September 26, 2021

Immigration Right of reply: ‘Please stop’ – Prof Boulle slams BizNews, PANDA Covid-19 data debate

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By Jackie Cameron

The government has sold us a strict Covid-19 lockdown based on, initially, the need to get healthcare workers and facilities prepared and then through scary forecasts of how many of us are likely to get sick or die from the coronavirus. We have been asked to balance economic considerations with the need to save lives and avoid overburdening stretched medical facilities.

Of 325,000 South Africans who have tested positive for Covid-19, almost 4,700 have died while 166,000 have recovered.  This translates into a 1.4% death rate, around one third of the global average. This is noteworthy when you consider that South Africa now ranks among the top 10 countries for the highest number of infections. Mexico has a similar number of reported Covid-19 cases and has registered about 38,000 deaths.

The economy, on the other hand, has fallen dramatically with many sectors on the brink of collapse.

Earlier this week, a multi-university research group published findings of a survey involving 10,000 people, finding that an estimated three million people lost jobs in April alone – two million of whom were women. The irony should not be lost on us that the Covid-19 alcohol ban designed to curb domestic abuse and gender-based violence has also plunged a huge number of women and their children into poverty.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni warned when he presented an emergency budget in June that South Africa is at risk of a sovereign debt crisis. Last week B4SA followed up on this projection with plans to rescue the country. At best, and with R3.4 trillion required, South Africa could likely emerge in three years as it looked just before Covid-19 struck – with high unemployment and low growth, is the B4SA forecast.

Many people are deeply worried about their livelihoods and the country’s future.

With this as background, we believe it is very much in the public interest for media organisations like ours to interrogate all details of the lockdown. In the same way that BizNews.com shines its searchlight on political leaders to hold them accountable for their decisions, we believe it is also important to serve as a check and balance against others in positions of power who can, directly and indirectly, exert considerable influence over society.

These powerful actors range from business and community leaders and, in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, to those advising the government, from scientists to statisticians.

We aim to serve the public through our own reports and investigations and by using our platform to air a diverse range of perspectives and opinions from analysts, experts and community members. This is done with the intention of enabling our community to better understand issues at play, what is working and what should be changed in the public interest. Encouraging debate and publishing all sides of any story are among our core values.

Recently, we published a series of articles of opinion and analysis supplied to us by PANDA. We have also interviewed PANDA actuary Nick Hudson on our BizNews Radio podcasts.

These in-depth articles, which contained graphs, analysis and detailed sourcing, were submitted to us for publication by PANDA, and, subsequent to our publication, these were distributed by the body through its own channels, including social media. 

PANDA describes itself as a collective of leading actuaries, economists, data scientists, statisticians, medical doctors, lawyers, engineers and businesspeople working together to question and replace bad science with good science. Some of South Africa’s most respected professionals in their fields have voluntarily invested their own free time to apply their considerable intellect to the Covid-19 crisis with a view to serving the public interest.

“PANDA members work voluntarily, offering their skillset to contribute to informed policymaking and decisioning. PANDA is not aligned with any political entities and is funded by its members and speaking engagements,” it says on its website.

We have no reason to believe PANDA works to any hidden agenda – one of several accusations levelled at PANDA by Professor Andrew Boulle, a Public Health Medicine specialist with the Western Cape Provincial Department of Health and University of Cape Town, who has featured in PANDA criticism.

Professor Boulle has complained to the Press Council of SA about BizNews. Among his demands are that we do not give PANDA a platform. He has asked for the right of reply, should he so desire, but has never approached BizNews directly to correct any facts or provide a detailed riposte. He also wants us to apologise for publishing PANDA’s perspectives.  

We offered Prof Boulle the right of reply on Friday after receiving his complaint from the Press Council of SA. He has declined, saying that he first wants the matter to run its course through the Press Council of SA. We will continue engaging with the Press Council of SA office, but in the meantime our invitation to Prof Boulle to present his case stands. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Our door is open to everyone who feels they have an alternative perspective to something BizNews has published. We see this as the best way to ensure we fulfil another of our core values which is to serve our community – not special interests.

