Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02577-20 West Midlands Ambulance Service v thesun.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. West Midlands Ambulance Service complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thesun.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “FRONTLINE HEROES AT RISK Over half of paramedics test positive for coronavirus in one force at the West Midlands Ambulance Service”, published on 10 April 2020 and an article headlined “MORE OF US WILL DIE' Paramedics plead for better PPE as they tackle coronavirus in flimsy aprons thinner than bin bags”, published on 19 April 2020.
2. The first article reported on the coronavirus test results of an ambulance service, and had stated in the headline that half of the paramedics at the West Midlands Ambulance Service had tested positive for coronavirus. The article went on to explain that “Nearly 500 West Midlands Ambulance Service staff have been given swabs and, of the 114 confirmed results so far, 58 were positive and 56 negative”.
3. The second article reported on the personal protective equipment (PPE) that whistle blowers alleged that paramedics were wearing. The article was based on interviews conducted with paramedics and included descriptions of the PPE that were given to the publication by these paramedics. The article reported that "Better quality protective gear is in such short supply that ambulance crews have been told to use it only if a patient is showing symptoms of coronavirus or is in cardiac arrest.” It contained a quote from a paramedic who said: “I have an agreement with my colleague where one will do chest compressions in the plastic bib while the other changes. “Then they return and take over while the other gets changed. We are having to adapt to protect ourselves and patients because the guidelines don’t make sense in real life.” The article also reported that paramedics were “left with flimsy surgical masks with wide gaps, offering minimal protection.”
4. The complainant, the ambulance service referred to in the first article, and where one of the interviewed paramedics in the second article worked, said that the first article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. It said it was inaccurate to report that half of the paramedics had tested positive for coronavirus. It said that the group tested included a wide range of ambulance service staff, and not only paramedics. In addition, the complainant said that only half of the results that had been received at the time of publication were positive, not half of all the tests. It also said it was a breach of Clause 1 for the publication not to put the allegation that over half of paramedics had tested positive for coronavirus to the complainant prior to the article being published, as it would have been able to dispute this allegation, or have its position on the record. The complainant also said that the publication had breached Clause 1 by not including the comment that was given prior to publication by the ambulance service, which stated that it would “not be providing an update” and gave more information about the testing it was doing.
5. The complainant also said the second article breached Clause 1. It had provided a statement to the publication prior to the publication of the second article, which had said that ”If there is a cardiac arrest, there is clear guidance as to what staff should do to protect themselves and save lives. One crew member should carry out cardiac massage while the second dons Level 3 PPE. They will then take over the cardiac massage while the first dons Level 3 PPE - they can then carry out advanced airway management if the back up ambulance crew has not already arrived in Level 3 PPE.” It said that this course of action was the Public Health England guidance, and it was therefore misleading to report that staff were asked to follow this procedure due to a lack of level 3 PPE. However, this statement was not included in the article. It also said that the surgical masks provided were appropriate for the role that the staff members would be carrying out where they were told to wear level 2 PPE. It noted that surgical masks were not supposed to be a tight fit, and it was misleading to refer to them as being of minimal protection, or having “wide gaps”.
6. The complainant also said that both articles were in breach of Clause 1 as they had distorted the information in a manner which was scaremongering, and deliberately used emotive language and terminology to frighten the public.
7. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. With regards to the headline of the first article, it noted that the article set out the number of tests taken, the number of results confirmed and of that, the number of positive and negative results. On receipt of the complaint, it amended the headline to read: Over half of paramedics who received coronavirus results at one force test positive for deadly bug, and prior to IPSO’s investigation it offered to publish a correction as a footnote. In its first response to IPSO’s investigation, it offered the following wording:
A previous headline on this article said that half of the paramedics had tested positive for coronavirus. It has been amended to make clear that half of those who had received their test results at the time of publication had tested positive.
The publication also said that the article went on to make clear that the tests had been received by staff in general, and in any case that the complainant had not disputed that of these staff, over half of paramedics who had received their results had tested positive. The publication said that the complainant’s comment had not been included due to space reasons, but in any case there was no obligation under the Editors’ Code to include a statement, as selection was a matter of editorial discretion.
8. Prior to the second article, the publication had put the allegations regarding level 2 and 3 PPE and when they could be used to the complainant. In this email, it noted that this was the advice given by PHE. It also noted that the PPE often did not fit properly. The publication said that the article was based on interviews it had done with paramedics. It noted that one of the paramedics had told the reporter that they were unhappy about the level of PPE and advice given to them, and felt that it left them exposed. A paramedic also told the publication that they had asked whether they could wear a higher level of PPE than advised, but that their employer had told them that there was not enough, and that they could only wear it in certain, limited situations. It also noted that PHE’s advice followed went against that recommended by the Resuscitation Council. The publication said that masks should fit properly, and that this should not be contested.
