ROSS FRANCIS AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 3074

Council Meeting: JULY 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Conflict of Interest
Misleading

Overview

1. A complaint that an article on Covid-19 vaccine safety breached Media Council principles relating to accuracy, fairness and balance; conflicts of interest and corrections. The complaint was not upheld.

Background

2. Ross Francis complained about an item published by the New Zealand Herald on May 14, 2021 under the headline Covid 19 coronavirus: Why new vaccine is safe – your question answered.

3. The article reported Auckland University vaccine expert Dr Helen Petousis-Harris’ answers to questions on the vaccine.

4. In part the article reads:

How safe is the vaccine?

The Pfizer-BioNTech Cov-19 vaccine is very safe. It has been formally tested on more than 40,000 people - half received the vaccine, the other half a placebo which consisted of slightly salty water. Since it started being used widely, tens of millions of people have now received it.

In the trials, people were followed very closely for adverse events and the results between the vaccinated and unvaccinated were compared. People receiving the vaccine were more likely to experience more flu-like symptoms in the day or two afterwards and this was more noticeable after the second dose. However, there were no events of concern that were more common in the vaccine group. Regulators will be keeping a close eye on one event known as Bell’s palsy, which involves a temporary weakness of the face. It is quite common with around 1000 cases in NZ each year. So far this is not showing up as a problem and is probably not linked to the vaccine but it continues to be monitored along with other events that are of particular interest.

The Complaint

5. Ross Francis said the article contained misleading information. It was false to say “there were no events of concern that were more common in the vaccine group.” The article did not say why regulators were keeping a close eye on Bell’s palsy and nor did it report that four people in the vaccine trial contracted the condition while none who received the placebo had been affected. For reasons best known to Dr Petousis-Harris and theHerald, this information was not given to readers and he speculated that they were “concerned that telling the truth about the Pfizer vaccine could dissuade some people from being vaccinated against Covid-19.”

6. Under the Health and Disability Commissioner Act 1994 everyone had the right to be fully informed before choosing a health care procedure. On the face of it Dr Petousis-Harris appeared to have breached that. She was undoubtedly aware of the increased risk of Bell’s palsy associated with the vaccine but chose not to divulge that to the public.

7. He said he made a formal complaint to the Herald on May 15 saying the article misinformed readers, was risky and should be removed or amended by the end of business on May 17 at the latest. TheHerald did not respond or make any changes to the online article by that time.

8. He also complained that Dr Petousis-Harris and the Herald had failed to disclose any conflicts of interest. Since the article was published it had been reported that Dr Petousis-Harris had been appointed to lead a global study of the vaccine’s safety. If available at the time, this information should have been disclosed by theHerald as “It is apparent that she will not be raising any serious concerns about its safety.”

The Response

9. NZME planning editor Andrew Laxon apologised for failing to respond to Mr Francis’ May 14 complaint, saying the email was overlooked.This oversight was inadvertent.

10. He denied the claim that the Q&A misrepresented the risk of Bell’s palsy from the Pfizer vaccine. The higher number of Bell’s palsy cases in those vaccinated during the trial was flagged for further monitoring. However, it was not regarded as an event of concern for three reasons. Bell’s Palsy is common, not considered particularly serious and usually resolves itself. The observed rate of cases in the trial was considered to be lower than normally expected without vaccination at the time. There was a statistical probability that the greater rate observed in the vaccine group was by chance.

11. Trial data had been completely overtaken by much more extensive data from the US mass vaccination programme, which had shown no reason for concern.

12. Rather than suppressing public knowledge of the Bell’s palsy reaction the article had referred to it when it was not widely known at the time.

13. Dr Petousis-Harris had no concerns over Bell’s palsy reactions. She described case report figures as “hypothesis generating, rather than evidence for causality” and that real world experience had not established a greater risk for Bell’s palsy in people receiving the vaccine.

14. Dr Petousis-Harris was one of the world’s leading experts on vaccine safety and co-leader of the Global Vaccine Data Network, a multinational consortium dedicated to collaboration in vaccine safety studies and previously chaired the World Health Organisation Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety.

15. Responding to Mr Francis’s conflict of interest claim, Mr Laxon said Dr Petousis-Harris role in leading Auckland University’s project to study the vaccine’s safety was further proof of her knowledge in this area and the reason theHerald asked her to write the Q&A in the first place.

16. He also forwarded Dr Petousis-Harris’ response to Mr Francis’ claim saying: “I am not personally receiving any funds from industry to investigate the safety of Covid-19 vaccines. I have no Covid-19 industry funded studies. The research I am involved with that is funded by the US CDC includes all Covid-19 vaccines that are being administered in our partner countries, not just the Pfizer vaccine. The programme of activities is being led by partners all over the world and the protocols will be in the public domain.”

The Decision

17. Covid-19 is a very serious health issue. As of mid-July 2021 the global pandemic is reported to have infected 190 million people and killed 4.08 million. It has overwhelmed health systems in many countries and vaccines are seen as a key to controlling the pandemic.

18. New Zealand has so far been spared the worst by instituting strict quarantines, lockdowns and other public health measures and the roll out of the Pfizer vaccine is part of the effort to keep the country safe. Clearly public confidence in the safety of the vaccine is crucial and as a public service to its readers the Herald sought the help of Dr Petousis-Harris to prepare a Q&A on the vaccine.

19. She is an internationally recognised vaccine safety expert who was well-qualified to sift the mass of information generated by the global scientific effort to develop, test and roll out vaccines. The article was an easy-to-read response to key questions people may have.

20. Mr Francis based his main complaint on one sentence in a paragraph (see point 4) responding to the question “How safe is the vaccine?” The sentence that he said was false reads: “However, there were no events of concern that were more common in the vaccine group.”

20. Mr Francis believed this was false and that the article downplayed the incidence of Bell’s palsy in the initial Pfizer trial as reported in The Lancet.

21.However, the sentence is part of a lengthy paragraph in which Dr Petousis-Harris looks beyond the initial trial and to the subsequent rollout experience in which millions of people have been vaccinated. She makes brief reference to Bell’s palsy and states “so far this is not showing up as a problem and is probably not linked to the vaccine.”

22. That is her expert opinion and we have no information to say that it is unfounded, misleading or that readers have been misinformed. The complaint under Media Council principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) is not sustained and nor is the complaint under principle 12 (corrections).

23. There is also nothing to support Mr Francis’ claim that Dr Petousis-Harris has a conflict of interest. Her link to the subject is declared. She is an internationally acknowledged expert on vaccine safety, which makes her a credible source of advice on the subject. She also said she was not receiving any funds from industry to investigate the safety of Covid-19 and had no Covid-19 industry funded studies. There is no breach of principle 10 (conflicts of interest)

24. The complaint is not upheld.

25. However, the Media Council has one concern - that the Herald did not pick up on Mr Francis’ complaint at the time he filed it. The Council understands publications receive many complaints but a responsible and responsive media must have systems to monitor complaints and respond promptly. The Herald took more than a month, and a formal complaint to the Media Council, before it finally acknowledged the complaint and then just apologised for overlooking emails. In that respect its handling of this complaint was not satisfactory. That aside, the Council appreciates the thoroughness with which it ultimately dealt with the matter when it did address it.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Sandy Gill, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

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