DR. T. JAMES SPROTT AGAINST CONSUMER MAGAZINE

Case Number: 734

Council Meeting: March 1999

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Consumer Magazine

The Press Council has not upheld complaints of Dr. T.J. Sprott against Consumer magazine, which is the publication of the Consumers’ Institute of New Zealand Inc. (hereafter referred to as the Institute). Some background is necessary.

At the time of publication of the subject article Consumer was not under the jurisdiction of the Press Council but as the Press Council was prepared to accept the complaint and adjudicate if both parties agreed, that was the course adopted by them. The correspondence before the Council reveals that the dispute between Dr.Sprott and the Institute goes back several years but a condition imposed by the Institute was that jurisdiction was conceded to the Council to adjudicate only on the article printed in July 1998. That was accepted, and in any event the Council would not canvass old disputes that are now out of time.

For several years Dr Sprott’s name has been prominently associated with cot death research and he (with a colleague) has propounded a theory that cot deaths (also known as Sudden Infants Death Syndrome: SIDS) are related to, or caused by, toxic gas emanating from cot mattresses used for children. This theory has been current for several years and was the subject of a report commissioned by the British Ministry of Health (known as the Limerick Report) which found no good evidence to support the theory. The publication of the findings of the Limerick Report in Consumer is at the heart of this complaint.

In the July 1998 issue of Consumer under a heading CONSUMER NEWS, with the photograph of a baby in a cot, appeared an article with the headline COT DEATH THEORY DEBUNKED.The article set out to summarise the main findings of the Limerick Report, released in late May 1998. The Report was based on the investigations carried out by a panel of 12 experts assisted by Mr. Barry Richardson, the British scientist who developed the toxic gas theory. He is referred to above as a colleague of Dr Sprott. The article itself was an account of the Report, which was definitely critical of the theory, and the methodology used to support it.

Dr. Sprott complained first (details given below) to the Institute and sought to have the Institute print an article in Consumer, by him, rebutting the Limerick Report. Mr David Russell, Chief Executive of the Institute, firmly rejected Dr. Sprott’s criticism of the report and declined to print any rebuttal.

A complaint was then lodged with the Press Council mainly on two grounds that:
(a) Consumer has published a statement of scientific fact which it is unable and/or unwilling to substantiate;
(b) Having made a statement of scientific fact, Consumer in refusing to publish relevant material has engaged in unbalanced reporting.

There is a qualification as the extent of the complaint in that Dr. Sprott challenges the right of Consumer to introduce the subject article by describing the Limerick Report as “authoritative” and he also makes other linguistic points about the actual article. The complaint of Dr. Sprott that Consumer’s use of language in the article supports his contention of bias, and that it is unbalanced, is rejected.

The centre of Dr Sprott’s complaint is twofold in that he complains about the headline “Cot Death Theory Debunked”; and, secondly, that the failure of the Institute to accept a further article from him and other material on the toxic gas theory means it engaged in unbalanced reporting that he implies is unethical.

The Council here interpolates a caveat that is frequently made in somewhat similar circumstances; the Council expresses no opinion whatsoever on the merits, or otherwise, of the toxic gas cot death theory. The Council’s mandate is ethics in publishing.

The material that has been generated by this complaint is extensive. Dr. Sprott has argued strenuously for his viewpoint, on all grounds of his complaint, and answered the replies of the Institute at almost equal length. The variations and nuances of the material on the complaints have been carefully examined by the Council but little is to be gained in repeating them in this adjudication.

The first limb of the complaint is about the headline. Dr. Sprott expressed his complaint in this manner: “ Consumer ... by this title makes its own statement about the scientific validity of the toxic gas theory.” To illustrate his point, by example, Dr. Sprott cites the headline of the New Zealand Herald - “UK research finds cot death theory wrong” - as acceptable.

Headline, whether as a noun or verb, is one the most frequently used words, across the board, in the media. Whilst an earlier use in the print media might have weighted its meaning towards titling, as opposed to carrying contextual messages, that no longer constricts its use. A headline is now universally accepted as embracing the main point, or points, of the article beneath it, as well as any titling function it may have. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition, Edited by R. W. Burchfield
contains an interesting essay entitled “headline language” which, inter alia, states: “Readers simply regard headlines as blackboard pointers: the real message lies below.”

To argue, as Dr Sprott does, that the Consumer article by its headline advocates itself, as opposed to recounting the Limerick Report findings, a theory on toxic gas deaths is rejected by the Council. One of Dr. Sprott’s points is that the Institute is unqualified to undertake that task, but that only becomes an issue if the narrow, restricted, even strained, interpretation of the meaning of the headline by him is accepted. Dr Sprott seeks to have the Council decide his complaint on this ground as if the article beneath the headline was not there. In the Council’s view it is plain that the headline was summarising in 4 words (admittedly using the informal word debunk) the results of the Limerick Report. The interpretation of the headline cannot be isolated from the article itself. That another publication chose a different style of headline is not decisive on this complaint.

The disputed word in the headline is debunk. Whilst the Council rejects Dr. Sprott’s interpretation that by the headline it was making its own statement about the scientific validity of the theory there is another aspect upon which the Council comments. To use an informal word such as debunk about a scientific theory is probably too sweeping. Also it is a strong word in that headline as an indicator of that article, but the Council stops short of saying it is the wrong word.

The second limb of the complaint is that the Institute should not have rejected his request for a countervailing article. Dr. Sprott fashions a nexus between the two limbs of the complaint in this way: “ Since Consumer by the above heading has published its own scientific assessment of the theory ( rather than merely reporting, or stating opinion), Consumer now has a duty to publish relevant material on the topic for the purpose of providing a balanced account for readers.” The complaint of Dr. Sprott embraces the fact that Consumer would not print other experts who had written disagreeing with the findings of the Limerick Report.

In declining to print an article challenging the Limerick Report findings Mr Russell said as follows;“ Thank you for offering to contribute an item in response to our report of the Limerick findings. Your views on the subject are well known and we will not be offering you space to restate them.”

No matter how the point is turned in argument it still comes back to the right of an editor to decide what is to be printed in the publication he controls. There is no rule in publishing, or ethics, that can, in these circumstances, oblige an editor to give publishing space to a reader who seeks it, or to other views that challenge the Limerick Report. It is freedom of the press.

For the reasons given the Council does not uphold Dr. Sprott’s complaints against Consumer.

Neither Ms Suzanne Carty or Mr Brent Edwards took any part in this decision, and were not present when the Council made its decision.