Decision of the Complaints Committee 03600-19 British Dental Association v The Sunday Times
Summary of Complaint
1. The British Dental Association complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors Code of Practice in an article headlined “Brace yourself: Scotland’s top-paid dentist gets “1.2m”, published on 21 April 2019.
2. The article reported on data from NHS Scotland which showed that “…the NHS paid dentists a record £288m for treating patients exempt from charges for dental work – up from about £200m over the past decade”. The article referred to a number of named dentists who had received sums from the NHS and provided details of their practices and how many people they employed: Raja Mahesh was reported to have “earned” almost £800,000 and Simon Miller was reported to have “recorded a gross income” of almost £1.2m. The article also referred to Mr Miller as “Scotland's highest-paid dentist” and reported that he had “grossed more than £1m last year”, commenting that his "earnings eclipsed the £150,000 annual salary” of the Prime Minister. The article included a quote from a third named dentist who explained that dentists may run several practices and that they have to pay rents and salaries. He also explained that many procedures cost the dentist more than the payments received from the NHS. The article also included a quote from the Chair of the British Dental Association, who called for more NHS funding for dentists in Scotland given his view that the Scottish dental service was “overstretched and underfunded”. Finally, the article said that Mr Miller and Mr Mahesh, and two other dentists named in the article, could not be reached for comment prior to publication.
3. The article appeared online under the same headline and was substantially the same as the print article.
4. The complainant, which was representing Simon Miller and Raja Mahesh, said that the article gave the misleading impression that the sums they had received from the NHS represented their salaries, when in fact these sums were gross sums which were subject to significant deductions. It said that it highlighted this point to the publication when it was contacted prior to publication. It said that this misleading impression was reinforced by the comparison made to the Prime Minister’s salary – the sum received was not a salary and should not have been compared as such; the use of the word “earnings”; and the article’s description of the sums paid by the NHS as “public money pocketed by the richest dentists” added to this misleading impression. It said that whilst Mr Miller had received the most money from the NHS, there was no evidence to support the headline’s claim that he was “Scotland’s top-paid dentist”. Finally, the complainant said that the publication had not tried to contact Mr Mahesh, as reported in the article.
5. The complainant said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that in 2017/18, the NHS paid dentists £288m to treat patients who were exempt from charges for dental work when, in fact, the sum covered the NHS dental services for all patients, net of dental charges received from patients who were required to pay for some of their treatment. It also said that it was misleading to describe this as a “record” sum, when the spend-per-head had stayed stable and the increase simply reflected increasing demand. The complainant said that, in fact, there had been a fall in per-head spending when inflation was factored in.
6. The publication did not accept that there was any breach of the Code. It said that the article made specific reference to the figures being gross, rather than net, and included quotes which made clear that the sums were subject to deductions, such as rents and salaries, and that the cost of procedures often exceeded the allowance paid by the NHS. It said that the article, in effect, presented the argument that the complainant had made, and it would be clear to readers that the sums paid to the dentists did not represent their salaries. In this context, it said that it was not misleading to compare the sums paid to the Prime Minister’s salary. In addition, it provided telephone records and notes from the reporter which showed that there was an attempt to contact Mr Mahesh, but that his surgery was closed.
7. The publication said that the reference to the £288m was brief and the length of the article meant that there was not the opportunity to go into the full details of NHS funding. It said that the article accurately reported the sum paid for NHS dental work; that it had risen from £200m to £288m; and that it was not in dispute that this was a record sum. However it accepted that the position could have been made clearer and offered to clarify that the sum was “for treating patients who receive free or subsidised dental work” rather than payments to those patients who were exempt from NHS charges. It said that care was taken to make it clear in the article that the sums paid were gross payments and not pure profit for dentists.
8. As a gesture of goodwill, the publication offered the complainant the opportunity to publish their concerns as a Letter to the Editor, and to publish a clarification on the point relating to the comparison to the Prime Minister’s salary. This was declined.
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 article reported on the level of NHS funding which was paid to dentists in Scotland in 2017/2018. The sums paid to the dentists, as reported in the article, were not in dispute; the question for the Committee was whether the publication had published inaccurate, misleading or distorted information by the way in which the NHS data had been presented in the article and, if so, whether this was significant so as to require correction. The Committee acknowledged that the references in the article to “earnings” and money being “pocketed” were potentially ambiguous; however, any ambiguity was clarified by references to the income being “gross” and by the article making clear that costs would need to be met from the sums received, including rents and salaries. The reference to the Prime Minister’s salary was made immediately following the reference to the “gross” income which Mr Miller had received; readers would understand that a direct comparison was not being made. There was no failure to take care over the presentation of the NHS data and no significant inaccuracy which required correction. It was clear from the telephone records and notes provided by the reporter that there was an attempt to contact Mr Mahesh, and so there was no inaccuracy in reporting that “he could not be reached”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on either of these points.
11. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to state that £288m was paid for treating patients who were exempt from charges for dental work, when in fact it was the sum paid to treat all Scottish dental patients who received treatment on the NHS, some of whom were required to pay part of their treatment costs. The statement did not provide a misleading impression in circumstances where it was not in dispute that the sum paid to dentists in respect of NHS dental work amounted to £288 million. Furthermore, it was not inaccurate to describe the sum paid as a “record” in circumstances where it was accepted that the sum paid was the highest to date; the omission of an explanation for the increase did not render the article significantly misleading on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1 on either of these points.
12. The complaint was not upheld
Date complaint received: 26/04/2019
Date decision issued: 13/09/2019
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