Almost three weeks ago now I submitted a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) concerning the work of pure fiction published by the Daily Mail which claimed a study undertaken by Bristol University found the strongest evidence to date that cannabis “brings on” schizophrenia. In fact the study showed no such thing and didn’t even use cannabis. The original blog and link to the story is here. As a result I made a complaint to the PCC and there’s an interesting update to report.

Well, it’s not really an update as such because nothing has happened yet. By “nothing has happened”, I mean the PCC hasn’t done anything yet, and it’s written to me to tell me it hasn’t done anything yet, and indeed may not do anything, or to be precise it claims it can’t do anything.

The PCC, if you don’t know, is the body which is supposed to oversee the “self regulation” of the press. It’s been in the news a lot recently because of its utter failure to take action in the phone hacking scandal and is generally regarded as at best toothless.

The PCC publishes a “code” which it is supposed to enforce (read it here), number 1 principle stated there is

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

Now the Daily Mail report concerned clearly transgressed that point, so I sent the following complaint to the PCC on October 30th

Sir

Daily Mail 26th October 2011

“Just ONE cannabis joint ‘can bring on schizophrenia’ as well as damaging memory”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2053486/One-cannabis-joint-bring-schizophrenia.html

I wish to complain about the above article, I do so in a private capacity and also as the editor of the website http://www.ukcia.org , a cannabis law reform site. The article would seem to clearly violate the PCC code in that:

* It amounts to deliberate falsification of evidence and would therefore seem to breach the editors code.
* It breaches clause 1.i) of the code in that it publishes inaccurate, misleading and distorted information.
* It breaches clause 1.iii) in that it fails to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

1: The report concerned a study by Matt Jones and others at Bristol University entitled “Dysfunctional Prefrontal Cortical Network Activity and Interactions following Cannabinoid Receptor Activation”. The Daily Mail represented this as demonstrating a causal role for cannabis in the development of serious mental illness. That was not the point of the study, nor was it a conclusion of that study.

2: The headline contained the phrase ‘can bring on schizophrenia’ which is contained in quote marks, implying it is a quote from someone. It is not attributed to anyone however and seems to not actually be a quote, it is therefore misleading.

3: A sub-heading states “Strongest evidence yet, claim scientists”, yet no scientist seems to have made that claim and it was not a conclusion of the study.

4: It states that “Smoking just one cannabis joint can bring on symptoms of schizophrenia, a study has found”. The study did not find that conclusion.

5: It states that “Researchers at the University of Bristol have, for the first time, looked in detail at the changes in the brains of cannabis users”. This is untrue and in fact there have been several studies of the effect of cannabis on the human brain, never mind those of rats. For example the work of Philip McGuire and Zerrin Atakan from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s, Jose Crippa from Ribeirão Preto, Brazil and Rocio Martin-Santos in Barcelona, Spain (http://www.iop.kcl.ac.uk/news/default.aspx?id=274& ).

6: The item reported that “They found the drug disrupts the same parts of the brain as the psychotic illness, those associated with memory and decision-making” and “Cannabis abuse has previously been linked with increased rates of schizophrenia but this is the strongest evidence yet that the drug mimics its effects”. This is not a discovery made by this study, in fact it is well understood and has been for some time that cannabis mimics some of the effects of psychosis, which is why such drugs are called “psychedelics”. As there has been no recorded increase in the overall rates of psychotic illness in the UK (Frisher et al http://www.schres-journal.com/article/S0920-9964%2809%2900269-2/abstract ) it cannot be claimed that cannabis has been linked with an increase.

7: The report stated: “The scientists studied rats who had been given the active ingredient of cannabis – in a similar dose to a person smoking a joint”. This is an utter fabrication. The drug used in the experiment was a pharmaceutical product not found in cannabis known as CP55940 and this was made clear in the original paper. It simply isn’t possible to make dose comparisons with any degree of certainty, but it is likely, allowing for the weight difference between a rat and a human that the dose administered would have been vastly higher than a normal cannabis joint would deliver. The essential point however is the chemical used was not one found in cannabis, much less was a it a reflection of the profile of chemicals found in real cannabis.

I would like to request in the strongest terms that immediate and strong action be taken against the Daily Mail to both correct this totally falsified report and to prevent similar false reporting in future.

The immediate response I got from the PCC  on 1st November was a surprise to put it mildly:

 Thank you for your complaint.

I should emphasise that the PCC will normally only consider complaints from people who are directly affected by the matters about which they are concerned.  Indeed, only in exceptional circumstances will the Commission consider a complaint from someone not directly involved.

