Decision of the Complaints Committee 03996-18 Sanusi v Liverpool Echo
Summary of complaint
1. Dr Desmond Sanusi complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Liverpool Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in three articles headlined:
· “Church offers gay cure to echo reporter”, published on 13 August 2017;
· “ ‘Gay cure’ pastor is NHS brain surgeon”, published on 16 August 2017; and
· “‘Gay cure’ pastor faces GMC probe”, published on 17 August 2017.
2. The articles reported on the publication’s undercover investigation into practices at a church at which the complainant was the pastor. A reporter had posed as an individual who was questioning their sexuality, and had a telephone conversation with a member of the church. During this conversation, the reporter was told that being gay was a “deceit of satan” and said that it could be “corrected” by undergoing prayer therapy. In order for this therapy to be most effective, the reporter was told that he would have to starve himself and not drink water for 24 hours before taking part in a weekly prayer session. The reporter was directed to the church’s deliverance programme and was told that it could be attended in order to “cure” the reporter of his homosexuality; the member of the church said that “for three days you will not eat [on this programme]”.
3. All the articles alleged that the church had offered “gay cure therapy” as part of its deliverance programme, and that the deliverance programme offered by the church involves fasting for three days.
4. The first article reported that the journalist had “confronted” the complainant with their findings following his conversation with the “assistant pastor”. The article reported that the complainant had “claimed that the church does not discriminate against anyone’s sexuality, and that Brother [name] was not acting under his guidance”. The article reported that “despite the three-day therapy being advised by assistant pastor ‘Brother [name], the pastor denied claims anyone would be expected to fast for three days”. The article quoted the complainant as saying: “What Brother [Name] discussed with you. It is out of my guidance. I am the pastor of this church. It is not a three day fasting”.
5. The second article referred to the complainant as a “’Gay cure’ pastor” and revealed that he was also an NHS brain surgeon, registered with the General Medical Council. The article repeated the advice which the reporter had received from the “assistant pastor”, and said that “when approached with our findings, Dr Sanusi repeatedly denied that the church discriminated against gay people, and said that any advice given out was not sanctioned by himself- instead advising a 24-hour fasting period”. The article reported that the Trust which oversees one of the hospitals where the complainant was an employee, had said that it was “looking into” the publication’s claims with a “multi-department investigation”.
6. The third article said complainant “could face an investigation by the General Medical Council” into his involvement with the church. The article referred to “gay cure” therapy and said that the reporter “was told he should starve himself without drinking any water for up to three days in order for the ‘cure’ to be more effective”. The article reported the complainant’s denial that the church “discriminated against gay people”. In the piece, it stated: “Although it is not yet clear whether his involvement with [the church] is in contravention of GMC guidelines, the church’s recommendations go against a memorandum of understanding signed by over 15 professional medical bodies in 2015-including the NHS”.
7. The articles were also published online with the respective headlines:
· “Echo goes undercover at gay ‘cure’ church offering ‘dangerous’ starvation therapy”, published on 13 August 2017;
· “Head of Liverpool gay ‘cure’ church revealed as NHS brain surgeon”, published on 16 August 2017; and
· “‘Gay ‘cure’ pastor could face General Medical Council investigation”, published on 17 August 2017.
The online articles were substantially the same as the articles that appeared in print.
8. The complainant denied that he had advocated “cures” for homosexuals delivered by way of starvation therapy, and therefore the reference to him as a “gay-cure pastor”, or the head of a “gay cure church” were inaccurate, and suggested that he had advocated treatment in contravention to medical ethics.
9. The complainant acknowledged that the journalist had been offered a “gay cure” therapy, from a member of the church. However, the complainant said that the second article gave the significantly misleading impression that he himself had advised a 24-hour fasting period specifically in relation to a “gay cure”, as it was reported that he had “instead” advised a 24-hour fasting period.
10. The complainant said that as reflected in the partial recording of his conversation with the journalist, which the complainant provided to IPSO, he had condemned any practice which encouraged a “gay cure” by way of fasting. He had said:
I discussed with [the “assistant pastor”], and whatever discussion you had, all this information was coming to me that there was discussion about being gay, about something like that, which as a church, [inaudible] does not discriminate against people, we don’t discriminate against people. I was speaking on behalf of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries worldwide, as a pastor. [The “assistant pastor”] is just a brother in the church, who, because I was not around, that I said that he should see you on that day, so I was speaking as an ordained pastor within a multinational organisation with over 6000 branches worldwide.
11. The complainant said that the advice which the reporter had received, was not from an “assistant pastor” at the church, but rather, a “brother”, or member, of the church. He said that this individual did not hold any position of responsibility with the church.
