Pandemics Data and Analytics vs Daily Maverick


Wed, May 12, 2021

Finding Complaint 8842

Date of article: 28/2/21 (print and online)

Headline:  “Kung-flu Panda: Dodgy analytics or pandemic propaganda?”

Authors: Nafeez Ahmed and Rebecca Davis

Note on this Finding

With regards to points 2.5, 2.54 and 3.40: the Finding makes reference to a podcast with respect to the views of journalist Ms Rebecca Davis on lockdowns and the closure of beaches. I had asked Panda for a reference for the quote it cites and had been informed this was part of the regular interviews she does with John Maytham on Cape Talk. I was told by Panda that the podcast had since been taken off the Cape Talk website. I also asked the Daily Maverick if it had a record of the podcast and was told that there are no podcasts of Ms Davis’ crossings to John Maytham. I also searched on the Cape Talk website but could not find it. So I did not listen to the podcast before writing the original ruling. In fact when Panda told me the podcast had been “deleted” from the website, it had actually also sent me a link to it, which I overlooked. Panda drew my attention to this and sent me a new link when this initial ruling came out. For this I apologise to both parties, and thank Panda. I have amended point 3.40 in the Analysis section accordingly. It does not change the Finding.

Particulars

This finding is based on written submissions from the Pandemics Data and Analytics (Panda) and responses from the Daily Maverick, as well as further submissions from Alex van den Heever, an economist based at the University of the Witwatersrand, and a response to it from Panda, as well as a further query to the two parties by the Ombud.

Complaint

Pandemics Data and Knowledge Factory is a non-profit company, known by the acronym Panda, which stands for Pandemics Data and Analytics. It describes itself as being formed in early 2020 by South African citizens concerned with the paucity of data relating to the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease, COVID-19. PANDA is a collective of leading scientists, actuaries, economists, data scientists, statisticians, medical professionals, lawyers, engineers and businesspeople. PANDA members work voluntarily, offering their skillset to contribute to informed policymaking and decision-making.”

It says its work “is guided by a scientific advisory board consisting of pre-eminent experts in the fields of epidemiology, immunology, microbiology, medicine and medical research, public health, biostatistics, biophysics, toxicology, biochemistry, psychology and education.”

It complains about an article that appeared in the February 2, 2021 print edition of the Daily Maverick, as well as in its online edition, which ran under the headline: “Kung-Flu Panda: Dodgy analytics or pandemic propaganda?"

Panda complains that the article, which it says is based on an article in the online British publication Byline Times, “sets out a theory of conspiracy between various groups, including PANDA, to spread ‘disinformation’”

It says PANDA’s information is verified by a body of scientists.

It also complains that the article was “an act of advocacy” in support of lockdown policies. Its aim is to silence opposition to said policies.

Specifically PANDA complains that the article breaches the following sections of the Press Code:

The media shall:

  1. take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly;

1.2 present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization;

1.3 present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such;

1.5  use personal information for journalistic purposes only;

1.7  verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated;

1.8 seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication, except when they might be prevented from reporting, or evidence destroyed, or sources intimidated. Such a subject should be afforded reasonable time to respond; if unable to obtain comment, this shall be stated;

2.1 not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence reporting, and avoid conflicts of interest as well as practices that could lead readers to doubt the media’s independence and professionalism;

3.1  exercise care and consideration in matters involving the private lives of individuals. The right to privacy may be overridden by public interest;

3.3 exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, which may be overridden only if it is in the public interest and if:

3.3.1. the facts reported are true or substantially true; or

3.3.2. the reportage amounts to protected comment based on facts that are adequately referred to and that are either true or reasonably true; or

3.3.3. the reportage amounts to a fair and accurate report of court proceedings, Parliamentary proceedings or the proceedings of any quasi-judicial tribunal or forum; or

3.3.4. it was reasonable for the information to be communicated because it was prepared in accordance with acceptable principles of journalistic conduct; or

3.3.5. the content was, or formed part of, an accurate and impartial account of a dispute to which the complainant was a party;

6. Advocacy

The media may strongly advocate their own views on controversial topics, provided that they clearly distinguish between fact and opinion, and not misrepresent or suppress or distort relevant facts.

7. Protected Comment

7.1 The media shall be entitled to comment upon or criticise any actions or events of public interest; and

7.2 Comment or criticism is protected even if it is extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it is without malice, is on a matter of public interest, has taken fair account of all material facts that are either true or reasonably true, and is presented in a manner that it appears clearly to be comment.

10.1  Headlines, captions to pictures and posters shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question;

  1. Text

1.1 The article ran under the headline “Kung-flu panda: dodgy analytics or pandemic propaganda?

1.2 It carries a double byline: Nafeez Ahmed and Rebecca Davis. Mr Ahmed is a journalist from the British online publication “Byline News”; Ms Davis is a staff reporter for the Daily Maverick.

1.3 The “blurb” reads: “Pandemics Data and Analytics, aka Panda, hoped to 'lead the world against lockdown'. It fought the battle with fudgy factoids while punting the views of some dodgy people.”

1.4 The intro to the article reads: “At a time when reliable information on the Covid-19 pandemic, treatment and vaccines is considered so vital that many countries – including South Africa – have criminalised misinformation, a group of influential South African lobbyists has been amplifying discredited and unscientific views and voices.”

1.5 It reports that a “private sector research group that has repeatedly lobbied against lockdown denies being associated with a global coalition of pandemic denialists and sceptics”. But it cites “online evidence” to dispute this. It identifies Panda as one of the  “loudest anti-lockdown groups globally” that says it states online that it hopes to “lead the world against lockdown”.

1.6 It reports that Panda was founded by Nick Hudson, CEO of Sana Partners , which it identifies as a “private equity fund” and Peter Castleden, a senior executive at Sanlam. It reports that “Sanlam’s subsidiary Santam has been criticised for refusing to pay out policy-holders from the hospitality industry on the basis that losses are the result of the government-imposed lockdown, not the Covid-19 pandemic.”

1.7 It references the British “news outlet” Byline Times that reported that Panda “seemingly had links to a number of platforms in the UK that have promoted Covid-19 disinformation. One is a UK-based group called the Covid-19 Assembly, which describes itself on its website as a ‘centre-point for all anti-lockdown groups worldwide’, and states that it is working with Panda.”

1.8 It then quotes Panda’s denial that it has links with the Covid-19 Assembly. However, it cites the latter organisation as saying it was working with “Pandata.19.org”, and that the link takes one to the Panda website.

1.9 Hudson is quoted as saying: “It is not clear to us what that statement [on the Covid-19 Assembly website] means … We do not, in principle, have an issue with working with other organisations, but Panda is not in fact working with Covid-19 Assembly and we will take this up with them.”

1.10 It reports that the Covid-19 Assembly website “was briefly taken offline: after the publication of the Byline Times article, but that ‘archived web pages’ show that advisers to the group Patrick Fagan, former lead psychologist at Cambridge Analytica, ‘the controversial data-firm exposed for using fake news and disinformation to support the Donald Trump presidential campaign in the US and the Brexit campaign in the UK.’”

1.11 It also reports that another “disinformation outfit seemingly linked to Panda” is the UK-based PCRclaims.co.uk, which apparently offers legal support for financial claims resulting from coronavirus tests. Panda is reported as having denied links with this group, although its website is listed on the PCRclaims website.

1.12 Panda, in response, told the DM that the listing of its website as “a useful link” does not imply “co-ordination between the lister and the listee.”

1.13 The archived website, it reports, names Mr Hudson as a spokesperson on economic matters. Panda is quoted thus: “Individual members of Panda are entitled to provide advice to other organisations in their personal capacities and this does not, outside of the realm of conspiracy theories, imply co-ordination between the organisations…

“Mr Hudson has advised Panda that he has had no contact with PCRClaims for months.”

1.14 It goes on to identify some of the “disinformation” PCRClaims allegedly publishes.

1.15 It also explains that Panda has opposed lockdowns on the grounds that they cause “more death and destruction” than the pandemic itself but says its “core findings” have evoked “withering criticism” from “independent experts.”

It reports that Panda wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa in May 2020, arguing the lockdown would cause 30 times more deaths than the pandemic itself.

1.16 It quotes “two top British experts” as saying Panda’s actuarial model is “deeply flawed”. One is Dr Deepti Gurdasani, “a clinical epidemiologist and statistical geneticist at Queen Mary University in London.”

She says: “It seems completely out of touch with reality and real-world evidence from across the globe … The estimated fatalities in South Africa from the model are clearly biased downwards – as the total mortality predicted by the model has already come to pass, and been exceeded in South Africa. The toll would have been much higher had the epidemic been allowed to continue unmitigated – we don’t need to imagine this, given this has already happened in some parts of the world.”

It quotes her querying the technical assumptions in Panda’s model and of overlooking some of the long-term effects of the pandemic, including the effects on children and its projection of deaths.

It also cites Panda’s prediction, made in June 2020, that the death toll from Covid-19 would be about 10 000.

1.17 It also quotes Wits University’s School of Governance academic Alex van den Heever as saying that the excess deaths mapped in South Africa over the first year of the pandemic “have been almost entirely due to Covid-19. What this strongly suggests is that the total number of Covid-19 deaths in South Africa thus far is nearing 140,000.”

1.18 It also quotes Professor Jonathan Portes of the School of Politics and Economics at Kings College London, as saying that Panda’s “estimates of longer-term impacts on life expectancy resulting from economic damage are not credible nor based on evidence.”

He was not “blasé about the importance of taking into account longer-term impacts of lockdowns”, but “dismissed Panda as a serious or credible source of analysis for this. ‘The long-term economic impacts of the pandemic are a matter of serious concern, and there are real dilemmas and tradeoffs…

‘However, taking grossly exaggerated estimates of the long-term economic impacts of lockdowns and translating them without evidence or context into health or mortality impacts is bad economics and bad policy.’”

1.19 The article also accuses Panda of “straying into anti-vaccer disinformation” after it published a report by Canadian physicist Dr Denis Rancourt, whom it described as a “climate change denier” on its website, which among other things claimed that vaccines are “inherently dangerous”.

