380/2020 - Mr David Quinn and The Irish Times (Article published on 12 February 2020)

By admin
Wednesday, 23rd September 2020
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The Press Council of Ireland upheld an appeal made by Mr David Quinn against the following decision of the Press Ombudsman.

The Press Ombudsman had decided that The Irish Times had offered to take and took sufficient action to resolve a complaint made by Mr Quinn under Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. 

On 12 February 2020 The Irish Times published an article in its print edition under the heading “Surge in number of new cases of mumps” and in its online edition under the heading “One thousand new cases of mumps recorded in first six weeks of year”. Both versions included the claim in relation to the increase that “Although non-vaccination is a significant factor, waning immunity has also played a role”

Mr Quinn wrote to the editor of The Irish Times stating that the claim about the proportion of unvaccinated people getting mumps was “clearly untrue ”as “according to the HPSC (Health Protection Surveillance Centre) and the eurosurveillance.org website only 8% of cases in Ireland in 2018 were unvaccinated and between August 2018 and January 2020 only 12% of cases were unvaccinated”. Mr Quinn asked that this “significant inaccuracy” be correctly promptly and with due prominence. In a follow up email to The Irish Times Mr Quinn provided several links to reports that the increase in mumps worldwide was primarily due to waning immunity amongst vaccinated people. He also noted that the online version of the article had been amended. He asked the editor “Is this an acknowledgement that the original article was incorrect?” He noted that there had been no attempt in the print edition to “put the record straight”

Mr Quinn made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman.

The editor of The Irish Times defended what had been published, noting that 68% of the people who had got mumps in the eurosurveillance.org research had not given their vaccination status and that it seemed  “reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of the persons who did not report a vaccination status were not actually vaccinated”.  He further noted that Dr Suzanne Cotter of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre “maintains that mumps are more likely to occur among unvaccinated people or those who had received only one dose” (of vaccine). He added that the online article had been amended “on foot of Mr Quinn’s complaint” from” Although most cases have involved unvaccinated people” to “Although non-vaccination is a significant factor”. The editor offered to publish a correction in the print edition of the newspaper.

Mr Quinn responded that the offer to publish a correction in the print edition “does not go far enough”. He also claimed that the editor’s reference to Dr Cotter’s views were an attempt to “obfuscate the matter” drawing attention to a report on mumps amongst 15-24 year-olds in  Northern Ireland where the majority of those in that age group who got mumps had received the two doses of the MMR vaccine. He also claimed that his complaint about the online article “had not been addressed sufficiently” or “promptly”.

As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

Decision of the Press Ombudsman

There is clearly disagreement about the efficacy of the MMR vaccine in protecting people against mumps. Mr Quinn has cited reports that many people who have been vaccinated have reduced or lost their immunity. It is quite clear however that the medical authorities fundamentally believe in the importance of the MMR vaccine and the role it plays in preventing the spread of mumps. Mr Quinn believes the article was inaccurate in its references to the proportion of unvaccinated people who get mumps. The Irish Times by amending the article online acknowledged that it, as originally worded, needed addressing. It is my view that Mr Quinn’s concerns were addressed adequately by the amendment of the article online. Principle 1.3 of the Code requires when appropriate a … clarification shall be published promptly and with due prominence. I note that the article currently online includes reference to it having been edited. Whilst Mr Quinn disagrees, I believe this is a sufficient acknowledgement of the need for an amendment to the original article. I would have preferred if readers of the article today were provided with more information on the nature of the edit but, nonetheless, I find that sufficient action was taken to address Mr Quinn’s complaint and therefore I find no breach of Principle 1.

In regard to the print edition of the article the offer by the editor to publish a correction was sufficient to address the requirement found in Principle 1.3 of the Code.

On 4 September 2020 the Press Council upheld an appeal submitted by Mr Quinn on the grounds that the Press Ombudsman had erred in his application of Principle 1 of the Code of Practice.

Click here to read the full decision of the Press Council.