06827-17 Gendy v The Sentinel

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 06827-17 Gendy v The Sentinel

Summary of complaint

1. Raafat Gendy complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sentinel breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Surgeon’s 15-month cancer op ban”, published on 14 April 2017.

2. The article reported that the General Medical Council (GMC) had imposed an interim order which would prohibit the complainant from operating on patients for fifteen months, after colleagues raised “serious concerns” about his practice as a breast cancer surgeon. It reported that the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust (the Trust) launched an internal review into the treatment of twenty six women under the complainant’s care, to “determine whether patients have been managed appropriately and whether any harm has been caused by any deficiencies in their care”. The article also reported that the complainant had been excluded from clinical duties by the Trust, since January 2016, while on-going investigations took place, and that the interim order had replaced this earlier ban.

3. The article reported on the conditions of the interim order and claimed that this included that the complainant could not carry out any breast cancer reduction surgery unless faced with a life-threatening emergency, and that he must not carry out consultations with patients regarding breast cancer surgery. It reported that the conditions mostly related to reconstruction or risk reduction surgery. The article also reported that the complainant’s case had been referred to the Medical Practitioners’ Tribunal Service (MPTS); that the investigation into the complainant’s conduct was ongoing; and that the MPTS could decide to hold a full hearing, give advice, issue a warning or take no further action.

4. The article was published online in substantively the same format, headlined “Royal Stoke University Hospital surgeon given interim 15-month ban to stop him operating on patients”.

5. The complainant said that both the headline and the article were inaccurate, and gave the misleading impression that the interim order had imposed a complete ban on him operating on patients. He said that the restriction was limited to breast cancer risk reduction surgery, which takes place on patients who do not have cancerous tissue, and said that this is distinct from breast cancer reduction surgery, which takes place on patients who suffer from cancer. The complainant said that breast cancer risk reduction surgery accounted for only 0.5% of his practice and that there was no ban on him carrying on with the remainder of his practice.

6. The complainant said that the conditions imposed by the GMC did not prevent him from carrying out consultations with patients regarding breast cancer surgery; he said that the ban only prevented him from carrying out consultations regarding breast cancer risk reduction surgery, and not regarding any cancer or benign breast disease.

7. The complainant said that the headline was inaccurate and not supported by the text. He said that the headline reported that he was completely banned from operating on patients, when the article reported that the ban was only in relation to breast cancer reduction surgery.

8. The complainant also said that the article was not balanced as it did not include his denial of the allegations made by the patients. The complainant noted that at the time that his colleagues had raised their concerns, no complaints had been made by any of his patients. He was also concerned that the newspaper did not contact him for his comment prior to the publication of the article.

9. The newspaper did not accept that there had been a breach of the Code. It said that the article was based on information published by the GMC and as such, it was not of the view that it required the complainant’s comment. The newspaper said that in any event, reporters had contacted the complainant’s employer three times prior to the publication of the article requesting a statement regarding his case. It said that when the reporters called the Trust they worked on the basis that its response would cover the interests of both the organisation and its employee, and noted that it was not able to obtain the complainant’s contact details. The newspaper said that the telephone calls were not recorded and it provided a copy of an off-the-record statement received from a press officer working at the Trust. The newspaper had also approached the MPTS and the North Staffordshire Healthwatch for its comment and included this in the article, along with comment made on behalf of the Trust.

10. The newspaper provided a copy of the GMC document which outlined the conditions imposed on the complainant’s practice. It stated that “except in life-threatening emergencies, [the complainant] must not carry out any breast cancer risk reduction surgery”. It also stated that the complainant “must not carry out consultations with patients regarding breast cancer risk reduction surgery”.

11. The newspaper said that the conditions of the ban were made clear within the article. It noted that the article had reported that "The interim order means the Royal Stoke University Hospital surgeon cannot carry out any breast cancer reduction surgery between now and June 2018", and that "Hospital officials have also sought the expert opinion of the Royal College of Surgeons, which is expected to report back its findings in the near future. The matters mostly relate to reconstruction or risk reduction surgery". The newspaper said that it would not have been possible to detail the conditions in full, in the headline.

12. The newspaper said that in the context of the article as a whole, it was not significantly inaccurate to report that the complainant “must not carry out consultations with patients regarding breast cancer surgery”, particularly in circumstances where the article reported that “the matters mostly relate to reconstruction or risk reduction surgery”. Nonetheless, the newspaper offered to amend the online article to read “breast cancer risk reduction surgery”, and to publish the following clarification as a footnote to the online article and on page two of the newspaper:

“On April 14, we stated that cancer consultant Raafat Gendy had been handed an interim 15- month ban to stop him operating on patients which meant that the Royal Stoke University Hospital surgeon could not carry out any breast cancer reduction surgery, or consultations with patients regarding this, between now and June 2018. We have been asked to clarify that the terms of the interim ban stated that Mr Gendy could not carry out breast cancer risk reduction surgery, except in life-threatening emergencies, or consultations with patients regarding breast cancer risk reduction surgery.”

Relevant Code Provisions

13. 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

14. The GMC had published details of the conditions imposed on the complainant’s medical practice. The newspaper was entitled to rely on the material published by the GMC, and were not obliged to contact the complainant for comment prior to publication. Nonetheless, the article had misreported the conditions imposed by the GMC, and as such the newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1 (i). The complainant was only prohibited from carrying out breast cancer risk reduction surgery, which he said represented 0.5% of his practice. When reporting that the complainant had been banned from carrying out surgery and surgery consultations in relation to breast cancer, the article did not specifically refer to “risk reduction” surgery. Although the article reported that "the matters mostly relate to reconstruction or risk reduction surgery", this was not sufficient to explain the article’s claim that the complainant was prevented from carrying out breast cancer reduction surgery, which suggested that the ban was more wide ranging than it was. The Committee considered that this was a significant inaccuracy, which required correction to avoid a breach of 1 (ii).

15. Shortly after receiving the complaint, the newspaper had offered to publish a clarification which addressed the inaccurate information that the complainant could no longer carry out breast cancer surgery or consultations with patients regarding such procedures, and made the correct position clear, that the ban related to breast cancer risk reduction surgery. Given that the misleading information was published on page four, the Committee considered that the newspaper’s offer to publish the clarification on page two of the newspaper was adequately prominent. The publication’s offer was sufficient in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

16. The print headline stated that the complainant had been handed a fifteen month “cancer op ban” and the online headline further stated that this would “stop [the complainant] operating on patients”. In determining whether the headline had breached the Code, the Committee considered whether readers would have been led to believe that the complainant had been banned from all areas of his practice. Whilst the headline may have been ambiguous as to what the ban related to, in circumstances where the complainant did receive a ban which prohibited him from carrying out breast cancer risk reduction surgery, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly inaccurate to report that the complainant had been handed a “cancer op ban” which would “stop him operating on patients”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The complainant said that the article was unbalanced, particularly as it did not include his denial of the allegations made by the patients. The terms of Clause 1 do not require that articles are balanced, rather it requires that publications take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information. The newspaper was entitled to report that concerns had been raised about the complainant’s practice and that conditions had been imposed by the GMC. The article also made clear that the investigation was ongoing and no findings had yet been made by the MPTS. There was no further breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

18. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

19. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

20. The newspaper had promptly offered to publish a clarification on page 2 and as a footnote to the online article, which addressed the inaccuracies and was sufficiently prominent. The newspaper had also promptly offered to amend the online article to read “breast cancer risk reduction surgery”. The amendments to the online article should now be made, and the clarification should be published, as offered.

Review

21. 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: 08/05/2017
Date decision issued: 23/10/2017  

Back to ruling listing