PCC Complaint. The Bearsden Herald, 13th June 2011 – NOT UPHELD
“Cannabis ‘Russian roulette’ warning”, the Bearsden Herald, 13-06-11
I wish to make a complaint concerning the above article which is still available online at: http://www.bearsdenherald.co.uk/news/cannabis_russian_roulette_warning_1_1672386
I make the complaint on my own account but also in my capacity as the Leader of Cannabis Law Reform (CLEAR), a UK political party, of P.O.Box 674, Salfords, Redhill, RH1 9BN. For the purposes of correspondence, please use my personal address as below.
1. This article breaches the Editors’ Code Of Practice clause 1.i) in that it publishes inaccurate, misleading and distorted information.
2. It also breaches clause 1.iii) in that it fails to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
3. The article is presented as a news story, not an opinion piece. It should therefore be concerned only with facts – unless comment or conjecture is clearly distinguished.
4. Although the article is presented as a report of what Charles Walker said in the House of Commons, that cannot absolve the newspaper from its responsibilities under clause 1.i) and 1.iii).
5. In the second paragraph, the article states that cannabis is “highly toxic and highly dangerous”. This is inaccurate, misleading and distorted information. It is a scientific fact that cannabis is extremely low in toxicity. This has been confirmed by every expert on the subject including the government’s chief drugs advisor, Professor Les Iversen. The therapeutic ratio of cannabis, the scientific measure of toxicity, is at least 1:20000 and perhaps as little as 1:40000. Neither is cannabis “highly dangerous”. Even if one argues that it is dangerous at all, which is difficult to support, it is absurd to describe it as “highly dangerous” in comparison to any other drug or activity. No deaths have ever been recorded as a sole result of cannabis. Whatever measure one chooses, cannabis is a remarkably safe substance compared to anything else. For instance, in 2009, hospital admissions for cannabis were 750, for peanuts 3000, for alcohol in excess of one million.
6. In the fifth paragraph, the article talks about “addiction to skunk cannabis”. This is inaccurate, misleading and distorted information. Cannabis is not addictive. It is recognised that dependence may occur in some users but this is at a comparatively low level. According to the Institute of Medicine report in 1999, dependency risks are: tobacco 32%, heroin 23%, cocaine 17%, alcohol 15%, cannabis 9%.
7. In the seventh paragraph, the article states “Child and adolescent mental health services across this country are dealing with thousands of youngsters and adolescents who are suffering severe psychotic illnesses and there is a causal link with skunk cannabis.” This is a wholly false statement. It is a lie. Professor Glyn Lewis, of the University of Bristol, internationally recognised as the pre-eminent authority on the subject, confirmed only a few weeks ago that there is no certainty of a causal link between cannabis use and psychosis. This is an hysterical and grossly irresponsible statement which a newspaper should not publish without a prominent warning or disclaimer.
8. In the eighth paragraph, the article states “…one in four carried a faulty gene for dopamine transmission and if a youngster had that gene and smoked skunk cannabis they were six times more likely to get a psychotic illness.” This is inaccurate, misleading and distorted information. It relates to research published in 2005 into a functional polymorphism in the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene which is present in 25% of the population. Just two years later, researchers at the University of Cardiff announced in the British Journal of Psychiatry that the link between cannabis use and the COMT gene was “unfounded”.
9. The blatant misinformation, untruths and inaccuracies contained within this article are so extreme that the newspaper has to take responsibility for publishing them without clearly distinguishing them as not being factual. Mr Walker was protected by parliamentary privilege when he spoke these untruths but that cannot protect the newspaper from repeating them without a very prominent warning or disclaimer.
I would be grateful if you would deal with this complaint at your earliest convenience. I shall be happy to provide any further information required or to give oral evidence in support.
Commission’s decision in the case of
CLEAR v Bearsden Herald/Newmarket Journal
The complainant, leader of the political party Cannabis Law Reform (CLEAR), was concerned that the articles were presented as news stories, rather than comment pieces and the newspapers had conflated opinion and fact with regard to the properties and impact of cannabis.
The Commission considered the complainant under the terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code which permits newspapers to report individual comment, provided it is clearly distinguished from fact. It noted that the two articles – which shared a headline and text as they had both originated from the Press Association news feed – were indeed reports of proceedings at the House of Commons. The majority of the articles’ content focussed on setting out Hertfordshire MP Chris Walkers’ views on cannabis as presented in the House. In fact, all of the points complained of were plainly presented as Mr Walker’s opinion on the subject and appeared either in quotation marks indicating his direct speech or preceded by the phrase “Mr Walker said”.
While the complainant had made clear his position that cannabis could not be considered: “highly toxic”; “highly dangerous”; addictive; or a cause of psychosis that could be linked to genetics (and had referred to a number of scientific studies that supported his stance), the Commission emphasised that Mr Walker was free to hold a contrasting view and the newspapers were entitled to report its existence under the terms of Clause 1 (iii).
The Commission was satisfied that readers generally would have recognised the articles as representing one particular view on a controversial issue and would not have been misled into believing that there was no alternative take on the matter.
No breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice had been established by the complaint.