It quotes Panda defending this decision, saying: “open debate is a prerequisite for science to thrive.”

1.20 Panda is also reported as publishing work by Dr Scott Atlas on its website. Atlas, an aide to former US president Donald Trump, was one of those who encouraged citizens of Michigan state in the US to “rise up” to protest lockdown measures.

1.21 It also cites various other international politicians and scientists who have taken controversial positions on the pandemic, including Randy Hillier, a Canadian MP who formed an “anti-lockdown caucus” and Dr Wolfgang Wodarg “who filed a petition with the European Medicines Agency on 1 December calling for suspension of pharmaceutical companies’ Covid-19 vaccine efforts.”

1.22 It reports that Panda has “responded aggressively to criticism while vocally lobbying the South African government to end lockdown.” It has also engaged in a crowdfunding appeal to enable “Panda to lead the world against lockdown”.

Panda has repeatedly defended its actions on the grounds that the mainstream media is opposed to any science that is anti-lockdown. But to its critics, Panda is fundamentally unscientific itself – and harmfully muddying the waters on issues critical to preserving public health.”

1.23 It ends with a list of “controversial statements” made by Panda founder Nick Hudson.

2. The arguments

Panda

2.1 Panda describes itself as a “collective of leading scientists, actuaries, economists, data scientists, statisticians, medical professionals, lawyers, engineers and businesspeople.

“PANDA members work voluntarily, offering their skillset to contribute to informed

policymaking and decision-making.” It says it is not aligned with any political entities and is now represented “across the globe.”

2.2 It says it is guided by a “scientific advisory board consisting of pre-eminent experts in the fields of epidemiology, immunology, microbiology, medicine and medical research, public health, biostatistics, biophysics, toxicology, biochemistry, psychology and education. Members of the scientific advisory board include academics and scientists who head up departments at Oxford, Stanford and Harvard universities, and hold multiple awards, including a Nobel prize.”

It says it was formed out of concern that important decisions impacting lives,

livelihoods and liberty were being taken without the cost of those decisions being

presented and on the basis of data that was often flawed.

2.3 It argues that the DM article is based on one in the British publication, Byline Times [1] headlined “Cambridge Analytica Psychologist Advising Global COVID-19 Disinformation Network Linked to Nigel Farage & Conservative Party". It was authored by Nafeez Ahmed, a co-author on the DM article.

The BT article sets out a theory that Panda is involved in a conspiracy to spread “disinformation”, which it distinguishes from “misinformation” as it implies a deliberate spreading of lies.

2.4 Panda says there is no basis for claiming that it is involved in the deliberate spreading of lies. It cites the BT article as saying that the “disinformation campaign” is “coordinated by a former employee of Cambridge Analytica”, a company the article says was exposed for interfering in the US elections and Brexit poll. In fact it was better known for collecting the personal data of people on Facebook without their consent. “The link between PANDA and Cambridge Analytica was initially alleged to have resulted from the fact that a member of PANDA had once worked as a geologist for a multinational company that had allegedly used Cambridge Analytica's services. That wording was subsequently deleted by Byline Times without acknowledgement.”

It describes the BT article as a “tawdry concoction of nonsense” that should have raised a “red flag” for the DM.

2.5 It also says the DM article is an “act of advocacy in support of lockdown policies”.

It says the South African author, Rebecca Davis, has “attracted controversy” for her pro-lockdown stance and has labelled those who criticize lockdowns as Trumpian.

Panda says Davis' feeling about lockdowns were again in evidence when she recently admitted that rather than being pleased about the finding, she was "hurt" by a scientific report showing that: "There were no outbreaks linked to crowded beaches, there’s never been a Covid-19 outbreak linked to a beach ever anywhere in the world.” Davis said that the report, "Saddened me a bit because I was one of the people who was happy that the beaches were closed and who said everyone should calm down."

It quotes the Premier of the Western Cape, Alan Winde as saying that the closure of beaches had cost the economy about R120m a week with a knock-on effect on jobs.

2.6 It describes the other author Mr Ahmed as engaging in “conspiracy-mongering” about the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001; being fired from the Guardian newspaper for “publishing deceptive anti-Israel content”, and says he has “nailed his pro-lockdown colours to the mast” among other things by submitting hoax signatures to the Great Barrington Declaration. This is a statement that expresses concern about the “the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies and recommend[s] an approach we call Focused Protection.”

2.7 Panda says it is no argument to say the DM article itself does not make some of the allegations it complains of because they were published in Byline Times. The fact that the author of that article was a co-author of the DM one means that it had a responsibility to check the allegations in the original article. DM should be held responsible for the allegations made in its article as well as the BT article.

2.8 On the right of reply: Panda says Ms Davis contacted Mr Hudson at 14h38 on 2 February. She posed seven questions relating to the BT article, some of which related to “non-PANDA individuals” in Canada, the US and New Zealand. She asked Panda to respond by 9am the following morning (four business hours, says Panda).

“This was insufficient time especially given the nature of the questions and the fact that they related to non-PANDA activities of individuals based in multiple time zones.”

Panda nonetheless responded, saying the DM would be the first mainstream publication to publish this conspiracy theory and thereby “give credence” to the “fanciful and defamatory statements” about Panda and its members.

There was no evidence of any link between Panda and Cambridge Analytica provided in the BT article, nor any evidence of links between Panda and other groups mentioned. “In the style typical of conspiracy theories, the BT Article tries to imply coordination between PANDA and these groups by association – A knows B, B knows C and C knows D therefore A knows D.”

The BT article is defamatory and slanderous. It lists Panda members and their employers “for no other reason but to put pressure on them.”

DM was “placed on notice” that the allegations in the BT article were false.

On the 19 February Ms Davis sent Mr Hudson two follow-up questions. The questions were premised on an “untrue statement”, viz: "We asked you about whether Panda had links to (a) Covid-19 Assembly and (b) PCRClaims.co.uk, and you responded that this suggestion was “baseless and untrue”. In fact, Davis had not asked whether PANDA had links to PCRClaims. She had only asked about COVID-19 Assembly as follows: "The [BT] article reports that Panda is part of the COVID-19 Assembly which is advised by one of the leading figures behind Cambridge Analytica. Your comments on this?"

2.9 Panda responded that it was untrue that it had any links with the Covid-19 Assembly. Panda’s comments that the allegations in the BT article were “baseless and untrue” were made in a different context, not in response to this question.

2.10 On 1 March 2021, Panda contacted the DM to formally ask for a right of reply. The publication responded that it was not an “opinion piece” but a report/investigation” and refused to give Panda a right of reply.

2.11 Panda also complains about the headline.

It says it is not reflective of the contents of the article, as the article “does not, in our view, concern itself with the question of whether PANDA is peddling dodgy analysis or spreading propaganda. Given that Daily Maverick insists that this was not an opinion piece, the binary nature of the options set out in the headline is curious and sets the stage for an article that makes no attempt to report fairly or accurately on PANDA's activities.”

It says the term “kung-flu” was used by Donald Trump in June, 2020. It “prompted outrage” from civil liberties groups as it was seen as racist.

2.12 In terms of use of personal information, Panda complains that both the DM and BT article disclosed the names of the employers of Mr Hudson and Mr Peter Castleden. It quotes the following paragraph:

"Panda is founded and run by Nick Hudson, CEO of the South African private equity fund Sana Partners, and co-founded by Peter Castleden, a senior executive at another South African financial services giant, Sanlam – the largest insurance company in Africa. Sanlam’s subsidiary Santam has been criticised for refusing to pay out policy-holders from the hospitality industry on the basis that losses are the result of the government-imposed lockdown, not the Covid-19 pandemic."

2.13 This paragraph is “replete with untruths”, it says. Sana Partners is not a “private equity fund”; Mr Hudson is self-employed; there was no public interest in disclosing Mr Castleden’s employer. Panda suggests DM’s motive is to cause his employer to put pressure on him to distance himself from Panda “and to thereby silence Panda”. It reiterates that DM’s motive was not journalism but “political activism”.

It also says the allegations in relation to Santam and Mr Castleden are also untrue. It shows a “conspiracy theory style” of trying to imply co-ordination through “links”. Mr Castleden is in fact employed by Sanlam, a separate legal entity to Santam, and has no influence over the type of business insurance that the company offers.

Panda says such listing of individual members of the organisations has no apparent purpose; individual members are frequently singled out in the hopes that it will keep them quiet. “PANDA members are ordinary people volunteering their time to help bring balance to the debate and frequently, efforts to bully individuals within the organisation are successful. Sectors of society celebrate these ‘victories’ without considering the damage being done to science and free speech.” It says many Panda members have had to leave the organisation as a result of the pressure brought to bear on them or their employers.

The use of this sort of personal information by DM has a “chilling” effect on free speech.

2.14 It argues that DM failed to “exercise care and consideration in relation to the private life of Mr Castleden, his dignity and reputation.” His employer had no bearing on the article and the sole purpose of referencing it was to put pressure on him to distance himself from Panda.

2.15 Failure to report news accurately:

Among the factual errors were:

  • A false allegation that Panda is collaborating with UK groups. “Having not succeeded in finding any evidence of cooperation, and with PANDA having denied such cooperation, the DM Article sets out connections that sometimes exist but do not in fact imply any coordination between the groups, rendering the central premise of the DM Article factually inaccurate. The excuse that Daily Maverick is not responsible for these allegations because they were made by Byline Times does not hold given that Mr Ahmed is the author of both articles.”
  • On the alleged link between Panda and PCRClaims, the only evidence presented is that Panda’s website is listed by PCRClaims in a page of “useful links”, and that Mr Hudson once had contact with the group in his “personal capacity (as a non-discretionary advisor)”. Neither of these facts implies some form of “co-operation” between the two groups, “let alone some kind of agreement to cooperate for whatever nefarious purpose.” PCRClaims website also lists the BBC as a useful site, but this does not imply they are working with the news organisation. It argues that just because, for instance, Professor Martin Kulldorff is on the advisory board of COVID-19 Assembly and a Professor at Harvard Medical School, this does not imply any coordination between Harvard University and COVID-19 Assembly.

