01444-18 The Department of Health and Social Care v Daily Mirror

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01444-18 The Department of Health and Social Care v Daily Mirror

Summary of complaint

1. The Department of Health and Social Care complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mirror breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “You’re off your trolley”, published on 9 February 2018. The article was also published online with the headline “Hospital corridors the new A&E but Jeremy Hunt refuses cash to solve NHS winter crisis”.

2. The article reported on an interview the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Jeremy Hunt MP, had given to ITV News the previous day. The article began on the front page, and continued on page 5. The front-page sub headline was “Hunt refuses to apologise for NHS inability to cope with the worst winter ever as cuts bite”. The front-page text said “A record 1,042 A&E patients endured 12-hour waits on trolleys last month – but Jeremy Hunt refuses to apologise for the crisis. The Health Secretary arrogantly told staff they ‘knew what they were signing up’ for as the NHS suffers its worst winter ever amid Tory cuts”. The article on page 5 reported that Mr Hunt “refused to apologise or even thank workers driven to despair by the crisis his savage NHS cuts have caused – arrogantly telling them “they knew what they were signing up for”.  It later reported: “Asked on ITV News if he would apologise to staff, he replied ‘When they signed up to go into medicine, they knew there would be pressurised moments. I apologise to patients when we haven’t delivered the care we should‘.”

3. The online article reported that Mr Hunt “refuses to apologise” in the sub-headline. It reported that he had “arrogantly” told staff “they knew what they were signing up for”, in the body of the article, and in a picture caption. 

4. The complainant said that the exchange reported by the coverage had been as follows:

Interviewer: We have interviewed many people over the winter on the front line of the NHS. I have spoken to nurses who ran wards for nine years who quit. I have spoken to paramedics who say treating patients in corridors for hours is the ‘new normal’. I have spoken to a nurse who says she spends all of her day in the ambulance bay. Do you say sorry to them?

Mr Hunt: Well first of all I completely recognise the pressures they’ve been going through. When they signed up to go into medicine, they knew there would be pressurised moments. But, I also recognise it’s not sustainable and not fair to say to them this is going to repeated year in year out.  I think we’re beyond the time when words from me will make a difference, they need actions. Things that are changing to reduce those pressures that we face. Today’s figures are a sign that some of the things we’ve done have made a difference and despite a massive uptick in flu, performance has remained broadly stable. But that doesn’t mean to say it’s acceptable and there’s a lot more work to do.

Interviewer: So you apologise?

Mr Hunt: Well I take responsibility for everything that happens in the NHS. I apologise to patients when we haven’t delivered the care that we should. But I think what they want from me, is not words, they want actions and that’s what I’m determined to deliver.

The complainant said that it was inaccurate to report, in quotation marks, that Mr Hunt had told staff they “knew what they were signing up for”. It said that he did not say this, and that it was misleading to paraphrase his remarks in this way, without reporting that he immediately went on to say that it was not fair is to ask staff to face the pressures referred to year in year out. It also said that it was inaccurate to report that Mr Hunt “refuses to apologise for NHS inability to cope with the worst winter ever”, when he had in fact said that “I take responsibility for everything that happens in the NHS. I apologise to patients when we haven’t delivered the care that we should”.

5. The newspaper said the article’s claim that Mr Hunt “arrogantly told staff they ‘knew what they were signing up’ for”, accurately paraphrased his response to being asked whether he would apologise to “desperate nurses and paramedics”; Mr Hunt could only have meant by his comment that the type of pressures they were under is what they signed up for, and with which they should cope.  It said it was a matter of editorial discretion to refer to his comments as being arrogant.

6. The newspaper said that while Mr Hunt was sympathetic in response to being told about NHS staff being unhappy with conditions, and although he apologised to patients, he made it very clear that he was not going to apologise to staff, when he was invited to do so.  The newspaper said that the article’s reference to Mr Hunt refusing to apologise was immediately followed by the claim that he had told staff they knew what they were signing up for. It said when these two sentences were read in conjunction, it was clear that Mr Hunt was refusing to apologise to staff, on the basis that they had signed up for the conditions, and should expect it. It was therefore not a distortion that the front page did not say in terms to whom Mr Hunt had apologised. In any event, it said that the article on the inside page fully explained what he had said.

