR, the Daily Mail decided a new scare was in order and set about trying to convince people that the HPV vaccine would kill or cripple their daughters – or possibly turn them into sluts. Fisked here. This story prompted me to make a complaint to the PCC but it was rejected. […]

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