2.16 “It seems that after PANDA answered Ms Davis question as to whether PANDA was "part of COVID-19 Assembly", Ahmed and Davis realised that the original allegation that PANDA was working with these groups was false. Undeterred, Davis submitted a fresh set of questions to PANDA in which she accused PANDA of having denied "links" to these groups and claimed this was false based on the evidence which in fact discloses no cooperation or collaboration between the groups but merely links them through association.”

2.17 Panda’s argument references the BT article, saying it had argued, without evidence, that the organisation was part of a “disinformation network”. Similarly, the DM article provides no evidence.

2.18 Panda refers to two paragraphs in the DM article that state that on PCRClaims list of “useful resources” is a link to a video on the website BitChute.com, described by the Anti-Defamation League as “a hotbed for violent, conspiratorial and hate-filled video propaganda, and a recruiting ground for extremists”.

The only link to this group though is that the video is hosted on a site “much like YouTube” but does not apply the same “censorship rules” that YouTube does. The content of the video, which DM does not comment on, is an interview with a German and American lawyer famous for bringing class actions against Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen. Thus Daily Maverick provided no illustration whatsoever of PCRClaims spreading disinformation, let alone PANDA doing so by association with

PCRClaims.”

DM also says that the PCRClaims website links to UK groups “actively purveying disinformation, specifically the website of Dr Clare Craig.” The website does not in fact link to her website. Moreover, Dr Craig has not been accused of any peer body of having breached ethical codes.  “In the absence of such a judgement, the statement that Dr Craig (or anyone else) has published disinformation (lies) is false. It is also patently libellous.”

2.19 Essentially, argues Panda, Ahmed and Davis argue that any criticism of lockdowns “amount to lies”. This is not truthful or accurate.  DM therefore failed to represent what is reasonably true as fact and failed to verify claims made in the BT article.

They also allowed their personal and political considerations (their “pro-lockdown and pro-government stance”) to influence their reporting.

2.20 Panda also accuses the DM of misrepresenting its position.

It cites a “seminal” report entitled “Quantifying Years of Life Lost in SA due to Covid-19”, clearly misrepresenting it when it talks about “30 times more deaths”. But the Panda paper addressed “Years of Life Lost”, not deaths. YLL is an “actuarial alternative to deaths”.  “It is a technique that is used widely in public health and has been used by others to calculate the impact of COVID-19. In a paper published by the US National Institutes of Health, the conclusion reads: "Comparing the highest, yet least likely, end of the potential YLL from COVID- 19 deaths of 445,901 years to a conservative estimate of YLL as a result of economic collapse of 14,000,000 years suggests that the economic impact on lives will be in excess of 30 times greater than impact of the virus itself."

2.21 It is hard to believe it argues that given the title and clear conclusion of the report, the DM’s misrepresentation was the result of incompetence. And although it was a work of actuarial science, it is odd that they turned to a “somewhat obscure medical academic”, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, to comment on it.

Dr Gurdasani also showed she did not understand the paper by commenting: “The estimated fatalities in South Africa from the model are clearly biased downwards – as the total mortality predicted by the model has already come to pass and been exceeded in South Africa.” But Panda’s model relied on one from the Actuarial Society of South Africa.

The suggestion that Panda was biased was “without merit” as Panda “used an independent model in line with the worst predictions at the time.’ The ASSA “low-road” scenario prediction of Covid-19 deaths was for 88 000 in the first wave. But only 20 000 were recorded in the first wave – less than a quarter of what was predicted.

2.22 “It is blatantly incorrect to say that the mortality predicted by the model has already "come to pass". Whilst PANDA concedes that Daily Maverick did not itself make this allegation, in PANDA's response to its question, PANDA had informed Daily Maverick that all models were for confirmed deaths only (not excess deaths) and for one wave only ending in 2020.

Daily Maverick therefore ought to have known that Dr Gurdasani's statements were

inaccurate and they should have presented PANDA's counter.”

Although Panda has used the ASSA model to assess Years of Life Lost, its estimate of deaths for the first wave was 20 000. It produced a second model for the second wave. Its model had turned out to be the “most accurate: and government, which “originally predicted 351 000 deaths” was “eventually adjusted to agree with the Panda model.”

2.23 However, “Daily Maverick stated that Mr Hudson had predicted that 10 000 people would die of COVID-19 in South Africa. They knew that this contradicted estimates given by PANDA itself consistently from May 2020. They also ignored the fact that an estimate of 10 000 given in early 2020 would still be the most accurate estimate given at the time by anyone. Daily Maverick made no attempt to accurately report PANDA's estimates or to put the actual fatality rate from COVID-19 and the other models into perspective.”

It is also inaccurate that Panda measured deaths from Covid-19 as against “deaths from lockdown”, and that Panda used “its own biased estimates of deaths” that were “patently incorrect” because more deaths occurred.  In fact, “the model of COVID-19 deaths that PANDA produced (as well as the model for hospitalisations) was the most accurate model produced for South Africa's first wave.”

2.24 The DM also deployed “guilt by association” tactics, using “conspiracy theory techniques” to link Panda to people it has decided are “controversial”. Thus the article attempts to link Panda to “anti-vaxxers”, although in its reply to the DM, Panda stated: "PANDA are not anti-vaxxers. We believe that vaccines have great potential in a focused protection strategy.”  Thus it was “total distortion: to say Panda had strayed into “anti-vaxxer disinformation.”  The only evidence offered for this was an article by Dr Denis Rancourt, which Panda specifically published with a disclaimer saying it did not reflect its views.

“The statement that vaccines are inherently dangerous is, in any event, not disinformation. Vaccines are subject to testing precisely for this reason.”

2.25 The article also misrepresented Dr Scott Atlas’ qualifications: he has written four books on health-care policy and is a public health expert. The DM also “misrepresented” his statement that people should “rise up” against lockdown in relation to the storming of the Michigan Capitol building in January 2021.

They also ignored his statement that he had “served the people of the United States”.

"In my 15 years of health policy work at the Hoover Institution, I have used my 25-year background in medical science and tertiary care clinical medicine to research and formulate policy solutions in health care. Since my appointment as special advisor to the president, I have used that unique background, critical thinking and logic to present the president with the broadest possible views on

policy, so that he has the best science-based, fact-driven data available to combat this devastating pandemic and make decisions to save lives and best benefit the American people….” 

Likewise, the suggestion that it was inappropriate for Panda to interview Randy Hillier, a member of the Canadian parliament is “ludicrous”.  Also the statement in relation to Dr Wolfgang Wodarg was misleading – the “fake pandemic outcry” he referred to was the H1N1 pandemic not the current one.  It also misquoted Michael Yeadon as saying that “the pandemic would be over by the (northern hemisphere) summer”. In fact, he had said, the pandemic “is fundamentally over in the UK.”

2.26 Panda also takes issue with a number of statements it quotes from Mr Hudson that it describes as “controversial”. Among these are:

  • “Countries that imposed no lockdown performed precisely as well as those who did”. It says this is a “verifiable fact”, and the findings of this study were reported in a scientific report published in Nature in March 2021.
  • There was no resurgence of cases after lockdowns were lifted: again, it says, this is a “verifiable fact”.
  • “Dr Anthony Fauci turned into the biggest panic porn artist in the world”: this was an opinion.
  • “For 40,000 people in South Africa to die of Covid-19 would put us in line with the very worst experiences in the world. That makes no sense.”  It says this is a “verifiable fact. The reference to 40,000 was plainly to the verified COVID-19 deaths during the first wave and in June 2020, this would have put South Africa amongst the worst in the world.” The estimate of deaths in the DM article – 140 000 – would mean the SA death rate was 2,333 per million “despite our younger population. The next worst performing country is the Czech Republic with 1,909 deaths per million…  South Africa implemented one of the harshest and longest lockdowns in the world. Daily Maverick did not acknowledge the obvious point that lockdowns appear not to have worked in South Africa.”
  • Second waves are badly misrepresented, even non-existent”: In October, 2020, “many countries had seen an increase in positive test results that aligned with an increase in testing, but they had not seen concomitant rises in hospitalisations or deaths.” Thus second-waves were misrepresented.

2.27 In conclusion, Panda says DM should have identified a number of “red flags”, among them that Mr Ahmed was a “controversial figure” with a “conspiratorial bent” and that both authors were “engaged in pro-lockdown lobbying.” The DM failed to ensure that the authors’ personal and political considerations did not influence their reporting.

Their work was one based on opinion, not on fact.

It implied that Panda was spreading lies; it failed to represent Panda’s answers to their question in a balanced manner and intentionally omitted or distorted facts.

It used personal information about Mr Castleden and Mr Hudson “that had no journalistic purpose”.

The DM failed to seek Panda’s views “in relation to key parts of the article” and ignored most of the information provided by Panda.  The DM also refused to publish a right of reply.

2.28 Panda asks that the DM be ordered to publish its right of reply.

“The DM Article is the epitome of the kind of journalism the Press Council was formed to cull from South African society and the harshest consequences should be applied to the Daily Maverick as a consequence.”

Daily Maverick

2.29 The DM begins its response with a general critique of Panda, saying that while it initially appeared to be no more than an actuarial group taking an academic interest in the lockdown, “in recent months its representatives have been increasingly vocal and hostile to those promoting the most basic elements of scientific consensus” on the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa.

2.30 It argues that Panda founder Nick Hudson “had sent aggressive emails and messages to South Africa’s top scientists dealing with the pandemic.” This had led to concerns in both actuarial and scientific circles locally, and “numerous individuals” had approached the publication about this. “The context for the concerns was a country awash with Covid-19-related misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories – to the point where South Africa had criminalised the publishing or sharing of such material.”

2.31 As a lobby group, Panda amplified many “dangerous views” such as that masks are unnecessary and vaccines are harmful. This had prompted the government to call on a “responsible media” to help “correct” these views.

