IMMUNISATION ADVISORY CENTRE AGAINST INVESTIGATE MAGAZINE

Case Number: 847

Council Meeting: November 2001

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Investigate Magazine

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Comment and Fact
Accuracy

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by the Immunisation Advisory Centre about articles in the April / May (No.11) and June / July (No.12) issues of Investigate magazine.

The editor challenged the Council’s ability to consider the complaint, saying the magazine did not fall within the Council’s jurisdiction. Its owners had not been party to agreements reached between the Council and some magazine publishers.

In the lifetime of the Press Council there have been very great changes in the expectations of citizens and consumers regarding opportunities to make complaints about products and services, and about their treatment by bureaucracies and institutions of many kinds. The Council on its part needed to respond and has clearly stated its reasons for broadening its coverage. In Case No 764: Peters against NORTH AND SOUTH (1999 Report p. 68), the Council said: “Self-regulation of newspapers and magazines in New Zealand requires that the regulator ensures, as far as possible, that the public are not deprived of the right to complain about a publication.” Similar considerations applied in the CRACCUM complaints, Cases Nos. 783-787, (2000 Report p.21; 30-38).

The policy now is that the Press Council considers complaints against newspapers, magazines and periodicals in public circulation in New Zealand (including their websites). There are exceptions with a publication of very limited or specialised readership. If the editor of a publication does not respond to the Council concerning a complaint, the Council will proceed to consider the complaint as best it can in the circumstances.

The Council has, therefore, taken up the complaint from IMAC. It claimed that Investigate had violated Press Council principles concerning accuracy, the distinction between comment and fact, and the need to make corrections. It said that the articles complained of had made a number of false allegations and misleading statements about immunisation, and about the actions of health authorities in New Zealand. Adverse publicity about the effects of vaccines had, in many countries, led to immunisation rates dropping because of the fears that had been raised.

In issue No.11 there were two articles on the alleged dangers of particular vaccines. The first article drew on New Zealand and overseas material, and the second was written by an American author about experience in his country. IMAC complained to the editor of Investigate, both about the content of the articles, particularly the first, “A Jab in the Dark” by Simon Jones, and about the magazine’s failure to use information and contacts provided to it by IMAC in advance of publication. Dr Siniva Sinclair, on behalf of IMAC, sent the editor a seven- page response to this article.

In issue No.12 her covering letter and an abridged version of the IMAC response were published. The full text of the IMAC response had been posted on the Healthtalk message board on the Investigate website. Both pieces from IMAC in No.12 were accompanied by aggressive editorial comment contesting some of the points IMAC had made in rebuttal of the initial article. This issue also published 10 letters about immunisation, and directed readers to more on the magazine’s website. A letter to the editor from another IMAC staff member about the second article in issue No. 11 was also posted on the website, but not published in the magazine.

In his response to the Press Council the editor vigorously affirmed his magazine’s commitment to investigative journalism and its determination to expose the harmful effects of some vaccines and “not to be used as some Government/pharmaceutical propaganda mouthpiece.” Notwithstanding his adherence to the jurisdictional point mentioned earlier he provided the Council with a large amount of material from overseas sources in support of his views.

In considering the complaint the Press Council quickly became aware of two important considerations. Firstly, the particular articles are part of a continuing campaign by Investigate magazine to expose alleged deficiencies in official policy and publicity concerning immunisation. There had been an earlier vaccination story in issue No.10. and a later issue No.14 carried several more letters on the topic. The magazine’s website, which carries much health-related material, is said to attract more readers than does the printed magazine.

Secondly, there is continuing international research into vaccine safety, proceeding alongside a vigorous debate about immunisation. This debate is being conducted in a wide range of publications, from prestigious medical journals to the popular press, and in a great variety of tones, from the restrained exchanges of professionals to the strident outrage of those who see cover-ups and conspiracy at every turn. Nothing highlights the clash in viewpoints more than the gulf between those who base their opinions on population-level statistical analysis of the benefits of immunisation, and those engrossed by painful personal or anecdotal stories of adverse effects.

This is clearly not a situation in which the Press Council can apply any simple test to determine the accuracy and balance of the claims and allegations made in the particular articles against which IMAC complains. The Council is not constituted or resourced to pursue enquiries that might enable it to adjudicate on the complex issues, even if that were a feasible task in the short term. There are other sound reasons why it should not make an adjudication founded on accuracy and balance. These are very large public issues under almost permanent surveillance and adjustment, often directly affected by a robust confrontation and exchange of views by the protagonists to the debate.

There are deeply-held convictions and passionate feelings at work in the immunisation debate and some protagonists express their views in ways that others find offensive. Campaigning magazines such as Investigate aim to jolt readers into looking at things differently, and use hard-hitting tactics. It was unfair of the magazine to headline Dr Sinclair’s response to Simon Jones article: gutter journalism scares parents: health authorities, implying she had used that derogatory term in her response. However, the Press Council does not think that, taken overall, the Investigate articles go beyond what is acceptable in this adversary style of journalism.

The Council notes that Investigate gave significant space to IMAC’s response, both in the magazine and on its website. This is what the ongoing situation requires – a free exchange of views that will assist members of the public, especially parents of young children, to reach their own informed conclusions.

The complaint is not upheld.

People with complaints against a newspaper or magazine should first complain in writing to the editor of the publication and then, if not satisfied with the response, complain to the Press Council. Complaints should be addressed to the Secretary, P O Box 10 879 The Terrace, Wellington. Tel 473 5220. Information on the Press Council is also available on the internet at www.presscouncil.org.nz