The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by readers’ letters published in the Great Southern Weekender headed “Still infectious” on 22 July 2021 and “Lockdowns not the answer” 29 July 2021. The 22 July letter stated “The drug Ivermectin has been passed for use in treating COVID-19 infection…” and the 29 July letter stated “…the most prestigious medical journal in the world, “The Lancet”, has published a study indicating that the COVID-19 vaccines are only 0.84 per cent effective.”
In response to a complaint, the Press Council asked the publication to comment on whether the letters complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice, which require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1); that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts (General Principle 3); and to avoid causing or contributing to substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6). The Council noted that the complaint raised concerns that comments in the letters were inaccurate and could contribute to a substantial risk to health and safety.
In response, the publication said the letters both appeared on a regular page clearly labelled “Opinion” at the top of the page. Both letters included the author’s name and suburb, which clearly indicated they were the opinions of those individuals. While the letters themselves express erroneous views and incorrect facts, the publication said it had also published other letters, editorial comments and an interview with a clinical trials expert, which refuted those erroneous views and incorrect facts. The publication said, given the vast amount of misinformation freely available on the subject of COVID-19 treatment and prevention, it was unlikely that two letters would cause or contribute materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health and safety. The publication added that a letters page is an excellent public forum for public debate and the exchange of ideas, and that such debate is increasingly absent from the “echo chamber” of social media forums, from which many people source their ideas and opinions. The publication said in relation to the 29 July letter, the comment that vaccines are only 0.84 per cent effective, was a typo that it intended to correct noting that it ought to have said 84 percent effective.
The Council notes that while letters to the editor are very much an expression of the letter writer’s opinion, publications must nonetheless comply with the Council’s Standards of Practice in relation to letters they select and edit for publication. The Council considers that, on the information available to it, the letter writers’ comments concerning Ivermectin and vaccine efficacy rates are inaccurate and based on an omission of key facts. Accordingly, the Council finds the publication failed to take reasonable steps to comply with General Principles 1 and 3.
The Council recognises the significant public interest in publishing a range of views on matters of public debate. However, the Council considers there was no public interest in publishing significantly inaccurate and potentially harmful information concerning Covid-19 vaccines particularly during the pandemic. Accordingly, the Council also finds the publication failed to take reasonable steps to comply with General Principle 6.
The Council acknowledges the publication’s offer of correction of the 29 July 2021 letter.
Relevant Council Standards
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.