The Press Council considered a complaint from Dr Stephen Bright about articles published in The Daily Telegraph headed “Experts accused of skewing statistics to help support their views on pill testing” online on 16 July 2019, “PILL YOUR HEADS IN: Experts’ MDMA testing evidence slammed” in print on 17 July 2019 and the editorial “Sniffer dogs not deadly” in print and online on 16 July 2019.
The articles reported on an inquest into the deaths of “six young revellers at last summer’s dance festivals” as a result of “complications from MDMA use”. The articles reported that Dr Bright is “one of a number of experts contacted by the inquest who have backed pill testing at festivals”, who “have been accused of skewing statistics to support their views” by a prison forensic psychiatrist and a respected medical expert from Brisbane’s Princess Alexandria Hospital who in an expert report indicated that pill testing remains unproven. The editorial also reported on Dr Bright’s statement that “MDMA itself is not a particularly harmful drug” and stated that the “families of those six dead Australians may take issue with Dr Bright’s analysis”.
The complainant said that the statement he had “been accused of skewing statistics” was inaccurate and misleading as the expert report of the forensic psychiatrist and medical expert contained no reference to him specifically or to ‘skewing statistics.’ The complainant said that this statement is merely the publication’s interpretation of the whole report and not what was actually stated.
The complainant said that the word ‘skewed’ carries a grave meaning when read from an academic’s perspective as it suggests falsification of data and a breach of academic integrity, which he said could have serious repercussions on his career.
The publication said the comment that Dr Bright had “been accused of skewing statistics” accurately reflects the critique of pill testing advocacy by experts such as Dr Bright contained in the expert report. It said that although the expert report does not use the word ‘skewing’, a reading of the full report makes the intentions of its authors clear. The publication noted the authors of the expert report stated that there is “no evidence to date from anywhere in the world that pill testing reduces drug-related deaths or other adverse incidents at dance and music festivals”, despite the statistics put forward by Dr Bright and others in support of pill testing.
The publication also said that it used the word in its ordinary sense and with the intent of writing to an audience of ordinary readers, not academics.
The publication also said that the article named Dr Bright because it quoted Dr Bright’s statements provided to the inquest as presenting one side of the pill testing debate, while using the expert report to provide the other side. The publication said that the article is a fair and accurate account which presents both sides of the debate.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or unfair or unbalanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council notes that it is legitimate journalistic practice to comment on public submissions and considers that the article was a reasonably accurate summary of a report that suggested that experts who support pill testing, including Dr Bright, were ‘skewing’ data to support their argument. The Council notes that while the article named the complainant, the article referred to him as being one of a number of experts. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principles 1 and 2.
The Council considers that by using the public submission of Dr Bright and the expert report of the forensic psychiatrist and medical expert, thus showing both sides of the pill testing debate, the publication took reasonable steps to present factual material with reasonable fairness and balance. The Council notes that given the article was based on material considered by the Coroner in the course of the coronial process, there was no requirement for the publication to contact the complainant for comment. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principles 3 and 4.
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
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.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.