We also believe absolutely in freedom of speech and will continue to carry a diversity of views on Covid-19 and the other issues that we believe are critically important for our community members to understand and debate.

Professor Boulle has levelled a range of accusations at BizNews, which are contained and addressed below. BizNews response is carried in bold at the end with the summary complaint.

8212 Complaint to the Press Ombud:

Biznews published a piece by an organisation called PANDA under the heading “PANDA rips Cape Covid-19 data to shreds; projections ‘catastrophically wrong’ online on July 6th at https://www.biznews.com/inside-covid-19/2020/07/06/panda-covid-19.

We write to complain on the basis that the piece is

a)     Misleading (there are at least four errors of fact in the piece, detailed below)

b)    Attacks a particular individual, Professor Andrew Boulle, publicly in a way that demeans him, impairs his dignity and is not fair criticism but ridicule.

c)     The piece gave a group who have a vested interest the opportunity to present one point of view without any context or contrary views that would enable readers to determine the truth.

d)    The person attacked was not given opportunity to correct misrepresentations or respond to claims.

e)    Professor Boulle’s dignity has been impaired.

Our Concerns:

1.     The piece published was a vitriolic and one-sided attack on both the modelling outputs for the Western Cape as prepared by two national consortia, and an attack on an individual person involved in presenting these outputs as part of an attempt at openness and transparency by government.

2.     The piece was lifted word for word from a Twitter Feed of the organisation PANDA and did not attempt to balance this partisan view of a complex technical debate with other views. Experts are entitled to differ in their projections and criticism is entirely appropriate on public platforms. But there was no effort in this article to ‘present news in context and in a balanced manner.’ Biznews previously ran an interview with another expert (Alan Whiteside) said on the same topic, indicating how complex the question was and commenting that ‘people are doing their absolute best.’ So, the editor was aware that the issue was complex but made no effort to contextualise the PANDA piece.

3.     At the very least, the publication should have sought to obtain comment from Professor Boulle before publishing the piece and should have checked that the facts were correct.

4.     It is well recognised that PANDA has been attacking various groups and individuals whose modelling inputs have been used by government, claiming that they know best. They are therefore a partisan group in a complex debate. Why Biznews chose to provide a platform for PANDA to simply translate their own twitter feed, without placing it in context or any scrutiny and, in doing so, must surely have failed their obligations (a) to present news in context and in a balanced manner; (b) to avoid a situation where personal considerations influence reporting and (c) to avoid conflicts of interest.

5.     On the matter of factual misrepresentation, the material mistakes made by PANDA which were not checked are the following:

  • The attribution of the models to Professor Boulle is untrue. The models presented by Prof Boulle were models produced by national consortia which had been calibrated by the authors against the Western Cape data with which Professor Boulle is well-acquainted. At the request of the Provincial government, he presented two models produced by others, as part of updating the public on the adequacy of the forward planning of health services given the evolution of the epidemic and these most recent projections
  • The claim that he is opposed to Gompertz models because of AIDS in the 1990s is completely untrue. He has never said this in private or public and it was certainly not mentioned in the presentation. We are aware this is an opinion expressed by others but not by Professor Boulle.
  • PANDA misrepresented Professor Boulle by asserting that he claimed that reality will follow his projection. Professor Boulle never made such a claim. He was very clear and repeatedly emphasised that the scenarios received by the province were being treated as risk scenarios for planning purposes and that many trajectories were still compatible with the data.
  • Professor Boulle is accused of making various adjustments to the data in order to justify the fit of “his” model. The entire premise of the press conference was to transparently present to the public the most complete view as possible of the epidemic trajectory to date, and the implications of these for service planning. Professor Boulle was not trying to justify the model but was transparently presenting the data against the received model fits, enabling critical engagement.

