PCC Complaint. The Mail On Sunday, 13th February 2011
“Why, Mr Broken Reed, is being controversial a sacking offence?”, The Mail On Sunday, 13-02-11
I wish to make a complaint concerning the above article which is still available online at: http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2011/02/why-mr-broken-reed-is-being-controversial-a-sacking-offence.html
I make the complaint on my account but also in my capacity as the Leader of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance, a political party, of P.O.Box 674, Salfords, 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 confuses comment, conjecture and fact.
3. This complaint relates to PCC complaint no.110677 made on 3rd February 2011. It compounds and aggravates the earlier complaint by repeating exactly the same phrase that was the subject of the earlier complaint. The journalist and editor concerned were clearly aware of the earlier complaint and so their conduct amounts to a flagrant defiance of the Press Complaints Commission and is deeply antagonistic and disrespectful.
4. In paragraph 12 the article uses the phrase “little packets of madness” to refer to cannabis. This is inaccurate, misleading and distorted information for the same reasons as presented in complaint no. 110677. It also confuses comment, conjecture and fact.
There is evidence of some correlation between cannabis use and mental health problems but very little of causation. There is, in fact, much stronger evidence of correlation between tobacco smoking and mental health but no one is claiming that tobacco causes madness.
Professor Glyn Lewis of the University Of Bristol reviewed all the published evidence on the subject in 2009 and says that 96% of people can use cannabis without any risk of psychosis at all and in the remaining 4% the risk is statistically tiny. In contrast the risk of developing psychosis through alcohol use is at least 100 times greater.
In Britain in 2009, the ACMD commissioned a study by Keele University into the trends in schizophrenia specifically to test the claims in the media of a link between it and cannabis. It looked at almost 600,000 patients and concluded that “..the incidence and prevalence of schizophrenia and psychoses were either stable or declining” despite alleged increased use of allegedly more potent cannabis.
5. In response to complaint no. 110677, the Mail On Sunday (MOS), agreed to publish a letter as follows:
“Peter Hitchens is well known for his extremist views on cannabis but his hysterical column on January 16 plumbed new depths of inaccuracy, sensationalism and scaremongering.
This latest scare story about psychosis is just silly and misleading.
Professor Glyn Lewis of the University Of Bristol reviewed all the published evidence and says 96 per cent of people can use cannabis without any risk of psychosis while for the remaining four per cent the risk is statistically tiny. The risk from alcohol is at least 100 times greater.
The Legalise Cannabis Alliance”
The letter was published on page 101 of the MOS issue dated 13th February 2011. In the same issue the article to which this complaint relates, including the repeated use of the phrase “little packets of madness” appeared on page 31. Therefore, not only was the letter not given “due prominence” as required under the Editors’ Code, its value was entirely negated by the repeated and more prominent publication of the phrase.
6. The journalist and editor concerned have failed miserably in their “duty to maintain the highest professional standards”. They display contempt and disrespect towards the Press Complaints Commission and the complaints procedure.
I would be grateful if you would deal with this complaint at your earliest convenience. I shall be happy to provide any furrther information required or to give oral evidence in support.
—– Original Message —–
From: Charlotte Dewar
Sent: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 6:32 PM
Subject: PCC Complaints 110677/111062 – Mail on Sunday – Commission’s Decision
Commission’s decision in the case of
Reynolds v The Mail on Sunday
The complainant was concerned that two articles about cannabis published by the newspaper had raised breaches of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code. The complainant said that the articles had created a misleading impression of the dangers of using cannabis and included several other inaccuracies. He was particularly concerned that the article had referred to cannabis as “little packets of madness” and had suggested that cannabis had influenced the actions of Jared Lee Loughner, who has been charged with killing six people in Arizona in January and injuring 14 others.
Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code states that publications must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and that the press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
The complainant was concerned by the first article’s reference to cannabis as “little packets of madness”. He also objected to the columnist’s suggestion that “it seems likely that [Jared Loughner] has lost his reason”, and that “the most likely cause is [his] daily cannabis-smoking habit”. The complainant said that current research has demonstrated that the risk of psychosis from cannabis use is tiny. It was also misleading and inaccurate to suggest that cannabis is “effectively legal” in Britain and in several parts of the US, and to describe cannabis as a “dangerous and unpredictable poison”.
The Commission noted first that these claims had appeared in two contentious opinion articles, contributions to an ongoing scientific and popular controversy. The Commission considered that readers would generally have recognised that in referring to cannabis as a “poison” and “little packets of madness”, the columnist was making the rhetorical point that cannabis represents a serious danger to the mental health of its consumers. Nonetheless, taken as a whole the articles did suggest that the consumption of cannabis posed a potential risk to health, and the newspaper was obliged to demonstrate that in making this suggestion it had taken care as required under the terms of Clause 1 not to publish inaccurate or misleading information. The newspaper had provided a leaflet from the Royal College of Psychiatrists which stated, “Over the past few years, research has strongly suggested that there is a clear link between early cannabis use and later mental health problems in those with a genetic vulnerability – and that there is a particular issue with the use of cannabis by adolescents.” Although the complainant considered that this claim was out of date, the Commission could not intervene in such a debate without clear evidence of a factual inaccuracy or misleading statement. In the view of the Commission, none had been established; there was no breach of the Code in this respect.
The Commission next considered the complainant’s concerns about the columnist’s claim that “it seems likely that [Jared Loughner] has lost his reason”, and that “the most likely cause is [his] daily cannabis-smoking habit”. It appeared to be accepted by both parties that Jared Loughner had at one point used cannabis on a regular basis. The Commission took the view that the suggestion that he had “lost his reason” as a result had been clearly distinguished as conjecture by the columnist’s use of the phrases “it seems likely” and “the most likely cause”; this did not raise an issue under the terms of the Code. Similarly, the claim that cannabis is “effectively legal” in Britain and in parts of the US represented the columnist’s view of the way laws controlling the substance are applied. Readers would not have been given the misleading impression by this that cannabis had been formally legalised.
The complainant was also concerned that the columnist had described the town of Pima, Arizona, as the “scene of the murders” and had stated that “what is new” in America is that it now has “legal dope”. The complainant said that the murders had occurred in Tucson, and the dispensaries were not yet open. The Commission noted that the first sentence of the article had made clear that the killings had taken place in Tucson; in this context, it did not consider that readers would have been significantly misled by the reference to Pima. The article had referred to Pima “taking the first step towards” licensing dispensaries for marijuana; the Commission considered that this had clarified the position. No breach of the Code had been established on these points.
Finally, the complainant was also concerned that a letter setting out his views had not been published with due prominence, and he objected to the repetition of the phrase “little packets of madness” in the same edition of the newspaper in which the letter had appeared. While it was unfortunate that the complainant and the newspaper had been unable to amicably resolve the matter, the Commission made clear that the Code’s requirement of due prominence applies specifically to published corrections and apologies, rather than letters. The Commission had not found a breach of the Code with regard to the phrase “little packets of madness”, and the newspaper was free to repeat it. The complainant’s concerns in this regard did not raise an issue under the terms of the Code.