2.32 It references the British online publication, Byline Times, which on 2 February 2021 reported that a former top figure in the controversial Cambridge Analytica firm was “active in a global Covid-19 disinformation network”. [2]

2.33 Although the article focused mainly on British political parties and groups, it suggested “that the South African Panda was one of the global groups helping to spread messages antagonistic to lockdown and sceptical of other Covid-19 aspects.”

2.34 DM then enlisted the journalist who had written Byline Times piece, Nafeez Ahmed, as a co-author with its own journalist, Rebecca Davis, on the article that is the subject of complaint.

2.35 Davis’ approached Panda founder Nick Hudson for comment on some of the allegations contained in the Byline Times article. But she “received a volley of hostile emails in response to her questions from a lawyer associated with Panda – to the point where Panda’s former communications manager subsequently apologised to Davis.” DM describe this as an “intimidation tactic”.  

2.36 Hudson’s responses to the allegations in the Byline Times article were “perplexing” in that they were “clearly contradicted by the available online evidence.”   In fact, DM says, he appeared to be “lying”.

2.37 Because Hudson had threatened a lawsuit, the DM proceeded with “extra care” and returned to Hudson a second time to ask questions about the apparent contradictions between his previous answers and the online evidence.

“In other words: Daily Maverick approached Panda not once but twice… more than fulfilling the requirement set out by clause 1.8 of the Press Code, viz: ‘The views of the subject of critical reportage [should be sought] in advance of publication’.”

2.38 DM denies breaching the Press Code, saying it reported on facts in the public domain and comment by experts and included comment “solicited on two separate occasions from Panda. We also had the article checked by a lawyer before publication in order to ensure it did not contain comment which could be considered unfair or unjustified.”

2.39 DM accuses Panda representatives of approaching “at least one” of its donors to urge them to withdraw financial backing “at a time when it is well known that the media at large is in financial crisis and independent voices greatly endangered.”

2.40 The DM also accuses Panda of targeting the authors “personally” although the Complaints Procedure says complaints are against the editor/publisher, not individual journalists. It believes this “evidences malice on the part of Panda, as does their underhanded attempts at lobbying DM’s donors.”

2.41 The DM provides answers to specific aspects of the complaint:

2.41.1 Daily Maverick ought to have been aware of the fact that Mr Ahmed had a history of advocacy for lockdowns and they were aware that Ms Davis had been criticised for taking a pro-lockdown stance in past editorial comments”.

RESPONSE: “There should be no controversy around journalists personally supporting lockdown efforts aimed at mitigating the spread of Covid-19. Lockdown has been the policy of the vast majority of global governments over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic because it is based on scientific consensus. It should be no more contentious for a journalist to hold a “pro-lockdown stance” than for a journalist to believe in the reality of climate change.”

2.41.2 The Press Code requires that the media not allow personal or other nonprofessional considerations to influence reporting. The lack of balance in the DM Article between pro and anti-lockdown stances is evidence of the Daily Maverick's failure to manage the personal views of Mr Ahmed and Ms Davis.

RESPONSE: The article contains no reference to the personal views of Mr Ahmed and Ms Davis. The fact that a journalist may previously have expressed certain views or beliefs in public, does not, in itself, disqualify him or her from ever publishing articles on the topic. Panda has failed to point to any evidence that shows a conflict of interests for either Ahmed or Davis, nor could they.

2.41.3 “The DM Article was not presented as opinion. Daily Maverick itself described the DM Article as a "report/investigation" and not an editorial.”

RESPONSE: The article was not opinion. This is abundantly clear from the article itself.

2.41.4 “Daily Maverick further suppressed the facts by (a) disabling comments on the DM Article and (b) refusing PANDA a right of reply.”

RESPONSE: (a) It has been DM’s policy to disable comments on Covid-19 related articles in order to safeguard DM and readers from misinformation. It appends an explainer to such articles that under the Disaster Management Act, it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19.

 (b) In accordance with clause 1.8 of the Press Code, Davis approached Panda in order to seek “the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication”. As Panda gave some responses initially which appeared to be clearly false, Davis returned to them a second time to provide further opportunity for them to clarify. Panda never sought an extension of time in order to respond and, in fact, admits in its complaint that it “sent a comprehensive response” to DM’s questions. There is no merit to the accusation that Panda was afforded insufficient time to respond.

2.41.5 The headline is “not reflective of the contents of the DM Article”

RESPONSE:  The headline is an accurate reflection of the contents of the article. The sub-headline and intro immediately give more context to the headline. The question whether Panda disseminates “dodgy analytics” or “pandemic propaganda” is squarely dealt with in the body of the article. The words “Kung-Flu Panda” is clearly a wordplay on a famous movie and the Panda acronym and bears no contextual similarity to the use of the words “Kung flu” by Donald Trump, as Panda would have it. 

2.41.6 DM breached the Press Code – specifically the requirements that “personal information be used for journalistic purposes only” and the media shall “exercise care and consideration in matters involving the private lives of individuals” – by “disclosing”  the names of the employers of Panda founders Nick Hudson and Peter Castleden.

RESPONSE: It is absurd to claim that reporting on Hudson and Castleden’s jobs is a breach of privacy, when this information is available in the public domain with the most cursory Google search. Their employment is a matter of public record. In the context of the article, it is clearly relevant to note what these men do for a living given their very vocal and public sideline in lobbying government to lift lockdown. This is even more the case if there is a potential conflict of interests at play. In any event, we would presume that Sanlam is well aware of Castleden’s role in an organization which, by Panda’s own admission, disseminates controversial information. That the DM article supposedly suddenly caused Sanlam to “put pressure” on Castleden to “distance himself” from Panda is a baffling submission.

2.41.7 DM’s reporting that Hudson is “CEO of the South African private equity fund Sana Partners” is “replete with untruths” because “Sana Partners is not in fact a private equity fund”.

RESPONSE: In that case, Sana Partners is advised to amend its own website , which clearly states on its homepage: “Sana Partners (‘Sana’) is a private equity fund”.

2.41.8 DM published a “false allegation that Panda is collaborating with UK groups.

RESPONSE: The article does not state this as a fact. The DM article states, accurately: “[Panda] denies being associated with a global coalition of pandemic denialists and sceptics – but online evidence suggests otherwise”. In our online article we included screen shots of all the evidence in question.

The publication says when it initially contacted Hudson for comment on Thursday 4 February, it asked whether Panda “is part of the Covid-19 Assembly”.

Hudson responded on Friday 5 February: “Panda is not part of the Covid-19 Assembly”, terming this a “conspiracy theory”.

However, this association was “trumpeted” on the Covid-19 Assembly website, so DM approached Hudson a second time on February 19.

Hudson replied:

“We note that COVID-19 Assembly states that they are working with "Pandata19.org" to help distribute accurate information. It is not clear to us what that statement means or why they link to an old URL previously used by PANDA. We do not, in principle, have an issue with working with other organisations, but PANDA is not in fact working with COVID-19 Assembly and we will take this up with them.”

This was reflected in the article, even though it “strains credulity” to suggest that Panda “has no idea why Covid-19 Assembly would say they are working with them when they aren’t. 

“As stated in our article: Panda denies being associated with Covid-19 Assembly, but the online evidence (from Covid-19 Assembly’s own website) suggests otherwise.”

Hudson also said any link to PCRClaims.co.uk was “baseless and untrue”, “but as the evidence once again contradicted this, Davis once again offered Hudson a second right of reply on the topic.

“This time, Hudson replied that the listing of Panda’s website on PCRClaims.co.uk could not be taken as proof of coordination. Hudson further replied that although he was listed on PCRClaims.co.uk website as a spokesperson, he ‘has had no contact with PCRClaims for months and never acted in any capacity for the organisation, conducted any work for it or represented it in any fashion’.

The article reported this thus: “Panda denies being associated with PCRLinks.co.uk, (it is in fact PCRClaims) but the online evidence …suggests otherwise.”

Panda itself has said it aims to “lead the world against lockdown”, supporting the notion of links with international groups.

The DM also dismisses complaints Panda makes against claims that Panda is part of a “disinformation network”  in the Byline Times article, saying it has no control over the content.

2.41.9 The DM article does not offer sufficient proof that PCRClaims.co.uk publishes disinformation.

RESPONSE:  The DM says PCRClaims.co.uk is not party to this complaint and Panda says it has no association with them so this point is “irrelevant”.

2.41.10 Daily Maverick also says that the PCRClaims website links to UK groups actively purveying disinformation, specifically the website of Dr Clare Craig”.

RESPONSE: The DM article does not reference Dr Clare Craig at any point.

2.41.11 By stating: “Panda’s chief argument is that lockdowns cause more death and destruction than the Covid-19 pandemic itself”, DM misrepresented Panda’s position.

RESPONSE: Panda itself stated in an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa: “The impact of extended lockdown on years of lost life of the population is staggering, overwhelming its benefits”.

It was thus “disingenuous” to claim a “substantive difference” between that statement and the DM’s summary of its position.

2.41.12 Dr Deepti Gurdasani, the academic contacted to comment on Panda’s analysis, did not understand Panda’s work.

RESPONSE: “Differences of opinion between Gurdasani and Panda’s actuaries are just that. Gurdasani was clearly well qualified to comment on Panda’s analysis and suggestions that she is incompetent at doing so are offensive. Quoting an expert whose views are disputed by Panda does not amount to a breach of the Press Code.” The DM adds that Panda is “perfectly entitled to use its significant platforms to respond to such criticism.”

2.41.13  It is incorrect that Hudson “repeatedly predicted in the first half of 2020 that just 10,000 people in South Africa would die of Covid-19”.

RESPONSE: Panda claims it said this “early in 2020” and that since May 2020, they consistently predicted 20,000 deaths. “But Panda completely ignores (and does not dispute) the very next sentence in the article, where Hudson is quoted as saying he cannot understand how any model could produce a death forecast of more than 10,000. This was in June 2020.  “The DM statement that Hudson’s 10,000 deaths forecast was repeatedly made ‘in the first half of 2020’ is therefore accurate.”