This is because the Commission requires the permission and co-operation of individuals directly involved in order to understand the matter fully, while the outcome of a Commission investigation (whether correction, apology or adjudication, for example) would need the express approval of the person concerned. In this instance, we would generally require a complaint from the authors of the report in order to take the matter forward.

Following another complaint about this article, we have contacted the authors of this report at the University of Bristol, who have confirmed to us that they do not wish to pursue a complaint in respect of this article. In these circumstances, it would appear that we will have difficulty in pursuing the matter. However, if you believe our normal rules should be waived to allow us to take your case further we would be grateful to hear from you in the next ten days.

Once we have heard from you, the Commission will be asked whether it wishes to waive its third party rules and take your complaint forward. If you would like to discuss your case before replying please do contact us.  If we hear no more from you we will close our file on the matter.

If, at the end of the process, you are dissatisfied with the manner in which your complaint has been handled, you should write within one month to the Independent Reviewer who will investigate the matter and report any findings and recommendations to the Commission. For further details please use the following link: http://www.pcc.org.uk/about/whoswho/independentreview.html

A copy of the Code of Practice which all newspapers and magazines who subscribe adhere to, can be accessed using this web link: http://www.pcc.org.uk/cop/practice.html

Information about our service commitments to complainants can be accessed using this web link: http://www.pcc.org.uk/complaint/charter.html.

Further information about the PCC can be found on our website www.pcc.org.uk .

The editor of The Mail on Sunday is currently a member of the Press Complaints Commission.  However, as the Daily Mail, the sister newspaper of the Mail on Sunday, is the subject of your complaint he will of course not take part in any discussion or consideration of the complaint by the Commission.

Do not hesitate to contact us if you need further advice.  When you write to us, please quote our reference number on this email.

Yours sincerely

The reference to the Editor of the Mail on Sunday being a member of the PCC is interesting, but of course he’s had no input into blocking this complaint has he? You may read that with a sarcastic tone.

This is, of course, a nonsense. The PCC does investigate complaints made by people “not directly involved” in issues. It has done so on many occasions and  indeed has already done so for me.

I then received another e-mail from the PCC on 13th November

Given that the University of Bristol does not wish to complain about the piece, the Commission will now determine whether it is able to consider the matter without its involvement.

We will be in touch shortly.

Now of course I wasn’t a party to the communications between the PCC and the University of Bristol and so I have no idea of what was discussed or in what terms, or indeed who whom at the university.

I heard nothing for a week, so I wrote back to the PCC on 13th November

I must ask that you proceed with this matter at once, it is now two weeks since I submitted the complaint.

As for your reluctance to consider this issue, I fail to understand why there is a problem, the PCC has dealt with similar complaints before and there are many such examples on record. The issue is really quite straight forward; did the paper accurately reflect a factual news story or, as I maintain, not? If they did not then they are in breach of your guidelines and you should act.

I have to say that your reluctance to handle such a clear cut complaint appears most odd.

Which created this response

Thank you for your email to my colleague  (name redacted) on Sunday the 13th of November.

I should emphasise that the PCC will normally only consider complaints from people who are directly affected by the matters about which they are concerned.  Indeed, only in exceptional circumstances will the Commission consider a complaint from someone not directly involved.

This is because the Commission requires the permission and co-operation of individuals directly involved in order to understand the matter fully, while the outcome of a Commission investigation (whether correction, apology or adjudication, for example) would need the express approval of the person concerned.

More information on the Commission’s position on third party complaints may be seen here: http://www.pcc.org.uk/faqs.html#faq4_7

Your complaint will shortly be passed to the Commission in order for them to come to a decision on the matter. Do not hesitate to contact me if you need further advice.  I will, of course, be in touch once a decision has been reached.

Thus far, nothing.

What it looks very much like to my suspicious nature is the PCC is not only failing to work on behalf of the public, but seems to be actively protecting the media – in the case the Daily Mail – by simply refusing to investigate what is really a very simple issue: Did the paper accurately report the study carried out by Bristol University or did it, as I maintain, publish inaccurate and distorted  information in contravention of item 1)i) of the PCC editors code?

It’s looking not so much like the PCC is a toothless poodle, but actually exists to protect the likes of the Daily Mail. I would think the word “corrupt” might be a fitting way to describe this situation.

I will add one thing. Once a PCC investigation is under way both parties agree to keep all issues discussed confidential until the ruling is made. I will of course comply with that confidentiality. But as of yet nothing has happened and so the confidentiality rule does not apply so I see no reason to keep this delay a secret.