The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article headed “Lockdowns show Australia has lost its marbles” published online by The Herald Sun on 30 June 2021.
The article was an opinion piece in which the columnist was critical of lockdown policies. The ‘precede’ which appeared beneath the headline of the article stated “Half the country is locked down because state leaders are whipping up fears about a virus that’s less dangerous than its vaccine.” The article went on to state, amongst other things, “…we’ve now vaccinated the vast majority of the people most likely to die — people aged over 70, and people in aged-care homes”; “…this dominant Delta strain is half as deadly as last year’s strain, according to Public Health England”; “Our main aim from the start should have been to stop people dying, and live with the fact that others will still get the sniffles. Treat this like the flu”; and “why vaccinate millions of young Australians who won’t get very sick from a virus that almost exclusively kills people over 65?”.
The article also stated “Queensland’s health officer, Jeannette Young, exposed the craziness of this when she tried to justify banning the young from taking the AstraZeneca vaccine that’s saved Britain: ‘I don’t want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got Covid, probably wouldn’t die.’ If this virus is less dangerous than even a vaccine, why is half the country in lockdown?”
In response to a complaint received, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the above statements complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice, which require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and to ensure factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance and writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts (General Principle 3).
In response, the publication noted that the ‘precede’ was written by a digital producer and accurately reflected a statement made by Queensland’s Chief Health Officer concerning risks associated with a vaccine who was quoted in the article. The publication said that at the time of writing more than 50% of Australia's population resided in states where various forms of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions applied, and that in the period (1 January 2021 – 30 June 2021) more Australians had in fact died from vaccine side effects than from Covid-19 through community transmission. The publication said the statements that the majority of people most at risk had already been vaccinated; and that the virus almost exclusively kills people over 65; were factual, and referred to information published by the Commonwealth Department of Health, which it said substantiated these assertions. Similarly, the publication referred to a Technical Briefing from Public Health England dated 18 June 2021, which it said provided the factual basis for the columnist’s comments about the deadliness of the Delta strain. The publication said that the columnist’s pro-vaccination stance has been well publicised and the statement “Treat this like the flu” was clearly an expression of the columnist’s genuinely held opinion.
The Council notes that although the article is an opinion piece, the publication is nonetheless obliged to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material in the article is accurate, not misleading, fair and balanced; and to ensure that the writer’s expressions of opinion are not based on inaccurate factual material.
In considering the ‘precede’ to the article, which states “…state leaders are whipping up fears about a virus that’s less dangerous than its vaccine” the Council notes that this assertion is made without any qualification or context, and inaccurately portrays the risks associated with Covid-19 vaccines and the virus itself. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 3 were breached in this respect.
However, the Council considers that where the columnist elsewhere poses the question “If this virus is less dangerous than even a vaccine, why is half the country in lockdown?”, reflected a statement concerning risks associated with a vaccine made by Queensland’s Chief Health Officer who was quoted in the article. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 3 were not breached in this respect.
In relation to the remaining matters detailed above, the Council is satisfied, based on the information before it, that there was a reasonable factual basis for the writer’s expressions of opinion, and that the factual information in the article was accurate and not misleading. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 3 were not breached in these respects.
Relevant Council Standards
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
- 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.