2.41.14 For the DM article to state “Panda has also strayed into anti-vaxxer disinformation” was a “total distortion”.

RESPONSE:  Panda published a piece on its website by Dr Denis Rancourt that contained a section headlined “Vaccines are inherently dangerous”. It is disingenuous to say a disclaimer distances them from Rancourt.

2.41.15 The DM article “misrepresented” Dr Scott Atlas by describing him as follows:

Scott Atlas, an expert on magnetic resonance imaging who became one of President Donald Trump’s favourite Covid-19 “experts”. Atlas’s employer, Stanford University, distanced itself from Atlas, writing that “his actions have undermined and threatened public health even as countless lives have been lost to Covid-19”. Atlas encouraged citizens of Michigan to “rise up” against lockdown measures, even after armed militia stormed the Michigan Capitol building.

RESPONSE: Panda does not dispute the facts. Atlas is widely regarded as a “charlatan.”

It is “bizarre” to suggest the DM should have described him in his own words, which include him saying:

“ Since my appointment as special advisor to the president, I have used that unique background, critical thinking and logic to present the president with the broadest possible views on policy, so that he has the best science-based, fact-driven data available to combat this devastating pandemic and make decisions to save lives and best benefit the American people. To claim otherwise is an embarrassment to those who do so.”

It is akin to arguing that the Gupta family should be described by themselves “listing their good works.”

2.41.16 “Randy Hillier is a serving member of the Canadian Parliament and the suggestion that it was inappropriate for PANDA to interview him is ludicrous”.

RESPONSE:  The DM did not suggest it was “inappropriate” for Panda to interview Randy Hillier. “He was listed as another example of a controversial figure, accused by Canadian health officials of spreading Covid-19 misinformation, to which Panda has given a platform.”

2.41.17 Daily Maverick's statement in relation to Wolfgang Wodarg is misleading. The ‘fake pandemic outcry’ referenced by Nature was the H1N1 pandemic; not the COVID19 outbreak”

RESPONSE: DM did not claim that the pandemic in question was the Covid-19 outbreak. “The article in Nature referenced by DM was published in the context of the current pandemic and is highly uncomplimentary to Wodarg, making the point that he has a history of dubious behaviour around pandemics.”

2.41.18 DM misquoted Michael Yeadon when we wrote that Yeadon believes that the “pandemic was over in the [Northern Hemisphere] summer”.   

RESPONSE: This quote is taken from Panda’s own website, which lists Michael Yeadon as a scientific advisor and states: “He believes the pandemic was over in the summer”.

2.41.19 The DM article ends with a list of controversial statements by Hudson

RESPONSE: “Hudson does not dispute that these are his statements, nor that they are controversial.” Panda in fact admits that some of the information it disseminates “may be controversial”.

2.42 The DM asks that the complaints be dismissed.

2.43 The DM also submitted a 15-page paper by Wits School of Governance academic, Professor Alex van den Heever in support of its article. He says he has entered the complaint not because he was mentioned in the article but “from a public interest perspective”.

He also submitted a list of names of prominent scientists and medics whom he says support his intervention.

Panda objected to the submission on various grounds, but submitted a 14-page rebuttal of it.

I will deal with Prof van den Heever’s paper, and Panda’s rebuttal, in the “Analysis” section.

Further arguments

2.44 In its response, Panda accuses the DM of setting up “straw men arguments…incorrectly summarising PANDA's complaints and then arguing against a point PANDA never in fact made.”

2.45 The heart of its complaint, it says, is that the DM article “represents an act of advocacy in support of lockdown policies.” Its aim is to “discredit and silence” opponents of this policy. The intention was to “smear” Panda by linking it to other organisations described as having “nefarious” intentions.

In fact, DM admits the allegation at the heart of the complaint: “It tells us that the purpose of the DM article was to support government, who had requested DM to "correct" views that government deems to be "dangerous".

2.46 Panda was not “granted a powerful voice”, as the DM claims. It was started by “ordinary citizens” in May 2020 and “earned its voice” by providing accurate information “when others were misleading the public.” The use of the word “granted” shows that the DM believes the role of the media is not to inform but to “control the narrative”. This is the “antithesis” of the role the media should play in a democracy. “The fourth estate is supposed to report both sides of any issue - to amplify dissenting voices, to challenge mainstream ideas, particularly those supported by government.”

Democracy “is predicated on the idea that bad ideas are defeated by exposure, argument, and persuasion; not by trying to silence them.”  The DM’s notion that Panda has an obligation to “silence” and “deplatform” certain arguments “is anathema to freedom of speech …and the Press Code.” It is dangerous for the press to do this because today they could be “dancing to a government tune they agree with but tomorrow they may be restricted on the same grounds.” While it is important to encourage fact-checking and debate, the DM approach “harms the institution of a free press” by promoting government positions, and to “correcting” dissenters through “tabloid-style, conspiracy-theory hit jobs” on citizen-led, non-profit organisations.

2.47 Panda says the DM argues it received “requests” from government to “correct” views it considered dangerous. Panda asks the DM to provide evidence of these requests. “DM’s argument is effectively that it is proper, in the current climate, for DM to act as a government propaganda platform. Science and epidemiology are areas outside the specialisation of DM and it is inappropriate for DM to argue that it should be curating scientific debate by deciding what ideas are "dangerous" or by… denigrating science DM (or government) disagrees with.”

2.48 The view that the public is “too ignorant” to do the right thing when provided with information “and that the narrative must be controlled by public health officials” is against the ethos of the Press Code.

2.49 DM complains that the Panda complaint is “lawyerly” and lengthy but it has accused Panda of “criminal activity” - i.e. the spreading of disinformation, and thus causing people to die. Thus it was “entirely appropriate” for Panda to respond as it has. It also illustrates a failure of the procedures and oversight of the DM to fail to appreciate the seriousness of the allegations they make.

“DM suggests that the criminalisation of spreading of disinformation (which entails the presence of an intention to deceive) was a response to the country being "awash" with misinformation (no intention to deceive). In fact, the very first set of regulations relating to COVID-19, dated 18 March 2020 (before PANDA existed), criminalised disinformation.”

2.50 DM’s “background” argument is unsubstantiated and fails to address the specific breaches of the Press Code. The publication portrays Panda as having “morphed” from a “group of actuaries interested in lockdown from an academic perspective to a disinformation platform.”

2.51 In an article published in May 2020 when Panda was launched “it noted that PANDA was "a multidisciplinary initiative", "a concerned group of professionals and comprises actuaries, an economist, lawyers, a medical doctor, a data specialist and a statistics lecturer." In other words, DM never believed that PANDA was just a group of actuaries.” It also reported that Panda has written to the President warning that lockdown would cause “more harm than good”. “It is therefore entirely disingenuous for DM to also suggest that it initially appeared that PANDA

was only interested in lockdown in an academic sense.”

2.52 DM also implies there is growing concern in scientific and actuarial communities about Panda. But in fact its membership has grown “massively” to include “many more scientists” including a Nobel Laureate. This suggests wider acceptance of Panda in the scientific community. “The views PANDA expressed about lockdown have resulted in a shift in the debate to consider not only lives, but also livelihoods and widespread scientific criticism of lockdowns that echoes PANDA's initial points.” Using its actuarial skills, PANDA produced the most accurate model of the mortality rate in the first wave and the only one in the second.

2.53 DM portrays itself as a “victim”, describing a “volley of hostile emails” but there was “patently” nothing hostile about the emails. In fact it was the DM that appeared hostile, asking for comment on allegations of criminal conduct. On the claim that Panda approached DM’s donors in response to the article, Panda says the article “received overwhelmingly negative comments on social media including many subscribers who announced that they were terminating their subscriptions. There were also comments to Pick'nPay, which distributes DM, questioning their involvement with a paper that conducted business in this manner. None of these posts were by PANDA.” It is “laughable” to argue that DM is an independent voice on this issue given that it admits “it is acting as a government mouthpiece.”

2.54 On advocacy: The attention Panda paid to the authors was also for “good reason”. For instance, Ahmed did not only support lockdowns but he has been ‘actively undermining” alternatives to lockdowns. “Immediately prior to the declaration of the pandemic by the WHO, every public health body advised against quarantines of the healthy during respiratory virus epidemics (the word lockdown did not exist at the time). The Press Code requires that the media not allow personal or other non-professional considerations to influence reporting.  “It is for this reason that the authors’ background are important.”

Moreover, Panda did not allege that Davis’ pro-lockdown views have been “widely criticized”. This is simply another “straw man” put up by the DM.  “PANDA's actual comment was that Davis' pro-lockdown stance has attracted criticism in the past – that statement is confirmed by DM, who does not deny the quotes contained in the Complaint.”

The Press Codes does not ban personal views, it describes how reporters must manage such views by saying they should not allow “personal or non-professional considerations” to influence reporting. There was no evidence of any steps taken to manage the “pro-lockdown” views of the two authors of the article.

2.55 On the right of reply: Panda says the response from DM shows it “does not understand what a right of reply is.” Its statement that “Davis’ first move was to approach Panda with the allegations contained in the original Byline Times article in order to give Panda founder Nick Hudson the right of reply to these" (our emphasis). The right of reply is the right to defend oneself against public criticism in the same venue where it was published. It is a right that only comes into existence after publication. Panda says the recent Press Council ruling against the DM on a right of reply issue shows it does not understand it.

DM does not respond to the accusation that it reflected only “a fraction of the information supplied to it, including materially misrepresenting PANDA's models. It is “all the more scurrilous” that the DM confirmed the article was a report not an opinion piece.

 Panda acknowledges that the DM has the right to treat comments as it “sees fit.” But the excuse that it is legally prohibited from publishing other comments “holds no water.” The law prohibits comments that “have the intention to deceive” and it is hard to see how it can be held to this standard by publishing others’ comments. “DM's coverage of COVID-19 is consistently pro-lockdown and the disabling of comments results in any contrary views being stifled.” This is so a single “pro-government” message can go out. It shows that it does not understand what a “right of reply” is

2.56 It is not sufficient for the DM to argue that it was merely referencing allegations made first in another publication, in this case the Byline Times. “In the DM Article, Nafeez Ahmed references the misrepresentations he himself wrote in the BT Article.” If this were true, it would be possible to avoid the requirements of the Press Code by simply publishing “the lies they wish to repeat” on another platform first.

