04186-19 Mmono v Manchester Evening News

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04186-19 Mmono v Manchester Evening News

Summary of Complaint

1. Xavier Mmono complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Manchester Evening News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Doctor struck off for asking patient to be ‘friend with benefits” published on 16 January 2019.

2. The article reported that the complainant, Dr Xavier Mmono, had been struck from the medical register for suggesting that a patient pay for surgery with sex via a “friends with benefits” arrangement.

3. The article reported that following a tribunal in 2016, the complainant was suspended for 4 months for inappropriate conduct relating to texts he sent to a patient. It said that this tribunal heard that the complainant encouraged the patient to have expensive cosmetic gynaecological surgery after she had been teased by a former partner. It reported that the complainant then texted the woman to let her know that she could “pay later” and “Mates with benefits good I agree! Will remind u in two years when not a patient” which the article reported was a suggestion that they become “casual sexual partners”. The article reported that this tribunal also heard that he sent further inappropriate texts to the woman, including: “I thought u were out having sex with ur friend!”

4. The article explained that after this 4 month suspension, the complainant was suspended again in 2018 for 12 months after carrying out intimate examinations without a chaperone present. The article reported that after a judge agreed with the General Medical Council that the second punishment in 2018 was too lenient, the complainant had now been struck from the medical register. The article reported that factors in the judge’s decision included that complainant was “’persistently dishonest’” and had demonstrated “’a blatant disregard for the truth’”. The rest of the article set out the complainant’s qualifications and prior employment, and included a lengthy quotation from the complainant’s employer defending his actions.

5. The article also appeared online on 15 January 2019 with the headline “Gynaecologist who suggested ‘designer vagina’ patient become ‘friends with benefits’ rather than pay for surgery struck off”. It was substantially the same as the print version.

6. The print article appeared on page 3, and the online article appeared as the top story on the website homepage. The article was also promoted on the publication’s Facebook and Twitter pages. The claim that the complainant had suggested to the woman that she pay for surgery with sex appeared in both of these posts.

7. The complainant said that he was not struck off the medical register for suggesting to a patient that she pay for surgery with a “friends with benefits” arrangement, nor was this the reason for his previous suspensions. He said that the reason he was struck off was that a judge found the second suspension in 2018 to be too lenient. This suspension had been imposed because he had carried out intimate examinations without a chaperone; there was no suggestion during this case that he had proposed sex for treatment. The complainant said that this allegation had never been heard or proven in the first tribunal either. He said that although he was suspended for sending texts to a patient – which he denied were inappropriate – the tribunal did not establish that they showed that he planned to engage in a sexual relationship with the patient at that time, and he said that the messages which made reference to “friends with benefits” were in fact discussing a third party.

8. The publication said that the article was written by a freelance reporter, and was based on the online Medical Practitioner Tribunal Service reports for both the 2016 and 2018 tribunals and the latest online court judgment where the complainant was struck off. The reporter was not present at the proceedings. It accepted that the complainant was not struck off for suggesting “sex with benefits” to a patient in lieu of payment, and this had not been found by any previous tribunal. However, it said that in the wider context of the complainant’s behaviour, this was not a significant inaccuracy.

9. The publication said that in the first tribunal in 2016, it had been found proved that the texts sent to the patient were inappropriate and sexually motivated. These texts discussed the patient’s sex life and made reference to “mates with benefits”. Furthermore, it was not in dispute that the complainant had allowed the patient to delay payment for her treatment. In regards to the second tribunal in 2018, it said it was also found proved that the complainant had acted dishonestly, and had knowingly misled previously hearings. However, it accepted that this tribunal only made passing reference to an inappropriate text which referred to the patient as “babes” and was primarily focussed on the fact that the complainant conducted intimate examinations without a chaperone.

10. On receipt of the complaint, the publication offered to amend the online article’s headline and opening sentence to read: “Gynaecologist struck off after inappropriate conduct with patient” and “A doctor who sent suggestive texts to a patient has been struck off” respectively. It also offered to print corrections both online as a footnote to the amended article and in print in a standalone box on page 2, with the headline “Xavier Mmono”. It also offered to publish a post on Facebook and Twitter, where the original article was promoted, setting out the wording of the corrections, the fact that the online article had been updated, and a link back to the amended article. It said that this was as prominent as possible, and had been offered promptly. The print and online corrections which were offered were as follows:

Print: “Our article “Doctor struck off for asking patient to be ‘friend with benefits’ (16 January 2019), reported that Dr Mmono had suggested a patient become ‘friends with benefits’ rather than pay for surgery. In fact, there was no evidence that Dr Mmono’s text referring to friends with benefits demonstrated that he intended to embark on a sexual relationship with the patient at that time”

Online: “A previous headline and version of this article reported that Dr Mmono had suggested a patient become ‘friends with benefits’ rather than pay for surgery. In fact, there as no evidence that Dr Mmono’s text referring to friends with benefits demonstrated that he intended to embark on a sexual relationship with the patient at that time”

11. The complainant declined these corrections as he disputed that he had been struck off for “inappropriate conduct”. He also said that the publication should have apologised to him, and that the publication’s offers were not sufficiently prominent.

Relevant Code Provisions

12. 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

13. The reporter had based the article on online reports of the tribunals in 2016 and 2018 and the latest court judgment, all of which were publicly available at the time of publication. These documents made clear that the complainant was struck off in relation to conducting intimate examinations without a chaperone and for being dishonest, not for suggesting a patient pay for treatment in return for becoming a “friend with benefits”. The headline of the print article headline inaccurately reported that the complainant was struck off for asking a patient to be friends with benefits; the headline of the online version and the first line of both the print and online articles inaccurately reported that he had suggested sex in lieu of payment. Where the correct information was freely available online, these statements represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information. In addition, where the article went on to explain that the reason for the decision was in relation to the 2018 tribunal’s finding that the complainant had conducted intimate examinations without a chaperone and had acted dishonestly, the print headline was not supported by the text. There was a breach of Clause 1(i).