The factual accuracy of the claims can be independently assessed by the Ombud and could have been assessed by the editor, as the entire piece is based on this presentation by Professor Boulle and his responses to journalist questions. The misrepresentations are patently clear if you look at the original source: https://www.facebook.com/windealan/videos/d41d8cd9/270874084228949/

The readers were not given the opportunity to verify this for themselves since no link was provided to the source, which is freely available online.

  1. On the matter of care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, the language of the piece is full of sarcasm and ridicule, intended to diminish. Language used includes:
  • Professor Boulle is implied to be playing a “game of modeller whack-a-mole”
  • A “wise professor seems to be wagging the dog”
  • He uses “thumbsuck initial parameters that you could plot the shape of Bart Simpson’s head with.”
  • Boulle is compared with Neil Ferguson, the UK scientist vilified for his COVID-19 death predictions and disgraced for violating lockdown for a rendezvous with a married woman.
  • It is implied that Boulle is too dim or fixated to understand a basic fact – “Boulle needs to learn that all viruses are not the same.”
  • He is using “people who died due to lack of healthcare access during lockdown to make his model work” and he should be ashamed (“Sies”)
  • He is one of the “actors that are so invested in their authority that they wish to keep us living in fear, dread and lockdown until they can find a way out of their own flawed thinking.”

Professor Boulle is a Professor and health activist of standing. To say the things that PANDA says is deeply demeaning of an individual who is highly regarded by his peers and NGO activists. This is particularly egregious when it is based on claims that are not factual.

To summarise the complaint against the BizNews publication on 6th July:

  • This is not news that takes care to report “news truthfully, accurately and fairly.” (1.1).

    It has not established facts in the matter.
  • This is not news in a “balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization.” (1.2)

    There are no contrary views presented in the piece.
  • The editor did not make any effort “to seek … the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication” let alone provide reasonable time to respond (1.8).

    There is no plausible reason why a right of reply from Professor Boulle could not have been sought.
  • The way this piece is presented allows “commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations” to influence reporting, and does not avoid conflicts of interest. (2.1).

    The PANDA authors have a beef against other modellers and are given carte blanche by BizNews to attack people with whom they disagree. This is borne out by the fact that Biznews has again allowed PANDA a platform to unilaterally attack the work of another academic (Professor Juliet Pulliam at SACEMA) without any contextual analysis or opportunity to comment – see https://www.biznews.com/inside-covid-19/2020/07/10/panda-covid-19-lockdown
  • This is not news that exercises “care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, (which may be overridden only if it is in the public interest and the facts reported are true or substantially true).” (3.3 and 3.3.1).

    The treatment of Prof Boulle in the article is intended to diminish, demean and insult. Indeed, the most recent publication by PANDA on Biznews compares COVID-19 epidemiologists to “witches” (and by implication, floats the rather offensive idea that Professor Pulliam is a witch).

The Press has a responsibility to report news in a balanced and fair way. It seems that Biznews has abrogated that responsibility in its haste to support a particular interpretation of how the COVID-19 epidemic should be handled and is allowing PANDA carte blanche not just to criticise models they don’t agree with but to malign the motives and integrity of those whose work they disagree with. Prof Boulle’s treatment in their write-up on the 6th July is illustrative. This is confirmed in the follow up report on the 10th July in which their venom is direction at Prof Pulliam.

PANDA will have to answer for their lack of professionalism with which they go about their own business. That is not for the Press Ombuds to address. However, the way in which BizNews has allowed the Press Code to be violated by publishing, unchallenged, unchecked, unverified and untrue material, that is demeaning to an individual’s integrity, must surely be unacceptable to Press Council.