2.57 Correspondence with DM: Panda has attached to its complaint the record of correspondence with DM journalist Rebecca Davis. It says none of the responses given by Mr Hudson to Davis would appear to any reasonable person to be "clearly false." PANDA responded “transparently and comprehensively apparently thwarting DM's plan to give PANDA no time to respond and thereby have greater latitude to publish lies about PANDA.

“DM then distorted PANDA's initial response in a manner that suited its narrative. “

2.58 Specifically, PANDA denied it was part of the Covid-19 Assembly. This was not false. Also, it is false that Mr Hudson told DM that any link to PCRClaims.co.uk was 'baseless and untrue'". In fact the PCRClaims website was never discussed. “PANDA stated, in relation to the BT Article, ‘To be clear, the allegations regarding PANDA and COVID-19 Assembly and PCRclaims.co.uk are baseless and untrue.’" This was not in response to any question by DM relating to PCRClaims as none was asked. Panda did not deny a “link” with PCRClaims, in the sense “of the extremely loose definition that DM seeks to apply to that term. It would be foolhardy for PANDA to deny any such link, since DM's definition is so broad that PANDA could be "linked" to any organisation that uses YouTube.”

DM’s intention was to create the impression of a “shadowy association” between Panda and other groups and its “inconvenient” response was purposely misinterpreted.

 2.59 “DM also chose to quote an academic who holds the most extreme views on lockdown to be found. Dr Gurdasani is a principal organiser of the pro-lockdown John Snow Memorandum.”

2.60 Headline: “DM's staggering attempt to defend the use of the offensive phrase "Kung-flu" deserves no response other than to say that the Press Code does not seem to encourage "word play" or jokes in articles on topics as serious as this or articles that suggest an organisation is guilty of criminal activity.”

2.61 Use of personal information: The DM again created a “straw man” out of this. Panda’s complaint was not that the DM committed a breach of privacy but that it “failed to exercise care and consideration in a matter involving the private lives of individuals.” Every citizen has the right to lobby government or express their views on policies and there was no “journalistic purpose” in disclosing the employers of Mr Castleden and Mr Hudson. DM “vaguely” references a conflict of interests, but the details of this are not identified. It also “hints” at a conspiracy, implying that “Santam is working with Panda to somehow help them avoid insurance claims.” In any event, Mr Castleden’s employer is not Santam and the DM should have presented evidence of “some collaboration between Santam and Panda…. The disclosure of Mr Castleden's employer details is typical of cancel culture and was clearly designed to ‘correct’ his ‘dangerous views’ by publicly shaming him, Sanlam and Santam.”

Moreover, DM does not deny that that Mr Castleden has no influence over Santam, which is a separate legal entity to Sanlam.

Sana Partners is in fact a “private equity fund manager”, not a private equity fund.

2.62 Failure to report news accurately: it is disingenuous for the DM to say it does not allege that Panda is working with UK groups. It was “clearly the purpose of the DM article…to imply collaboration” without presenting any evidence. Moreover it also said the evidence suggests that “Panda is associated with other groups”. The DM has no evidence to suggest that Panda’s denial was inaccurate yet it claimed that such evidence exists.”

DM says the purpose of its article was “to explore the hidden motives and modus operandi of PANDA (conspiring with other groups).” But it “absolutely presents a conspiracy theory.”

2.63 The DM also denies it claimed that the Covid-19 Assembly was a disinformation outfit, but in the transition to the section on PCRClaims, the article says: “Another disinformation outfit seemingly linked to Panda...” (In its response the DM references PCRLinks.co.uk but no such site exists – it is PCRClaims.co.uk)

2.64 The claim that organisations are “linked” if one lists another’s website as “useful” is “preposterous”.

“It is also interesting to note DM's choice of words in saying the PCRClaims.co.uk website listed Nick Hudson as its spokesperson on economics in an archived web page. This is a distortion. The archived webpage was not part of the PCRClaims website. The truth is that for a short period, Mr Hudson, in his individual capacity, had been listed on the PCRClaims website as an advisor. Mr Hudson never in fact acted in this capacity and his details were removed from the site.” The DM seemed not to be aware that the screenshot she provided to Panda for comment was from an old, archived website and not the current one.

For the DM to say that PCRClaims was not itself a complainant is irrelevant. “Chapter 1 of the Press Code creates obligations on behalf of DM irrespective of whether or not PCRClaims itself approaches the Press Council.” Moreover, it is relevant because the publication attempts to “smear” Panda by suggesting there is an association between the two organisations.

Stating that Panda wants to “lead the world against lockdown” does not imply it is working with other groups.

2.65 Panda concedes DM’s point about Dr Craig, saying she was mentioned in the BT piece not the DM piece.

2.66 Misrepresenting Panda’s position: the DM claims there is no substantial difference between its summary of Panda’s position and the actual position. This relates to the difference between “deaths” and “years of life lost” which is “fundamentally different to deaths”. The failure of both the DM and its commentator Dr Gurdasani (who, it says, is not an actuary) to appreciate this difference “lead them to make major errors of analysis” and in Dr Gurdasani’s case “ridiculous assertions about the quality of the work.” Had DM “bothered” to read Panda’s paper, it would not have made this error. The “Years of Life Lost” paper is not about how many more people will die from lockdown; it did not even use its own mortality model. These are “major distortions” that should be corrected through a right of reply.

2.67 The DM also ignored Panda’s statements relating to vaccines, not only provided to it but also available on its website. DM is guilty “of unbalanced reporting” on Panda’s vaccine stance. DM does not deny vaccines are “inherently dangerous”, which is why they are subject to rigorous testing.

2.68 DM creates another “straw man” in relation to Dr Scott Atlas. To describe him as a “charlatan”, as it does in its response, only “reinforces” the problems in the article. DM does not believe that Dr Atlas should be “described in his own words” but the publication “distorts the truth” by ignoring the 15 years that he served as a public health expert “since his MRI days” and “distorting the truth around the Michigan Capitol storming.”

2.69 In relation to Dr Wodarg, DM’s response that it did not claim the pandemic they were referring to was Covid-19 is “disingenuous”. Any reasonable person would have inferred that the reference to the pandemic in the article was a reference to the current pandemic. Moreover, the quote referenced from Dr Wodarg was published more than a decade ago in Nature. Dr Wodarg’s view was that the dangers of the H1N1 pandemic (“swine flu”) were overblown mainly as a result “of biotech companies capturing public health institutions.” It was “entirely appropriate for Panda to interview him and concerning that the DM in its response continue to misrepresent the Nature article.

2.70 The quote from Dr Yeadon’s biography on Panda’s website was taken out of context.

2.71 The controversial statements: the nub of the complaint is that DM has distorted the truth by claiming that Panda distributes false information. The statements are provided in this context and labelled as “controversial”. The implication for any “reasonable person” was that they constitute disinformation. Panda does not agree that these statements are controversial.

2.72 In conclusion, Panda argues that DM’s central position is that it is the duty of the media to assist government by using its power to discredit individuals and organisations that challenge the government narrative and to deny them a platform.

Panda believes that the “ideology” of the DM has led it to breach the Press Code in multiple ways. This poses a threat to the future of journalism and to democracy, and as a counter the DM should be sanctioned. At the “very least”, Panda should be afforded an opportunity to reply.

  1. Analysis

Submission from Professor Alex van den Heever

3.1 In support of its response to the complaint, the DM submitted a 15-page paper by Professor Alex van den Heever, an economist who holds the Chair of Social Security Systems and Management studies at the Wits School of Governance.

Appended to this was a further page of the names of scientists and doctors whom he said supported his views.

3.2 He says he was made aware of the complaint not by the editor of the DM, but by the editor of another publication.

3.3 Panda argued that the paper not be considered as part of this finding. However, it submitted a 14-page response.

In total, these addenda added 30 pages to an already existing 35 pages of argument.

3.4 I will briefly summarize the Van den Heever paper and the Panda response below:

  • He makes it clear that he is not a government lobbyist and has criticized government on occasions, as well as a member of the judiciary for making “reckless” public statements that could influence vaccine acceptance.
  • He has also been critical of the “configuration of restrictions” loosely described as lockdown restrictions. He says it is noteworthy that Panda is driven by “an anti-lockdown stance.”
  • He says he has been careful to “err on the side of caution” where evidence is weak. This is in contrast to Panda which has been “reckless” in its public statements.
  • He says Panda appears to “form part of an organised lobby with a set agenda” – to end the lockdown. This does not allow for an “open-minded and impartial inquiry into the evidence and facts.” But to create the “appearance” of an impartial inquiry, it lists names of eminent scholars “as collaborators”.
  • “Within this context the title of the DM piece resonates. It poses a very serious question of whether this group is made up of poor analysts or media manipulators.”
  • Journalists have a “valid role” to play in exposing “potential manipulation”.

3.5 He then evaluates several of Panda’s public statements made by Nick Hudson, including those that query the number of deaths predicted including by SACEMA (the SA Council for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis based at Stellenbosch University); that the IFR (Infection fatality rate) of Covid-19 is no worse than flu: that a “second wave” was likely to be less deadly than the first; that government and media were exploiting a “fear factor”; “mask mandates” particularly for children, should end; that governments are using fear of the virus to promote policies that restrict civil liberties; urging people to sign the “Great Barrington Declaration” (which is broadly against lockdown policies).

3.6 Prof Van den Heever also highlights disputes about numbers of fatalities: Panda’s model predicted there would be about 10 000 deaths in SA as a result of the pandemic. By way of contrast, SACEMA estimated Covid19 fatalities to be between 87 900 and 351 000.

