The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by a reader’s letter published in the Byron Shire Echo headed “Midwife quits” on 17 April 2021. The letter stated “… Work with lies and deceit at all levels has led me to despair. I am very good at my job as midwife. You would want me to take care of you. You would be very safe in my care. ‘The jab’ cannot be called a vaccine. It will kill and it will make people very sick with autoimmune disease, which will manifest in many types of diseases. Please do not acquiesce.”
In response to a complaint, the Press Council asked the publication to comment on whether the letter complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice, which require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1); that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts (General Principle 3); and to avoid causing or contributing to substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6). The Council noted that the complaint raised concerns that the letter is likely to excite irrational fears surrounding vaccines. The complaint also expressed concern that the writer, who identified themselves as a ‘professional midwife’, could not be found on the register of midwives and nurses with the Australian Health Practitioner Registration Agency.
In response, the publication said the letter was published in the context of providing a balanced debate on vaccine safety. It said it also publishes letters and articles which strongly support vaccination, support an approach based on scientific evidence, and objections to anti-vax opinions, conspiracy theories and untruths. The publication said it reports the reality that there are a range of opinions on vaccination, without giving readers the impression that these opinions are accurate statements of fact. It said that given the longstanding vaccine scepticism in its community, it is in the public interest to publish a curated selection of material on the sorts of views its community holds, balanced with factual information and opposing views, rather than driving the whole debate to social media where there is less opportunity of opposing views being heard. The publication said it has also published criticism of its editorial stance on this issue from people who feel that it should not publish anti-vax opinions. The publication said that there is some validity to the comments noting that some people have died as a result of a particular vaccine. Nonetheless, the publication said while the letter writer was in fact a registered midwife, it took the letter down after further consideration of the letter’s content.
The Council notes that while a letter to the editor is very much an expression of the letter writer’s opinion, publications must nonetheless comply with the Council’s Standards of Practice in relation to letters they select and edit for publication. While the Council accepts that there have been reported cases of deaths associated with a particular type of vaccine, on the information available to it, there is no evidence to support the writer’s emphatic comment that vaccines “…will kill and it will make people very sick with autoimmune disease” is accurate. Accordingly, the Council finds the publication failed to take reasonable steps to comply with General Principles 1 and 3.
The Council recognises the significant public interest in publishing a range of views on matters of public debate. However, the Council considers there was no public interest in publishing significantly inaccurate and potentially harmful information concerning Covid-19 vaccines particularly in the time of a pandemic and when the letter writer is asserting they are a health professional. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication breached General Principle 6.
The Council welcomes the publication’s decision to remove the letter.
Relevant Council Standards
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
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.
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.