Remedial Action

The remedial action we seek is the following in relation to the article of the 6th July with respect to Professor Boulle:

  1. BizNews must issue an immediate apology to Prof Boulle for publishing the 6th July piece.
  2. In the apology, they must acknowledge all the relevant grounds of the Press Code they have violated in publishing the PANDA piece of 6th July as determined by the Press Ombud.
  3. This apology must be posted prominently on the Biznews Website in relation to the article published on the 6th July attacking Prof Boulle.
  4. This apology must also feature in any regular updates BizNews provides in its social media communications.
  5. The article and the prominent apology must not be taken down but kept in place with a prominent display of the apology.
  6. Should Professor Boulle wish to provide a contrary piece, Biznews must publish his right of reply without any further engagement or comments that diminish or undermine his statements. In particular, PANDA must not be given a further platform to attempt to humiliate, insult or denigrate him in public.
  7. Biznews must cease providing PANDA with a platform that allows them to make claims, accusations and innuendoes that go unchallenged – any future PANDA articles should be accompanied by an offer to SACEMA and/or Prof Boulle and/or any other modellers or actuarial bodies to respond, should the content of the PANDA article attempt to make claims about what others are saying.

This last measure will end the one-sided monologue being promoted by BizNews on its pages. Let the people decide who is correct.

Submitted by Professor Andrew Boulle.

Compiled and co-submitted on his behalf by Prof Leslie London, School of Public Health and Family Medicine, University of Cape Town, with the support of the following co-submitters:

On behalf of the following co-submitters:

  • Hassan Mahomed, University of Stellenbosch
  • Geetesh Solanki, Senior Specialist Scientist Health Systems Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council; and Honorary Research Associate, Health Economic Unit, University of Cape Town
  • Anthony Hawkridge, Public Health Medicine specialist
  • Cynthia Tamandjou Tchuem, Health Economics Unit, University of Cape Town
  • Sumaiyah Docrat, Alan Flisher Center for Public Mental Health, University of Cape Town
  • Tommy Wilkinson, Health Economics Unit, University of Cape Town
  • Emmanuelle Daviaud, Senior Economist, South African Medical Research Council
  • Susan Cleary, Health Economics Unit, University of Cape Town
  • Donela Besada, Health Systems Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council

Editor’s response in bold:

  • This is not news that takes care to report “news truthfully, accurately and fairly.” (1.1).

    It has not established facts in the matter. — This is not a news article, but an opinion piece by professionals steeped in the nuances of statistics and modelling. These are people with significant qualifications in statistics. The article was published in the interests of holding powerful people to account, namely scientists whose work is influencing the Covid-19 containment strategy – an issue of huge public interest. The piece was supplied to BizNews by PANDA and not “simply” drawn from the organisation’s Twitter feed or any other social media feed. 
  • This is not news in a “balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization.” (1.2)

    This is not a news piece; it is an opinion piece based on a considered interrogation of Prof Boulle’s facts and figures. The authors set out Professor Boulle’s views in their article, before articulating their own opinion. Their intention was to provide balance to statistics which were not being interrogated sufficiently by the political leaders who are relying on them to make decisions with a significant impact on the economy – so significant that South Africa runs the risk of a sovereign debt crisis as a result of these decisions.
  • The editor did not make any effort “to seek … the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication” let alone provide reasonable time to respond (1.8).There is no plausible reason why a right of reply from Professor Boulle could not have been sought. — We are happy to seek a right of reply, but do not ordinarily seek a right of reply for opinion pieces. We are surprised that Professor Boulle did not approach us to publish a response? As we do as a matter of course, we would have published his work in full and without editing – and are still prepared to do so. We did, however, take note of comments elsewhere in the media that he and his team did not want to engage publicly in the debate about the quality of the statistical work. As stated in one of their pieces, the PANDA team also approached him to engage in debate and he declined.
  • The way this piece is presented allows “commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations” to influence reporting, and does not avoid conflicts of interest. (2.1).  — We cannot see how this piece allows these various considerations. We don’t understand the logic here. What conflicts of interest?