He argues that the number of deaths is far worse than “formal reports” indicate, citing his own work on excess deaths attributable to Covid-19 and that of the SA Medical Research Council, and points out where they differ.  The MRC’s estimate, taking into account the “excess deaths” that can be directly attributable to Covid, is in the range of 126 000-141 000 (I have rounded figures off).

His estimate, based on attributing 93%-96% of excess deaths to Covid19 is higher: 135 000 to 157 000.

Panda’s model for the first wave, on the other hand, showed a toll of 10 000 in the first wave. [3]

The official Covid19 death toll to March 2021 is about 51 000.

Had the excess deaths been caused by lockdowns or lack of access to health facilities for conditions other than Covid, it would be unlikely that they would track the trajectory of the pandemic so closely.

3.7 There were also two distinct waves of the pandemic in SA, with the second being more severe than the first, likewise in the UK.  

3.8 On the IFR: he cites various evidence to show it is much higher than the flu.  The severity of the second wave shows that a large proportion of the population is susceptible to infection; the lowest plausible IFR is not 0.2% as Panda argues, but 0.8%.

3.9 On mask-wearing:  he says it is now accepted internationally that the only plausible explanation for the efficiency of transmission is that the virus is air-borne.  Evidence is now high that mask-wearing enhances protection. For Panda to argue otherwise, endangers the lives of the public.

3.10 He says it is clear that Panda “cherry-picks” evidence to arrive at a foregone conclusion: that the pandemic is no worse than flu and there is no need for mask-mandates or other non-pharmaceutical interventions.

PANDA’s response

3.11 The DM described the two documents as “affidavits” but they are not. They also do not support any statements in the DM response.

The listed scientists in the second document have not signed the document, nor do they make clear that they are supporting Prof Van den Heever’s statement.

3.12 They cite concerns that Prof Van den Heever was made aware of the complaint “through GroundUp”, as correspondence between the Public Advocate and complainant is supposed to be confidential. “As such an explanation is required from DM for the disclosure of the complaint to GroundUp” and to Prof Van den Heever.

3.13 In fact, the Van den Heever submission is to the DM not to the Press Council. It is also not clear what he means by a “public interest” perspective or in what capacity he represents the public.

There is no provision in the Press Code Complaints Procedure for a member of the public to join a complaint and it is not the forum for debate on, say, whose IFR is correct.

3.14 Panda argues that the Van den Heever submission should be discarded and ignored by the Ombud.

3.15 Nonetheless, they make certain submissions about it in case it is accepted.

A summary of these is below:

  • Van den Heever has no medical training; he holds an MA in Economics. He provides a comprehensive CV but Panda says its experts can also match those with their qualifications and experience.
  • Panda also says he has a conflict of interests as “controversial organisations with pro-lockdown agendas” are among those that have funded Wits University.
  • Panda sets out a number of his predictions and points out which were wrong. These include data on positive tests, deaths, and on ICU capacity.
  • Panda’s prediction of hospitalizations was correct within a 1% margin of error.
  • The confirmed death toll from Covid19 placed SA at 46 out of 221 countries in April 2021. If Van den Heever were to be believed, that the true death toll was in excess of 150 000, it would place SA far in the lead of countries hit by the pandemic.

3.16 Van den Heever argues that only 4-7% of excess deaths can be attributed to lockdown policies but there is evidence of a “material impact” on the delivery of healthcare and a “significant increase in poverty” that has resulted in mortality.

Van den Heever has not conducted any research into the impact of lockdown, whereas Panda has, showing that its costs exceed its positive impact.

He provides no evidence for his statement that Panda forms part of an organised lobby with a set agenda; this echoes the essence of the DM article.

3.17 Panda has in fact used science and evidence to assess the impact of lockdowns and at one stage concluded that it would have a “curve-flattening” effect. But its current position is that there is no good science in support of lockdowns today. If lockdown were the right policy for SA, why has the pandemic – on van den Heever’s version – resulted in more deaths per million than any other country.

3.18 Panda points out that its IFR of 0,2% was referenced to a WHO paper. It contests his “excess death” toll figure, saying that even the MRC has to apologise for this.  Panda’s model was always based on “confirmed deaths” and the estimates of a total three times the number of confirmed deaths is not reliable.

In any event, Panda’s model was based on the first wave; it produced a separate model for the second wave. Panda did not predict 10 000 deaths but in the “Years of Life Lost” model estimated 20 000 deaths. Its hospitalisation model was accurate to within 1%; the “central purpose” of modelling was about resource allocation.

The fact that SA experienced a second wave does not alter the fact that government tried to induce “fear” in order to motivate people to act a certain way. The risks were being overstated.

3.19 On mask wearing: Van den Heever has no medical qualification and provides no evidence that masks reduce transmission of the virus. Panda cites the “Danmask” study as well as two others, to argue that "the recommendation to wear a surgical mask when outside the home among others did not reduce, at conventional levels of statistical significance, the incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in mask wearers."

But Panda’s position on masks is much more “nuanced” than Van den Heever implies. It has argued in line with several studies, that children should not be required to wear masks. However it believes, in time, all mask mandates should be ended.

3.20 In conclusion Panda argues that Van den Heever has not addressed its main argument that the costs of lockdown outweigh its benefits.

It does not have an “ideology” but believes that the public should be given accurate information; moreover, coercion should play no role in public health.

It says it is clear he “advocates for articles full of falsehoods as long as the target of the lies is a perceived ideological enemy.”

3.21 The submission adds “nothing” to the resolution of the complaint and “provides no evidence” that Panda has intentionally spread false information. He has not responded to any allegations about breaches of the Press Code.

3.22 Panda argues his submission should be struck out and ignored.

Acceptance of submission

3.23 On the point of whether Prof Van den Heever was entitled to make a submission on this complaint: there is nothing wrong, or indeed unprecedented, with either a complainant or a publication submitting a supporting document to buttress their arguments. This has happened before – on both sides – most recently in the case of Aris Danikas vs the DM where both sides submitted supporting documents and where the DM submitted an affidavit from a central character in its disputed report, General Johann Booysen.[4]

3.24 While it is odd that the document appears to have been drawn up at the behest of the editor of another publication, nonetheless, the DM actually submitted it.

Although it is true that correspondence between a complainant and the Public Advocate is confidential, there is no indication that the correspondence was given to another publication. Rather the Van den Heever document is in support of DM’s response to the complaint.

3.25 That said, the document is, mainly, a contribution to the arguments around Covid-19 and its containment. Prof Van den Heever, interestingly, does not say he supports lockdowns uncritically and in fact has criticized elements of the SA lockdown, and his submission adds some clarity to the disputes about numbers and the science of the disease and it spread.

3.26 However, it does not address itself to the key elements in the complaint or the DM response, which is about whether, or to what extent, the DM article breached the Press Code. Neither does the Panda response to the submission.

3.27 However, it is helpful insofar as it highlights methodology for determining the IFR (higher than what Panda says) and the death rate (also higher)

It is also helpful in terms of explaining some of the discrepancies around mortality figures. The official death toll (till April 2021) in SA is 54 620 [5]

Taking into account the SAMRC concept of “excess deaths” related to the coronavirus, the death toll would be about 157 000. [6]  This may be a higher estimate than the real toll but his point is that the trajectory of excess deaths  - up or down – closely tracks the number of deaths directly related to Covid.

Was the article reasonable?

3.28 The key question we must consider is whether it was reasonable and fair for the DM to publish what it did.

3.29 The article arose from one in a British publication that does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Press Council. Its focus was mainly British politics. Insofar as it refers to matters that may be of interest to the SA public, the DM pursued some of these in its own report.

3.30 The basis for the report was reasonable, in that a British publication mentioned a well-known South African lobbying organisation as part of a wider network of groups who have taken a particular stand on ways to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Because the complaint references the BT article, as well as various international figures who are referenced in one or the other or both articles, it is important to separate out the specific complaints about the DM article.

3.31 Thus I will try to deal with the complaints about the DM article specifically.

3.32 Panda complains that the article accuses it of being part of a global network that spreads disinformation about the pandemic. It thus breaches the clauses in the Press Code about truthful and accurate reporting, presenting news in context and reporting only what is reasonably true as fact.

3.33 The article is premised on the BT report that says that an organisation called Covid-19 Assembly says it is working with Panda. The Assembly is a self-described anti-lockdown organisation, as is Panda. Panda’s denial of this is quoted in the second paragraph – although the article tempers this denial by saying “online evidence suggests otherwise.”

3.34 The intro to the article states that a “group of influential SA lobbyists” is “amplifying” discredited and unscientific views.

3.35 The claim that Panda is working with the Covid-19 Assembly comes from that organisation itself. The denial from the spokesperson for Panda, Mr Nick Hudson, is reflected on several occasions. He says he will “take this up” with the Assembly.

Certainly, the Panda website is featured prominently on the website of the Covid19 Assembly.[7]

It is the only SA-linked organisation that appears to be on the website of this organisation. This seems a newsworthy enough reason for focusing on it.

3.36 Mr Hudson’s comment that Panda was not “in fact working with the Covid-19 Assembly and we will take this up with them” is recorded straight afterwards.

3.37 The PCRClaims website is also one that is broadly opposed to the lockdown in the UK. It also queries the efficacy of Covid tests, known as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, and argues that many turn up false positives.[8]

The Panda website is listed on its website under “useful links”. The article stated (quoting the Byline Times article) that Mr Hudson was listed as the organisation’s spokesperson on economic matters but that this was taken offline after the Byline Times article was published.

Panda’s comment - “Individual members of Panda are entitled to provide advice to other organisations in their personal capacities and this does not, outside of the realm of conspiracy theories, imply co-ordination between the organisations,” - as well as a comment that Mr Hudson has had no contact with PCRClaims “for months” is reflected.

3.38 Panda also complains that the DM has confused its position on the mortality figures with the concept of “Years of Life Lost”. The latter is an actuarial concept.

