PCC Complaint. The Mail On Sunday, 16th January 2011 – Not Upheld
“The crazed smile that says: It’s the little packets of madness that we really need to fear”, The Mail On Sunday, 16-01-11
I wish to make a complaint concerning the above article which first appeared online on 15th January 2011 and was published in the print edition the following day. The article is still available online at: http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2011/01/the-crazed-smile-that-says-its-the-little-packets-of-madness-that-we-really-need-to-fear.html
I make the complaint on my account but also in my capacity as the Speaker 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. The Mail On Sunday (MOS) is also in breach of clause 2 in that it has failed to provide an opportunity for reply to inaccuracies.
4. The headline is inaccurate and misleading. It also confuses comment, conjecture and fact. It purports to be a diagnosis of “craziness” caused by “little packets of madness” (cannabis). Unless the journalist concerned has a medical qualification he is unable to say what caused the smile on Jared Loughner’s face. It is also inaccurate and misleading to say that cannabis causes madness or needs to be feared. These claims are conjecture presented as 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.
5. At the 11th paragraph the article states “…it seems likely that he has lost his reason. Why and how? The most likely cause is Loughner’s daily cannabis-smoking habit. The link between this drug and serious mental illness grows clearer every day.” This is inaccurate and misleading and confuses comment, conjecture and fact. See the evidence above, it is, in fact, extremely unlikely that cannabis smoking could have caused Loughner to lose his reason and the link between cannabis and mental illness does not grow clearer every day.
Furthermore, the evidence as reported in the US media, according to Loughner’s friends, is that he had “given up using marijuana during the fall of 2008″.
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.
6. In the 16th paragraph the article states: “Cannabis is now effectively legal in Britain and in several parts of the USA, where this dangerous and unpredictable poison is ironically permitted for ‘medical use’”. This is inaccurate and misleading and confuses comment, conjecture and fact.
Cannabis is not “effectively” legal in Britain at all. Every day people are receiving prison sentences in connection with cannabis, Neither can cannabis be called “dangerous” or a “poison”. The Therapeutic Ratio is a scientific term that compares a basic dose of a drug to the fatal dose. In alcohol the ratio is 1:50, in paracetamol 1:30, in cannabis 1:10000. It is physically impossible to ingest a lethal dose of cannabis.
7. From the 18th paragraph the article states “The town council of liberal Pima (scene of the murders) last week took the first step towards licensing ‘dispensaries’ for dope. Arizona has always had plenty of guns. America has always had heated political rhetoric. What is new is that it now has legal dope as well. Those who are seriously interested in public safety should worry less about guns and radio shock jocks, and more about the little packets of madness on sale in every school.” This is inaccurate and misleading and confuses comment, conjecture and fact.
The town of Pima was not the scene of the murders. The shooting took place in Tucson which is about 150 miles away. The suggestion is that Arizona “now has legal dope”. In fact, the medical marijuana dispensaries have yet to open. The implication that “legal dope” is on sale in every school is also false and misleading.
8. I wrote to Peter Wright, editor of the MOS, on 20th January 2011 (copy attached below) asking for an opportunity to respond and correct the inaccuracies in the article. I spoke to his PA, Sarah Amos, on the telephone on three subsequent occasions asking for a response. I also sent a “letter for publication” on 25th January 2011 (copy attached below). I have had no response from the MOS nor have any corrections been published.
9. The overall effect of the article is inaccurate and misleading and it confuses comment, conjecture and fact in the most crass and inflammatory way. It is in fact dangerously hysterical and sensationalist. The journalist and editor concerned have failed miserably in their “duty to maintain the highest professional standards”.
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: Peter Reynolds
Sent: Thursday, January 20, 2011 12:21 PM
Subject: For the attention of Peter Wright, Editor
“The Crazed Smile That Says: It’s The Little Packets Of Madness that We Really Need To Fear” – Peter Hitchens
Dear Mr Wright,
Your readers deserve to hear the other side of this story. Peter Hitchens has gone too far this time.
I am the Speaker of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance. We are extremely concerned about the article published last Sunday. Mr Hitchens is well known for his extremist views on cannabis but this plumbs new depths of inaccuracy, sensationalism and scaremongering. It is as shockingly bad journalism as anything I have ever seen.
Usually, I would reply to such a piece on the LCA website or my blog. This was so extreme though, that I decided not to dignify it with a response. However, it has now been picked up in the US and is being described as “Britain’s Reefer Madness” http://reason.com/blog/2011/01/19/reefer-madness-spreads-to-the
We are now considering a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission. However, if you were prepared to give us the opportunity to respond that might be a better route for all concerned.
It may interest you to know that the LCA is to re-launch its campaign shortly. It seems almost certain that cannabis will be legalised in at least one state in the US this year or next. Next month I anticipate that we will be re-registering as a political party and fielding candidates at all future byelections. There are six million regular users of cannabis in Britain and it is time our voices were heard.
I would be grateful for a response.
—– Original Message —–
From: Peter Reynolds
Sent: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 2:58 PM
Subject: For publication concerning your anti-cannabis crusade
Why is the Mail On Sunday so fixed on a bigoted and unjustifiable anti-cannabis crusade?
Even the Home Office admits there are six million regular uses of cannabis in Britain, so in reality there are probably many more. Hundreds of thousands of your own readers are regular cannabis users. Isn’t it about time that you started telling the truth rather than distributing hysteria, selectively edited science and blatant propaganda?
When the campaign against cannabis started back in the 1930s it was simply racist. Cannabis was said to make white women promiscuous with black men. Then they tried to say that cannabis makes you violent. When that didn’t work they tried completely the opposite and said it makes you lazy and apathetic. The latest scare story about psychosis is just as silly and misleading. 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.
Peter Hitchens is a well known extremist on the subject. Why do you keep on giving him a platform for his ridiculous views without offering some balance? Why don’t you give the Legalise Cannabis Alliance the opportunity to respond to his distortions and misinformation?
Under the Editors’ Code Of Practice, you have a responsibility to your readers “not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”, yet when it comes to cannabis you are consistently and flagrantly in breach of this.
Even in your own poll a few weeks ago, more than 70% of people wanted to see drug law reform. You are out of step with public opinion as well as the facts. When will this change?
Published In the Mail On Sunday, 13th February 2011
—– 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.