Decision of the Complaints Committee – 28045-20 Coutts v The Scottish Sun
Summary of Complaint
1. Graham Coutts complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Scottish Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Sex killer 66-page rant over jail care”, published on 19 July 2020.
2. The article reported on a complaint made by a prisoner “about prison nurses” that he had discussed on his blog. It stated that Care UK and the Ministry of Justice had “rejected” the letter, and included a quote from one of the prisoner’s blogs which said: “The MOJ and Care UK have to be brought to account for employing staff who put lives at risk. They’re not all heroes.” The article described the prisoner as a “serial whinger” and characterised his complaint as a “rant”, “moan”, and that he claimed a prison nurse had “hurt his feelings” and had “upset him by calling him ‘threatening’ and ‘irate’”.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that the complaint being reported on was a fitness to practice concern which had been sent to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), and had never been sent to, and therefore rejected by, Care UK or the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). He said there had been a separate investigation run by Care UK, but as they had accepted and investigated this complaint it could not be characterised as rejected, nor had it been exhausted at the time of publication. The complainant said it was inaccurate to characterise his complaint as about “prison nurses” as it was about a single nurse, and this gave the misleading impression he was complaining about nurses in general.
4. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to describe his complaint as a “66 page rant” as it was a fitness to practice concern to the NMC consisting of a 16 page letter and a 50 page bundle. He said that he had never claimed that a nurse had “hurt his feelings” and in fact had titled his blog “Healthcare: sticks and stones” to demonstrate the opposite of this. He also said it was wrong to describe him as being “upset” that the nurse had described him as “irate” or “threatening” – he said he had been upset by the nurse failing in her duties. He said it was inaccurate to describe him as a “serial whinger” as this gave the impression he had made numerous and trivial complaints, when in fact he only challenged serious issues.
5. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It accepted that the letter referred to in the headline had been sent to the NMC, and not Care UK or the MOJ. However, the publication noted that the complainant had written a previous blog which had said that “the Care UK investigation was disappointing” and that the same nurse who was subject to his NMC complaint had not been disciplined or sacked, but had “been rewarded with a better job”. The publication said that this implied that Care UK had rejected another, earlier complaint. It also noted a blog from the complainant had said that Care UK and the MOJ should be held to account for the actions of the nurses employed in the prison system, and did not accept that it was inaccurate to report that both these organisations had rejected his letter. Whilst it did not accept that the article was significantly inaccurate or misleading, it did offer to publish the following wording in its corrections and clarifications section:
An article headlined SEX KILLER 66-PAGE RANT OVER JAIL CARE’ (19 July 2020) stated that Care UK and the Ministry of Justice rejected Graham Coutts’ 66-page fitness to practice concern. In fact, Care UK had rejected a separate, earlier complaint made by Mr Coutts. The Ministry of Justice had received no complaint from Mr Coutts. We are happy to clarify.
6. The publication also noted that the complainant’s blog stated that he had “submitted my NMC fitness to practice concern regarding Nurse X. I also submitted one regarding the 2 nurses who didn’t attend me during my asthma attack”. The publication said that as 3 nurses had been complained about, it was accurate to describe his complaint as being about prison nurses.
7. The publication stated it was not inaccurate to describe a 50 page bundle and a 16 page letter as a “66 page rant”. It accepted that it had not seen the complaint, but that the complainant had made clear in his blogs that he was angry at the nurse and had written at length, as it took over 20 hours to complete his complaint, which could be described as a “rant”. It also said it was not inaccurate to describe that the nurse “hurt his feelings” or “upset” him as he had described himself in a blog as “not a happy bunny” and that it had taken “a few days for the stress to subside”. The publication noted that the complainant had made 12 complaints about his treatment in prison over the last several years and therefore it was not misleading to characterise him as a serial whinger.
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
8. The article had stated as fact that Care UK and the Ministry of Justice had “rejected” the complaint referred to in the article. In fact, the complaint had not been submitted to Care UK or the Ministry of Justice, and it was therefore inaccurate to report that it had been rejected by them. The publication had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information on this point, and therefore there was a breach of Clause 1(i). Where the complaint was the central point of the article, this was a significant inaccuracy requiring correction under Clause 1(ii). The publication had offered a clarification; however, this stated that Care UK had rejected a separate complaint from the complainant. The publication was not able to demonstrate that a complaint had been rejected by Care UK, and the complainant had said that his complaint had been investigated and the complaints process was ongoing. The proposed wording therefore, contained a further inaccuracy and as such failed to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii).
9. The complainant accepted that he had complained about two nurses in his complaint. The Committee therefore did not find it significantly misleading to report that he had made a complaint about “prison nurses”. Where the complaint sent by the complainant has consisted of a 16 page letter and a 50 page bundle, it was accurate for the publication to characterise this as being 66 pages. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
10. Whilst acknowledging that the complainant considered the terms to be offensive, the Committee found that it was not misleading to refer to his letter to the NMC as a “rant” or “moan” where the publication was describing a lengthy complaint. Whilst the Committee acknowledged that the complainant disputed that the nurse about whom he had complained had hurt his feelings or that he had been upset by her description of him, the Committee noted that the complainant had written in his blog that he was “not a happy bunny” because of her conduct and that it “took a few days for the stress to subside”. In these circumstances, it was not significantly misleading for the newspaper to report that he had made a complaint about a nurse who he claimed had hurt his feelings. Where the complainant had made several complaints about his experiences in prison, the publication’s characterisation of him as a “serial whinger” was not significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
11. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.
Remedial Action Required
12. 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.
13. The Committee considered that the publication did not take the necessary care when reporting the organisation to which the complainant had complained. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record. A correction was considered to be sufficient given that the focus of the article was the nature of the complaint which had been made and the body to which the complaint had been made was not a central point.
14. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. It should appear in the established print corrections and clarifications column. It 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: 17/09/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 10/06/2021Back to ruling listing