7. The newspaper said that, if it would resolve the complaint, it would be happy to publish a clarification on page 2, with the following wording, having been suggested by IPSO’s Executive:

Our article headlined 'You're off your trolley' (9 February 2018), about the NHS crisis reported that Jeremy Hunt had “told staff they ‘knew what they were signing up’”, and that he had “refused to apologise”. These were our paraphrases of his comments. The Department of Health has asked us to clarify that Mr Hunt's direct quotes were as follows: When asked if he would like to apologise to staff for the ongoing crisis, Mr Hunt responded: 'When they signed up to go into medicine, they knew there would be pressurised moments. But I also recognise that it is not sustainable and not fair to say to them this is going to be repeated year in, year out' and 'I apologise to patients when we haven't delivered the care that we should.'

It also offered to publish this wording at the foot of the online article, and to amend references to Mr Hunt refusing to apologise to make clear that he had refused to apologise to staff.

8. The complainant declined this offer of resolution; it said that it wanted the newspaper to publish an apology on its front page.

Relevant Code Provisions

9. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

10. The newspaper had published a front-page headline describing Mr Hunt as “off [his] trolley” and “arrogant”. These claims related to an exchange Mr Hunt had had with a TV reporter in which, it reported, he had had “refuse[d] to apologise for NHS inability to cope with [the] worst winter ever as cuts bite”, and had “told staff they ‘knew what they were signing up for’”. Both of these elements of the story were distortions of Mr Hunt’s comments.

11. First, he had not refused to apologise for the “NHS[‘s] inability to cope with the worst winter ever”; this question had not been put to him. Further, while he had not responded to the journalist’s invitation to apologise to NHS staff, he had in fact offered an apology: he had apologised to patients who had received substandard care.

12. Second, his reference to staff knowing what they were signing up for related to “pressurised moments”; he had immediately qualified this by saying that  “I also recognise it’s not sustainable and not fair to say to them this is going to repeated year in year out”.   While the article did include, on page 5, reference to Mr Hunt’s apology to patients who had received substandard care, it gave no indication that Mr Hunt had expressed concern about the pressures faced by staff in the interview, which was misleading. 

13. These claims about Mr Hunt’s comments were used as the basis for personal criticism of his position, and this was therefore a significant and prominent failure to take care not to publish distorted comments, and a breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Code. It was a significant distortion that would mislead readers, and a correction was required under Clause 1 (ii).

14. The newspaper had published two significantly misleading statements, and was under an obligation to correct these promptly, and with due prominence, under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). A newspaper’s front page is an important forum for editorial expression, and publication of a correction, or a reference to a correction on the front page, is an interference with this. In applying the “due prominence” requirement proportionately, the Committee therefore considers that front page corrections, or references to corrections, should only be required in the most serious cases, especially where a newspaper has an established corrections column.

15. In this case, the two misleading statements appeared prominently on the front page, as a subheadline and the first sentence of the article. Both errors were serious; they were central claims in the article, and its criticism of Mr Hunt. The Committee took into account that the newspaper’s corrections column appeared very regularly, and prominently on page 2 of the newspaper. However, it considered that this was a serious case, where “due prominence” required publication of a reference to the correction on the newspaper’s front page. The Committee considered that the newspaper’s offer to publish a correction in its corrections and clarifications column was insufficient. In addition, the Committee considered that the wording of the correction was inadequate. The newspaper’s paraphrases of Mr Hunt’s comments were misleading, and the newspaper ought to have realised and acknowledged this in its offered correction. Instead, the offered correction referred to the complainant as having “asked us to clarify” Mr Hunt’s comments. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

16. The newspaper’s paraphrases of Mr Hunt’s remarks were misleading. However, the comments in question were on a political issue, made in Mr Hunt’s capacity as the Secretary of State for Health. Comments of this kind, made by a senior politician such as Mr Hunt, will inevitably be subject to close scrutiny and criticism. While the Committee had found that the newspaper had distorted Mr Hunt’s comments, it did not consider that this was a case where the newspaper had been under an obligation to publish an apology to Mr Hunt, in addition to a correction; its refusal to do so did not raise a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusions

17. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

18. In considering the nature of the remedy that it should require, the Committee took into account a number of factors. The two significantly misleading statements were published in a prominent position, both in the article under complaint, and in the newspaper as a whole. The misleading statements were serious; they substantially changed the meaning of the article, and represented serious claims about Mr Hunt’s response to the “Winter crisis”. Both errors were the result of the newspaper’s failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, and in response to the complaint, the newspaper failed to offer an adequate correction.

19. Taking these factors into account, the Committee concluded that the appropriate remedial action was the publication of an adjudication. The adjudication should be published in full on page five, or further forward, and the headline of the adjudication must also be published on the newspaper’s front page - directing readers to the adjudication on the page it appears. The front page headline should appear in the same font size as the front page subheadline on the article under complaint (“Hunt refuses to apologise…”). A border should appear around the headline, to distinguish it from other editorial content.  The headline of the adjudication should refer to IPSO, refer to the name of the newspaper, make clear that IPSO has upheld a complaint, or has ruled against the newspaper, and refer to the subject matter of the complaint. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance.

20. The adjudication should also be published on the publication’s website, with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing in the top 50% of stories on the publication’s website for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. In relation to the online version of the article, if the newspaper intends to continue to publish the article without amendment to cure the distortions identified by the Committee, the full text of the adjudication should also be published on that page, beneath the headline. If amended, a link to the adjudication should be published with the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication, and noting the amendments made.

21. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows:

The Department of Health and Social Care complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mirror breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “You’re off your trolley”, published on 9 February 2018. The Complaint was upheld, and the Daily Mirror has been required to publish this ruling as a remedy to the breach of the Code.

The newspaper had published a front-page headline describing Mr Hunt as “off [his] trolley” and “arrogant”. These claims related to an exchange Mr Hunt had had with a TV reporter in which, it reported, he had “refuse[d] to apologise for NHS inability to cope with [the] worst winter ever as cuts bite”, and had “told staff they ‘knew what they were signing up for’”.

The complainant said that the newspaper misrepresented the exchange. It said Mr Hunt’s actual response to a question on the pressure staff were under was: “when they signed up to go into medicine, they knew there would be pressurised moments. But, I also recognise it’s not sustainable and not fair to say to them this is going to repeated year in year out”. In addition, the complainant said that when asked whether he would apologise to NHS staff, Mr Hunt said “I apologise to patients when we haven’t delivered the care that we should”. It said the article’s claim that he had refused to apologise was therefore inaccurate. 

The newspaper denied any inaccuracy. It said that Mr Hunt could only have meant by his comments that the type of pressure staff were under was the pressure that they signed up for. It said that the article would be understood as reporting that Mr Hunt had refused to apologise to staff, which it said was accurate; Mr Hunt made it very clear that he was not going to apologise to staff, when he was invited to do so.

IPSO found that Mr Hunt had not refused to apologise for the “NHS[‘s] inability to cope with the worst winter ever”; this question had not been put to him. Further, while he had not responded to the journalist’s invitation to apologise to NHS staff, he had in fact offered an apology: he had apologised to patients who had received substandard care. Second, his reference to staff knowing what they were signing up for related to “pressurised moments”; he had immediately qualified this by saying that  “I also recognise it’s not sustainable and not fair to say to them this is going to repeated year in year out”. 

These claims about Mr Hunt’s comments were used as the basis for personal criticism of his position, and IPSO decided it was therefore a significant and prominent failure to take care not to publish distorted comments, and a breach of Clause 1 of the Code. Although this was not a case where the newspaper had been obliged to apologise to the complainant, the Committee considered that the correction offered by the newspaper as part of IPSO’s attempt to mediate the complaint was insufficient. Publication of this ruling was required as a remedy to the breach.

Date complaint received: 09/02/2018

Date decision issued: 29/06/2018

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