The Mail ran this headline:
The Telegraph (Cervical cancer jab left girl, 13, in 'waking coma'), Sun (Cervical cancer jab puts girl, 13, in 'waking coma') and Metro (Cervical cancer jab leaves girl aged 13 in a ‘waking coma’) all ran similar headlines.
The articles were based on a report in a local paper, the News and Star, although that ran under the headline 'The Cumbrian girl who sleeps 23 hours a day'.
Several people were concerned at the way these headlines and articles definitely linked the jab with the girl's condition. Sense about Science said the 'articles are based purely on the parents' tentative suggestion' yet the headlines made this sound like proven fact. And there were at least three complaints (one by blogger JDC325, one by Heather Doran, and one by Josh, a reader of this blog) made to the PCC.
Josh told the PCC:
the fact that this unfortunate girl developed ME after the jab is not proof that the jab caused the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME), nor is it even, on its own, any sort of evidence at all that the jab caused ME.
The Telegraph reacted soon after the complaint was made, adding 'claim parents' to the end of the headline to make it clear it was an allegation from the family. The PCC cleared the Telegraph, ruling:
While the Commission acknowledged that the headline itself did not clearly denote the assertion as representing a claim, the sub-headline clearly stated that “the parents of a 13-year-old girl believe the cervical cancer jab has left their daughter in what they describe as a “waking coma”. Readers would understand from the outset that the article reflected allegations made by the parents rather than established fact...
There was no breach of Clause 1 (i) or Clause 1 (iii). That said, the Commission welcomed the newspaper’s decision to further clarify the headline by altering it to make clear that it reflected the parents’ claim.
However, the PCC ruled against the Mail, Metro and Sun:
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 Sun had already acted and, like the Telegraph, added 'claim parents' to the end of the headline. This came as something of a surprise to Josh, as the original response from the Sun - written by Executive Editor Fergus Shanahan - was very firm:
The Sun's story is a factual and balanced account of the way a young girl has fallen seriously ill after having the cervical cancer jab. We make no editorial claim one way or the other for the safety of the injection, although we are at pains to point out that - in the words of the Cumbrian Health Authority - it has "a strong safety record." We also note that girls have been immunised this way since 2008 and quote the manufacturers as saying the jab is safe.
Our headline accurately reflects precisely what has happened: the girl had a cervical cancer jab and then immediately fell into a state of extreme lethargy described as a "waking coma". Ergo, the jab put her into the waking coma. She wasn't in a coma before the jab but she was after the jab. That is a statement of fact, not opinion.
Josh dismissed this as 'laughable' - how could Shanahan say the Sun made 'no editorial claim one way or the other' yet a few sentences later state 'the jab put her into the waking coma'? And 'immediately' too, although the Mail's article states that it was two months after the final jab that Lucy began 'sleeping almost round-the-clock'.
So the Sun offered to change its headline and note the change with this line added to the end of the article:
The headline has been amended to make clear it reflects only an allegation that Ms Hink's illness was linked to the jab.
The PCC's ruling on the Mail said:
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.
And for the Metro:
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 Mail and Metro have now added the explanation to the end of their articles.
In summing up, the PCC made this point:
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.
Josh responded to that, telling this blog:
These are words to placate, not to resolve a problem. They have simply echoed my sentiment, without outlining any kind of action that might cause any kind of change in the press' behaviour.
My feeling is that this sums up just how useless the PCC is. Thousands of people read the original articles, a handful will read the corrections, and of those, it's unlikely that a single dry line can undo the impression formed by the sensational original stories.
The PCC's main role is not to regulate the press, but just to exist, enabling people to say "but look, we have a press complaints commission!" and therefore by its mere existence, it sustains the necessary charade that the press is accountable and responsive to criticism. It provides a sinkhole down which criticism can be funnelled away, an endless bureaucratic maze seemingly designed to frustrate and bore and exhaust complainants into submission.
JDC365 was also dissatisfied as he did not feel his complaint had been considered at all:
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.