9. The publication did not accept that the articles were scaremongering. It said that newspapers have a duty to hold people to account, and that if the articles were frightening to readers, it was because coronavirus had created a frightening situation, and it was not the role of newspapers to ‘sugar coat’ this.
Relevant Code Provisions
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 headline of the first article had stated that “Over half of paramedics test positive for coronavirus in one force at the West Midlands Ambulance Service”. The publication had received the precise figures of the staff members who had been tested and those who had received the result prior to the publication of the first article. The newspaper was therefore aware that only 58 of the 500 swabs taken had received a positive test result at the time of publication. In addition, whilst the article went on to report that the swabs had been taken from staff members in general, the headline and subheading referred only to paramedics. The publication had gone to the complainant for comment, but it had not asked which staff members had tested positively, or put to the complainant that half of paramedics, rather than general staff members, had received a positive test result. Had the publication taken care to put all the allegations to the complainant, the complainant would have been able to respond with the correct position or give a comment that accurately reflected its position in relation to the allegation. On the basis that the publication had the correct information as to who had been tested and the proportion of tests which had returned a positive result but had not reported this accurately in the headline, the publication had failed to take care not to report inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1(i). As the inaccuracy was contained in the headline and overstated the number of positive tests, as well as stating that the results were returned only by paramedics rather than the staff generally, this was a significant inaccuracy which necessitated a correction under Clause 1(ii).
11. Prior to IPSO’s investigation the publication amended the headline to read: Over half of paramedics who received coronavirus results at one force test positive for deadly bug, and offered to add a correction as a footnote to the article, which clarified that it was half of those who had received test results who had been found to be positive. However, the amended headline and the offered wording failed to make clear that the positive test results had not been returned only by the paramedics, as reported in the original headline, but by the complainant’s staff in general. The publication did not offer a correction on this point and therefore there was a further breach of Clause 1(ii).
12. As for the comment that had been supplied by the complainant prior to publication, the Committee expressed concern that it had not been included in the article due to a lack of space. It noted the finding already made that the publication’s approach to the complainant had amounted to a failure to take care under Clause 1(i) for the reasons previously stated. However, the omission of the complainant’s comment in the article did not constitute a further breach of Clause 1(i) as it did not address the allegations made in the article, and simply stated that the complainant would not be providing any further comment.
13. With regards to the second article, the Committee noted that it was clear from the article that it was based on interviews with paramedics, and their opinion on the level of PPE they were given. The article reported that ambulance crews had been told only to wear better quality PPE when a patient was showing symptoms of coronavirus or was in cardiac arrest because higher protection PPE was in such short supply. It also included a quote from a paramedic who said he had to “adapt” and had “an agreement” with a colleague as to how they would treat a patient whilst the other changed into PPE. The complainant accepted that paramedics were advised to wear level 2 PPE unless a patient was in cardiac arrest, but said that this was based on advice from Public Health England which stated that other procedures did not require level 3 PPE; it was not because the complainant was unable to provide level 3 PPE for reason of it being in short supply. Prior to publication, the complainant had been asked to comment on the claim that level 3 PPE could only be used if a patient was in cardiac arrest, but had failed to ask whether this policy was due to a lack of PPE. The complainant was therefore not given an opportunity to comment on this aspect of the allegation. In addition, the comment which was provided by the complainant, which set out that the policy was issued in accordance with Public Health England guidance for the allocation of PPE, was not included in the article. The article did not, therefore, make clear that it was the complainant’s position that this was official policy by way of a response to the comment of the source that this was undertaken by “agreement” between colleagues. On this basis, the publication had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information under Clause 1(i). The misleading information was significant as it formed one of the central criticisms of the article, and portrayed the complainant as failing in its duties as an employer, when, in fact, it said it was following the guidance of Public Health England. A correction was required under Clause 1(ii).
14. The publication had not offered a correction, and there was a further breach of Clause 1(ii).
15. The complainant said that both articles had breached Clause 1 as they were scaremongering. The Committee noted that the Editors’ Code makes clear that the press has the right to shock, to challenge, to entertain, be satirical and be partisan. Therefore, the complainant’s concerns that this article was scaremongering did not engage the terms of Clause 1.
16. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.
Remedial Action Required
17. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.
18. In respect of the headline to the first article, the Committee considered that the publication did not take the necessary care to accurately report the correct proportion and which staff members had tested positive for coronavirus. In respect of the second article, it had failed to take care to report why certain levels of PPE were worn by paramedics by omitting to include the complainant’s position on the matter. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction which would put the correct position on record.
19. The Committee then considered the placement of the corrections. They should appear as footnotes to the corresponding articles, and as standalone corrections published on the publication’s website, appearing on the top half of the newspaper’s homepage, on the first screen, for 24 hours; and should then be archived in the usual way. Each should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position should be agreed with IPSO in advance.
Date complaint received: 10/04/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 11/12/2020Back to ruling listing