According to an article in Nature magazine, it relates to mortalities at an earlier age that may be expected in normal circumstances.[9]

Panda’s argument is that YLL from the economic impact of lockdown may be greater than the YLL to the disease itself. “Our initial report in early 2020 attempted to quantify the impact of increased poverty on life years lost and the results concluded that the total loss of life years from lockdown would dwarf the life years that would be lost to COVID-19.”[10]

Panda’s model for deaths in the first wave was revised upwards to about 20 000 – but it still argued that the effects on mortality from increased poverty due to the lockdown needed to be taken into account.

Panda objects to the fact that the DM published comments critical of its modelling by Dr Gurdasani, saying she did not understand the actuarial model. Dr Gurdasani is identified by the DM as a “clinical epidemiologist and statistical geneticist at Queen Mary University in London.”  The Ombud is unable to give advice about who the best commentator on a YLL paper would be, but it seems reasonable for the journalists to have selected her.

3.39 On the right of reply:  Panda argues that a right of reply is post-publication and cites the recent case of Aris Danikas vs Daily Maverick to substantiate this. This is in fact a misreading of clause 1.8 and of the case it cites. Clause 1.8 says the media shall “seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication, except when they might be prevented from reporting, or evidence destroyed, or sources intimidated. Such a subject should be afforded reasonable time to respond; if unable to obtain comment, this shall be stated;”

The ruling in the Danikas case, and the right of reply afforded him, was precisely because he was not approached for a right of reply before publication and was accused of serious offences.[11] In this case, Panda was approached twice to answer particular questions and its responses were recorded.

3.40 On advocacy: it is true that there is a major philosophical difference between the DM and Panda over the efficacy and potential dangers of lockdowns. I was initially concerned at the argument that one of the authors, Ms Davis, had apparently expressed her disappointment over a scientific report that the coronavirus does not spread as easily outdoors and thus it was a mistake to close the beaches. The quote cited by Panda says Ms Davis had said she was “happy” the beaches were closed and that she was “hurt” by the scientific report that showed that transmission outdoors was not as serious a factor as once thought.

As noted above, at the start of this Finding, Panda had told me the podcast had been taken off the website. I asked the DM for a copy of it, and was told there were no podcasts of Ms Davis’ crossings to John Maytham on Cape Talk, and had done an unsuccessful search on the internet. In fact Panda had sent me a link in the same email in which it informed me that the podcast had been deleted. I mistakenly overlooked this, for which I apologise. I am grateful to Panda’s Shayne Krige for drawing this oversight to my attention when I issued the initial ruling.

In the podcast, Ms Davis cites a scientific study reported in the Guardian newspaper, saying that it was “ridiculous” (Ms Davis’ words) that the “beaches were closed.” Ms Davis said that she was “hurt” by the report as she had been “happy” the beaches were closed “as we just wanted to stop people gathering in large quantities [sic], basically anywhere.[12]

But…the thing about professing to believe in science and fact (means) we have to be willing to change our opinions when the facts suggest we are wrong. And in this case I definitely am wrong.” She told Maytham that Professor Woolhouse, an Edinburgh University epidemiologist, had told British MPs that there were “no outbreaks of cases of Covid-19 linked to a beach – ever, anywhere in the world.” In fact, less than 10% of Covid-19 transmissions are linked to outdoors and generally involved a mixture of indoor and outdoor time and involves close contact anyway.

So the message is very much [that] governments looking to crack down in future could do better than to restrict outdoor time [which] is really one of the safest ways to allow people to socialize….so the beaches should be open.”

Far from being a “lockdown fundamentalist”, this shows that Ms Davis was willing to admit error, and to adapt her views in the light of evidence.

This said, I note the important point from Panda about on the significant impact the lockdown has had on poorer people’s livelihoods..

As for Mr Ahmed, he is not a South African journalist.  He was the author of the Byline Times piece and a co-author (apparently recruited by the DM) of the DM piece. Panda accuses him of being controversial for conspiracy theories he has peddled about the infamous 9/11 incident when the World Trade Centre in New York City was destroyed.  While it is true that he may have questioned the main narratives about 9/11[13] and while it is also true that his relationship with the Guardian, on whose website he published a blog, may have been ended, his archived blog is still carried on their website.[14]

I cannot find that this makes a material difference to the merits of this story that he was involved in authoring.

3.41 On the claim that the DM failed to exercise care and consideration in the private lives of individuals by publishing the details of the employers of Mr Hudson and Mr Castleden: the DM says all this information is in the public domain. This is correct. Moreover, Panda is a prominent public lobby group that has taken an important, if controversial, position on various aspects of the lockdown and masking, and it certainly seems to be in the public interest. Their employment places are not secret.

On the apparent error in reporting that Sana private equity fund, of which Mr Hudson is the CEO, is not in fact a private equity fund but a private equity fund manager: this makes sense. However, the DM is correct. Sana describes itself on its website as a private equity fund.[15]

3.42 On the charge that it is incorrect that Panda has “strayed into anti-vaxxer disinformation” by publishing on its website a “report by physicist and climate science denier Dr Denis Rancourt, who was banned from the University of Ottawa after years of controversy, during which Rancourt’s dean questioned his “mental wellbeing”’: this is slightly more complicated. Also on its website is an article by Dr Martin Kulldorf criticizing the pause in the rollout of the Johnson&Johnson vaccine.[16] He concludes: “The COVID-19 vaccines provide excellent protection, and we cannot afford more such unwarranted vaccine skepticism.”

However, the word “stray” does not imply endorse. Moreover, Mr Hudson’s comment on this: “Open debate is a prerequisite for science to thrive” is reported straight afterwards.

3.43 Panda spends a lot of time defending some of the international scientists and politicians mentioned in the article such as Dr Scott Atlas, Dr Wolfgang Wodarg, Michael Yeadon, and Randy Hillier. They are not complainants in this matter. In any event, the stance of Dr Atlas, a former high-powered advisor and aide to former US president Donald Trump has been well documented by reliable newspapers such as the New York Times, which reported in detail about how he clashed with mainstream government scientists over matters such as masking. [17]

Dr Wodarg is referenced thus: It [Panda’s website] has also hosted Dr Wolfgang Wodarg, described by the journal Nature as a “prime mover behind the fake pandemic outcry”; a “self-proclaimed expert in lung disease who left medical practice in 1994” and who has “a history of dubious positioning with respect to biotech”.

Panda complains that the pandemic Dr Wodarg described as “fake” was the H5N1 one in 2010. This is true; and the DM fails to make this clear.[18] A reasonable reader would assume the article is referring to the current pandemic. Although Dr Wodarg is not a complainant (and has expressed scepticism about vaccines)[19], the DM has a duty to inform readers accurately.

3.44 Headline: The headline “Kung-flu panda” and the sub-head, “Dodgy analytics or pandemic propaganda?” was  defended by the DM on the grounds that it was a “word play” on a famous movie, “Kung-fu panda”. This is true. However, the phrase also became notorious for being a racist trope used by former US president Donald Trump to cast blame on China for the coronavirus. He used the phrase before cheering crowds and soon after this people of Asian origin in the United States began to be randomly attacked.

It is not so much that the headline does not reflect the contents of the story that is the problem but that it can be construed as offensive, as Panda indeed points out. I doubt that it was intended to be offensive or racist, but nonetheless sub-editors should think about the way, in certain times, headlines can be interpreted.

Clause 5.2 of the Press Code says the media shall:  “balance their right and duty to report and comment on all matters of legitimate public interest against the obligation not to publish material that amounts to propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence or hate speech – that is, advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”

The headline came close to crossing this line but as the contents of the article were not about casting blame for the origins of the virus, I cannot find that it transgressed the clause on hate speech.

The piece was essentially a critique of Panda’s philosophy about how to manage the pandemic.

Conclusion

It is not surprising that in the midst of the greatest public health crisis the world has faced in over a century, and the accompanying economic devastation of lockdowns, particularly in an emerging economy such as South Africa’s, emotions are likely to run high and debates intense about how to manage the crisis.

There is still much we don’t know about the virus or its effects. The effects of the lockdowns are beginning to be gauged with more regularity. We know that food insecurity, and particularly child hunger has increased, while there has been significant “churn” in the labour market.[20]

So the specific policies to contain the pandemic are of major public interest. The critical position of organisations such as Panda about the relevant policies will thus clearly be the focus of debate and public scrutiny.

The DM article, although it was critical of Panda, mainly reflected its stance accurately except insofar as the instances I have mentioned above,  and gave it the right of reply.

As far as the DM’s critique goes of international figures who have made interventions in public policy on how to contain the virus, they are not complainants in this matter. Moreover, they are on the record as having adopted particular stances.

Finding

Inasmuch as Panda complains that the authors of the article are guilty of “advocacy”, I could find no proof of the supposed comment by Davis about how “happy” she was at the beach closures. And although there were allegations of Ahmed’s bias and “conspiracy theories” about other issues, this is also unconfirmed. In fact the Guardian continues to host his environmental blog on its website although he is not contributing to the newspaper anymore.

Although this article was critical of Panda and some of its international associates, Davis wrote a piece last year amply reporting the stated rationale behind Panda’s modelling and its views on the economic effects of lockdown.[21]

The headline, as noted above, was rather startling in its timing given that Donald Trump had recently used the phrase in a pejorative way. But there is no evidence that this was the intention and there is in fact a well-known movie whose title the headline played on.

Was it reasonable to publish the article? An important international lobby group with strong views on the pandemic and policies of containment had listed Panda on its website, among other links. Thus the publication was reasonable.

A right of reply was sought and published.

However, the article misleads readers in relation to the statement about Dr Wodarg’s position on the pandemic (even though he was not a complainant). It did not make clear that the pandemic he is quoted as referring to was one that occurred more than a decade ago.

This transgressed clause 1.2 of the Press Code: “the media shall present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization”

This is a Tier 2 offence.

For not reporting this in in context, the DM should publish a correction making clear that Dr Wodarg was censured for his stance on a previous pandemic.

The rest of the complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Pippa Green

Acting Press Ombud

May 10. 2021


[19] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/31/opinion/germany-covid-lockdown-protests.html?searchResultPosition=1