12. Under Clause 2, the complainant expressed concern that the first and second articles had disclosed a photograph of his wife’s car, which the registration plate was visible. He said that the publication of an excerpt from the church’s website which included his photograph, also represented an intrusion into his private life. The complainant also said that the references in the second and third articles to his position as director of a company, and the town in which the company was registered, could easily reveal his home address if searched online.
13. The publication did not accept that it had breached the Code. It noted that the complainant was the pastor of a church, of which the “assistant pastor” had openly suggested to its reporter that a starvation deliverance programme which entailed not eating for three days, could be used as a “gay cure”.
14. The publication accepted the complainant's position that he did not suggest the 24 hours fasting as a gay-cure. The publication said that each article explicitly identified that it was the “assistant pastor” who had offered the “gay cure”; that the complainant had denied that the church “discriminated against anyone”; and made clear the complainant’s position that the “assistant pastor’s” advice was not sanctioned by him. The publication said that given that the second article explicitly stated: 'When approached with our findings, Dr Sanusi repeatedly denied that the church discriminated against gay people, and said that any advice given out was not sanctioned by himself - instead advising a 24-hour fasting period', it did not accept that the article gave a misleading impression.
15. The publication said that when reporter had asked the complainant whether, as a medical doctor, he stood by the church’s advice to undertake starvation therapy through the deliverance programme, he had been told: “people that want to come for deliverance, they are encouraged to fast but it's not for everybody...it is not for three days...people only fast for one day”.
16. In an attempt to resolve the complaint the publication offered to publish the following clarifications in print and as footnotes to the online articles, as a gesture of good will:
“A previous version of this article
stated that 'When approached with our finding, Dr Sanusi repeatedly denied that
the church discriminated against gay people, and said that any advice given out
was not sanctioned by himself - instead advising a 24-hour fasting period'' We
are happy to clarify that the 24-hour fasting period Dr Sanusi advised was in
reference the deliverance programme offered by the church, and not in reference
to a 'gay-cure'.”
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.
Clause 2 (Privacy) *
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Findings of the Committee
19. The complaint was the pastor of a church, a member of which had offered “gay cure therapy” as part of the church’s deliverance programme. According to the member, the deliverance programme involved fasting for up to three days. Care had been taken to distinguish between the advice of the “assistant pastor”, and the response given by the complainant: the article had identified that it was the “assistant pastor” who had offered the “gay cure”; that the complainant had denied that the church “discriminated against people”; and had made clear the complainant’s position that the “assistant pastor’s” advice was not sanctioned by him. The newspaper had set out the complainant’s association with the advice given by a member of his church; the characterisation of him as a “gay cure pastor” and the head of a “gay cure church” was not misleading in those circumstances. This aspect of the complaint did not breach Clause 1.
20. The second article had reported: “when approached with our findings, [the complainant] repeatedly denied that the church discriminated against gay people, and said that any advice given out was not sanctioned by himself - instead advising a 24-hour fasting period”. It was accepted that the complainant had, in reference to the deliverance programme offered by the church, advised that the programme involved a 24 hour period of starvation therapy, rather than three days. However the complainant disputed that he had given this advice in relation to “gay cure therapy”, a position which the newspaper had accepted. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the use of the word “instead” suggested that he had specifically advised a “24-hour gay cure” as opposed to a “three day gay cure”. However, the previous paragraph of the article made clear that the complainant’s comments were being discussed in the general context of deliverance therapy. Before reporting his comments, the article stated that the reporter “found the church’s assistant pastor was offering ‘deliverance’ therapy… their website also suggests it should be undertaken by victims of sexual assault and child abuse”. Furthermore, the article had explicitly referenced the complainant’s denial of “discrimination against people”; and a distinction was made between the advice which the complainant had given regarding the starvation therapy, and his denial of the “gay cure therapy”. In these circumstances, the Committee did not establish that the newspaper had failed to take care over the reporting of the complainant’s response to the journalist, nor was the article significantly misleading in the manner suggested by the complainant such that a correction would be required. Notwithstanding this, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer of a clarification.
21. The complainant had referred the reporter to a member of the church, and had said that they would be able to advise the reporter on the deliverance programme, in his absence. The complainant had also referred to this individual as his “assistant”. This gave a particular impression of the church member’s knowledge of the deliverance programme, and his ability to offer advice in relation to it. In those circumstances, and particularly where the complainant, the pastor of the church, had referred to this individual as his “assistant”, the reference to him as an “assistant pastor” would not have misled readers in a significant way. This aspect of the complaint did not represent a breach of Clause 1.
22. A photograph of a car had been published alongside two of the articles. It had disclosed an obscured licence plate and no information within the article had identified the car as being that of the complainant. The photograph of the complainant showed his likeness, and was publicly available on the church’s website. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that his address would be identified from the details in the article, but did not consider that the article contained any information about which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2.
23. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Independent Complaints Reviewer
The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.
Date complaint received: 14/06/2018
Date decision issued: 13/11/2018
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