14. In determining the significance of the inaccuracy, the Committee looked at the tribunals’ findings. The previous tribunal in 2016 found that the complainant had sent a text to the complainant which read: “Mates with benefits good I agree! Will remind u in two years when not a patient” which the tribunal found was sexually motivated. However, there was no suggestion in this tribunal that the complainant proposed that the patient pay for treatment by becoming a “friend with benefits” and the tribunal specifically found that there was no evidence that the complainant intended to engage in a sexual relationship with the patient at this time. The second tribunal, which formed the basis for the Judge to strike the complainant from the medical register, did not make any reference to the complainant acting in a sexually motivated manner, and was instead concerned with the complainant conducting intimate examinations without a chaperone and acting dishonestly. As such, the article’s claim that the complainant was struck off for suggesting the a patient pay for surgery with sex was not only a significantly misleading report of the reasons why the complainant was struck from the medical register, but also a serious and damaging claim as to the complainant’s professional conduct. This meant that a correction was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

15. The Committee then considered the terms of the correction which the newspaper had offered to publish. The correction proposed did not the correct the articles’ claim that the complainant had suggested a sexual relationship in lieu of payment. It also did not correct the misleading impression as to why the complainant was struck off. For all of these reasons, the proposed corrections did not satisfy the requirements of Clause 1(ii), and there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).

Conclusions

16. The complaint was upheld

Remedial action required

17.  Having upheld the complaint, 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 adjudication. The nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

18. The Committee considered that the article was significantly misleading as to both the complainant’s professional conduct and the reason why he was struck off from the medical register. Although the tribunals had found that the complainant had engaged in inappropriate and dishonest practices, the claim that he had suggested sex in lieu of payment for medical treatment had not formed part of these proceedings, nor was it the reason why he had been struck off. This was a serious claim about his professional conduct and represented a significant escalation as to the charges he faced and were found proved; furthermore, this claim was intrinsic to the overall article. The Committee was also concerned that the inaccuracy appeared despite the accurate position being readily available and in the public domain via the tribunal and court documents the reporter consulted. For these reasons, the Committee decided that the appropriate remedy was the publication of an adjudication.

19. The print article appeared on page 3 and the inaccuracy appeared in the headline and the first line of the article. The online article appeared as the headline story on the first screen of the publication’s website’s homepage – the inaccuracy appeared in the headline and the first line of the article. The inaccuracy also appeared in the publication’s social media posts which linked to the online article. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that the adjudication should appear in print on page 3 or further forward. The adjudication should also be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing on the top half of the newspaper’s homepage, on the first screen, for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. If the newspaper intends to continue to publish the online articles without amendment to remove the significantly misleading statements identified by the Committee, the full text of the adjudication should also be published on the article, beneath the headline. If amended to remove the misleading statements, a link to the adjudication should be published with the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication, and explaining the amendments that have been made. A link to the adjudication should also be included in the publication’s social media posts on Facebook and Twitter – the wording of these posts should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should also state that IPSO has upheld a complaint against the publication. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against the Manchester Evening News, and refer to its subject matter. It must be agreed with IPSO in advance.

20. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

Xavier Mmono complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation the Manchester Evening News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published in print headlined “Doctor struck off for asking patient to be ‘friend with benefits’” and in its online counterpart, headlined “Gynaecologist who suggested ‘designer vagina’ patient become ‘friends with benefits’ rather than pay for surgery struck off” published on 15 January 2019.  The complaint was upheld, and the Manchester Evening News has been required to publish this ruling as a remedy to the breach of the Code.

The article reported that the complainant, Xavier Mmono, had been struck off from the medical register for suggesting that a patient pay for surgery with sex via a “friends with benefits relationship”.

The complainant said that he was not struck off the medical register for suggesting to a patient that she pay for surgery with a “friends with benefits” arrangement and this had never been alleged in any previous tribunal. He said that the reason he was struck off was because a judge had found that the sanction by the second of two professional standards tribunals was too lenient. This sanction was in relation to being dishonest and carrying out intimate gynaecological examinations without a chaperone; the first tribunal was in relation to inappropriate and sexually motivated texts.

The publication accepted that the publicly available court and tribunal documents which the reporter had relied on did not say that the complainant had been struck of for suggesting “sex with benefits” in lieu of payment, and this had not been alleged at any previous tribunal. However, it argued that in the wider context of the complainant’s behaviour which had been proven by tribunals and the court, this was not a significant inaccuracy.

The Complaints Committee found that the publication had not reported the publicly available court and tribunal documents accurately – it had never been alleged that the complainant had suggesting sex in lieu of payment for treatment, and that this was not the reason why he was struck off. This represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, and the Committee upheld the complaint as a breach of Clause 1(i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The publication had offered to publish corrections in print and online, however the Committee determined that these did not adequately put the correct position on record. The Committee also found that the inaccuracy represented a serious claim about the complainant’s professional conduct and represented a significant escalation as to the charges he faced and were found proved. In addition, the inaccurate claim was intrinsic to the overall article. For this reason, the Committee found that the publication’s offer was not sufficient to correct the breach of 1(i) and upheld the complaint as a breach of Clause 1(ii) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

Date complaint received: 13/05/2019
Date complaint concluded: 09/08/2019  


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