The press regulator IPSO has not upheld my complaint against the Daily Telegraph. The ruling suggests that it is acceptable for a newspaper article to repeat misleading claims, with no critical comment, if the claims are made within the context of ‘alternative’ medicine.
In an article headlined Alternative health: what is naturopathy, published on 7th November 2014, practitioner Katrin Hempel promotes live blood analysis, bioresonance and biopunture – all useless, pseudoscientific techniques. At no point is it made clear that her claims are misleading. Notably, Hempel’s company, London Natural Therapies, is listed as non-compliant by the Advertising Standards Authority because of her refusal to remove similarly misleading claims from her advertising.
As others pointed out at the time, the entire article was a totally credulous and irresponsible promotion of quackery. I wrote to the Daily Telegraph suggesting they issue a correction and publish a follow-up article to clarify that Hempel’s claims are misleading and potentially harmful. I felt that some readers could be led to believe that the techniques described are credible and effective.
The Daily Telegraph did not agree. They replied:
The article makes no claim for the efficacy of Ms Hempel’s treatment. It makes clear that naturopathy is an ‘alternative’ therapy, whose status as a treatment unrecognised and unapproved by medical science is readily understood by readers. There is therefore nothing inaccurate or misleading to correct.
Although they did not feel the article was problematic, they nevertheless amended it slightly following later correspondence, adding “claims” and “she claims”, to further clarify that the claims were being made by Hempel herself.
I complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which was established last September following the demise of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The Editors’ Code of Practice remains unchanged. According to Clause 1 (Accuracy):
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
iv) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.
Findings of the Committee
Their findings were as follows. I suggest you consider each of these points while reading the article.
The Press is entitled to report individual comment and conjecture, as long as such claims are clearly distinguished from fact. The Committee emphasised the importance of making this distinction clear, particularly in articles which report matters which could have an impact on public health.
I am not convinced that Hempel’s claims are clearly distinguished from fact. If it’s blatantly obvious she’s talking utter drivel, what was the point of the article?
The Committee noted the complainant’s concern regarding the efficacy of the techniques described in the article, and that another regulator had previously issued a decision stating that claims about live blood analysis were unproven. However, the piece was headlined as a report of “alternative health”, signalling to readers that any techniques described were outside of conventional health practice. Further, the article was clearly presented as an interview with the practitioner in question. It was therefore implicit from the context that all claims were those of the naturopath. In the context of such an article, the newspaper was not obliged to include criticism of the therapy described.
Readers are expected to assume that anything under the heading “alternative health” is outside of conventional health practice. This means that any of the techniques described are not supported by evidence and could be ineffective or harmful. Those promoting such treatments can make whatever misleading and unsubstantiated claims they like. The opinion of the ASA is of no relevance, since this is outside their remit.
The Committee noted with some concern the headings in the article, “what is it?”, “what is it good for”, and “how does it work”. However, the article was part of a series in which these headings were used as standard. The Committee was therefore satisfied that these headings were a means of presentation, rather than claims of efficacy.
Because these headings are used as standard, “how does it work” does not mean it works and “what is it good for” does not mean it’s good for anything.
As the other articles within this series are also within the context of ‘alternative health’, presumably readers are also expected to be sceptical of suggestions that the Viva Mayr diet cleanses the gut and is good for fertility and diabetes, and that acupuncture is good for infertility and IBS. Similarly, there is no need for anyone to point out that claims that the Rolf Method “can have an impact on conditions ranging from headaches to the digestion” are unsubstantiated.
The Committee welcomed the newspaper’s amendments to the article, which had the effect of distinguishing more clearly that the comments in the article were those of the therapist interviewed. Nonetheless, given the nature of the original article, the Committee was satisfied that the references about which the complainant was concerned were not significantly misleading, such that a correction would be required. While naturopathy may be a controversial subject, the newspaper was entitled to present the position of a practitioner of alternative therapy. There was no breach of Clause 1.
I accept that it is clear that the comments were those of the therapist and that the newspaper is entitled to present her position. However, I considered the article to be misleading because Hempel’s views were not presented as controversial opinions, but as facts.
IPSO did not agree. It seems that quacks can tell journalists they can “put healthy electromagnetic frequencies back into the cells” and that they can diagnose disease using live blood analysis, bioresonance or indeed any bogus technique they like. If the claims are being made by an alternative therapist, readers should not assume that they are factual.
I think it was irresponsible of the Daily Telegraph and IPSO to ignore my concerns. I don’t believe that readers really do expect reputable newspapers to uncritically print false and misleading promotional claims, even within the context of alternative health. Allowing quacks the credibility afforded by such articles shows an utter lack of concern for readers, who could suffer serious harm as a result.
Alternative to health: The Telegraph does a totally credulous piece on naturopathy Doubtful News, 07/11/14
Irresponsible promotion of quackery even by the ‘respectable’ press Edzard Ernst, 08/11/14
How does naturopathy work? A bit like a flying vacuum-cleaner to Mars Tom Chivers, The Spectator, 10/11/14
Your Friday Dose of Woo: Naturopathy and “bioresonance” Orac, Respectful Insolence, 14/11/14