    The PANDA authors have a beef against other modellers and are given carte blanche by BizNews to attack people with whom they disagree. This is borne out by the fact that Biznews has again allowed PANDA a platform to unilaterally attack the work of another academic (Professor Juliet Pulliam at SACEMA) without any contextual analysis or opportunity to comment – See https://www.biznews.com/inside-covid-19/2020/07/10/panda-covid-19-lockdown  BizNews does not have a commercial, political, personal or other agenda against Professor Boulle.  BizNews encourages a divergent range of views and endorses freedom of speech. Again, we are surprised that Prof Boulle did not make contact with us to state his case as literally dozens of others have done on various topics through the years. 
  • This is not news that exercises “care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, (which may be overridden only if it is in the public interest and the facts reported are true or substantially true).” (3.3 and 3.3.1).

    The treatment of Prof Boulle in the article is intended to diminish, demean and insult. Indeed, the most recent publication by PANDA on Biznews compares COVID-19 epidemiologists to “witches” (and by implication, floats the rather offensive idea that Professor Pulliam is a witch). This comment about witches is taken out of context. The witches are mentioned in a quote at the beginning of the article (“Ordinary fortune-tellers tell you what you want to happen; witches tell you what’s going to happen whether you want it to or not. Strangely enough, witches tend to be more accurate but less popular – Terry Pratchett.) Furthermore, we have presented the views of epidemiologists, including Dr Jo Barnes, who presented another side of the story. We have also carried pieces critical of PANDA, including letters to the editor and a column by our own senior columnist Dr Felicity Duncan – which we believe provides the balance that Prof Boulle has conspicuously failed to proactively provide. 
  • We would be delighted to publish Professor Boulle’s full and unedited right of reply to clarify his counter argument to that made by PANDA. Take note that 3m people lost jobs in April alone, according to a multi-university survey, and many people are going without food. This is an issue that is in the public interest.
  • After BizNews received this letter from the Press Ombud, we asked Professor Boulle if he would like to send his “contrary piece”, as indicated in point 6 of the remedial action, and we also sent an email to the University of Cape Town reminding their media liaison officer that we welcome all views and responses – not only in connection with this matter, but any others that relate to their activities. We also offered Professor Boulle an opportunity to put his side of the story forward in a podcast interview with BizNews founder Alec Hogg. Again, Professor Boulle declined, replying with this short note:


    Andrew Boulle11:10 AM 

    Thanks Jackie for the offer. It might be best that we wait for the conclusion of the process with the press ombud, assuming it won’t take too long. Best regards

See other related articles: 

Mailbox: PANDA giving actuaries and economists a bad name

Mailbox: ‘Shame on you, for shaming Professor Boulle’ – Covid-19 PANDA data controversy

Worldview: OK fine, PANDA, but what should government do?

Dr Jo Barnes: Why epidemiologists like me reject “just a bad flu” assessment of Covid-19

PANDA: SA govt Covid-19 model continues to ‘grossly overestimate’ deaths

Covid-19 epidemiologists: Fortune-tellers or witches? PANDA reviews the evidence

PANDA charts: More explosive evidence SA’s ‘laser focus’ on Covid-19 is destructive

Nick Hudson, PANDA actuary who tells it like it is: SA has more to worry about than Covid-19. MUST LISTEN!

PANDA rips Cape Covid-19 data to shreds; projections ‘catastrophically wrong’

Shrinking GDP sets ‘ominous tone’ for SA’s future, warn PANDA actuaries, economists

PANDA’s Nick Hudson: “Breathtaking failure” by scaremongering Covid-19 modellers – SA deaths to peak this month

PANDA’s open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa urging for a move to Level 1 Lockdown

Lockdown’s burden of proof extremely high – PANDA’s Russell Lamberti

Inside Covid-19: Credible, fact-based pleas to re-open SA’s economy – from Tygerberg Hospital to Panda. Ep 31

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