A few weeks ago I made a complaint to the Press Complaint Commission about a blog post written on The Spectator website by Rod Liddle. (Blog posts are covered if on a website of a print publication.) He asserted that fibromyalgia
“is another one of those imaginary afflictions claimed by malingering mentals.”
He went on to say
Things Which Definitely Are Not Illnesses or Diseases:
Addiction to alcohol
Addiction to drugs
Being a bit odd
Hepatitis contracted when behaving in an inappropriate manner
Addiction to sex
This is the complaint that I sent in to the Press Complaints Commission. (And I must thank them for providing me with a copy as I had lost mine.)
Explanation : The article breaches the code of practice as it is inaccurate and misleading.
The article lists Fibromyalgia and M.E. under the heading “Things Which Definitely Are Not Illnesses or Diseases”
It is factually incorrect to state that these are not illnesses. Fibromyalgia is listed in the World Health Organisation’s Internationa l Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems under M79 Other soft tissue disorders, not elsewhere classified, as M79.7, Fibromyalgia. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) is listed under G93 Other disorders of the nervous system as G93.3 Postviral fatigue syndrome – Benign myalgic encephalomyelitis.
The article states “[Fibromyalgia] is another one of those imaginary afflictions claimed by malingering mentals.”
The author has no grounds to claim that fibromyalgia is imaginary, as it recognised as a real physical illness by the WHO. He also has no grounds to use the phrase “malingering mentals.” Fibromyalgia is not a mental illness, and even if it were, a mental illness is a real illness and is not “malingering.” This phrase is incorrect and is disablist hate speech. The errors in this article contribute directly to hate crime, abuse, and verbal abuse against sick and disabled people, of which there has been a significant increase in rece nt months. (As reported by Scope at http://www.scope.org.uk/news/matthew-parris-and-times)
Clauses : The article breaches clause 1 part 1 of the code of practice.
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
And here is their response.
Commission’s decision in the case of
Various v The Spectator
The complainants considered that an article that stated that Fibromyalgia (FM) was not a real illness and that sufferers were “malingering mentals” was inaccurate and discriminatory.
The Commission acknowledged that the article was controversial and that many readers would not agree with its content, however, it made clear that columnists are entitled to express their personal views and comments, provided they are clearly distinguished from fact. It noted that the column was written in the first person and as such, the views expressed were clearly attributable to the columnist.
The Commission considered first the complaint under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code. The Commission acknowledged that the complainants considered that the article’s reference to the columnist being a doctor and the statement that Fibromyalgia (FM) and other recognised diseases were not “real” was inaccurate. The Commission considered that readers in general would understand that the reference to the columnist being a doctor was intended to be a facetious reference rather than a statement of fact that he was a qualified medical practitioner. As such they would not be misled. Furthermore, the Commission considered that the categorization of the illnesses clearly represented the columnist’s opinion on the conditions – indeed he clearly qualified his views on Fibromyalgia by asserting he “may be wrong”. The Commission considered that readers would understand that it reflected the personal, albeit caustic views of the columnist and would not be misled by the article; as such it did not establish a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.
The Commission then turned to the alleged breach of Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Code. It appreciated the reasons why the complainants considered the article was distasteful and prejudicial and acknowledged that many readers would take offence at the article; however this did not render a breach of Clause 12. The Commission made clear that under Clause 12 (i), newspapers must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s physical or mental illness or disability; the clause does not cover references to groups or categories of people. In this instance, the article did not make reference to the physical or mental illness or disability of a particular individual but rather referred to Fibromyalgia sufferers in general. While the Commission understood the concerns raised by the complainants, it did not establish that Clause 12 (i) of the Code had been breached.
Finally, the Commission considered the complainants’ concerns that the magazine published offensive material. It acknowledged that the complainants found the article highly offensive; however, it made clear that the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice do not address issues of taste and offence. The Code is designed to address the potentially competing rights of freedom of expression and other rights of individuals, such as privacy. Newspapers and magazines have editorial freedom to publish what they consider to be appropriate provided that the rights of individuals – enshrined in the terms of the Code which specifically defines and protects these rights – are not compromised. To come to an inevitably subjective
judgement as to whether such material is tasteless or offensive would amount to the Commission acting as a moral arbiter, which can lead to censorship. It could not, therefore, comment on this aspect of the complaint further.