Resolution Statement – 28966-20 Harrison v Mail Online

Decision: Resolved - IPSO mediation

Resolution Statement – 28966-20 Harrison v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint

1. Paul Harrison complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 8 (Hospitals) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'Opportunistic' unions demand pre-Christmas pay-rise for all 'burned out' NHS staff - even the ones not dealing with covid”, published on 10 November 2020.

2. The article, which only appeared online, reported that NHS staff unions were “calling” for a pay-rise in December 2020, and that some of the NHS unions had been “slammed” by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) “for being opportunistic” in calling for the pay-rise. A bullet-point beneath the article headline said that “nonessential NHS services [were] branded ‘cynical’ for piggybacking on pandemic” and the phrase “nonessential” was repeated throughout the article in reference to “dietitians, opticians, and podiatrists.” Another bullet-point beneath the headline also stated that some dietitians, opticians, and podiatrists had been “twiddling thumbs for months”, with the article itself going on to report that this was due to “almost all NHS services [being] cancelled during the first lockdown in spring”.

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as it referred to dietitians as being “nonessential workers.” The complainant said that this was inaccurate, as dietitians had in fact played a role on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic by providing life-saving artificial nutrition to patients on ventilation while also continuing with essential services. He also noted that, while the article had included a quote from a representative of the Institute of Economic Affairs which referred to dietitians, the representative had later tweeted that he had intended to refer to nutritionists and not dieticians. The complainant went on to note that a dietitian had received an OBE for her work during the Covid-19 pandemic, which demonstrated that dietitians were not “nonessential.” The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to state that “almost all NHS services” had been cancelled during the first lockdown as, while elective admissions had reduced, this was only a fraction of the number of patients who were seen on a daily basis.

4. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 8, as it inaccurately represented the role played by dietitians within the NHS.

5. The publication said it did not accept that Clause 1 had been breached. It said that the article made clear that it was reporting on comments from an IEA representative and the complainant did not dispute that it had accurately reported the comments of the representative; while the representative had later tweeted saying that he had intended to refer to nutritionists rather than dieticians, he did not dispute that he had referred to dietitians to the publication. The publication accepted that it had conflated the term “nonessential” with the term “non-frontline,” but did not accept that this was a significant inaccuracy in need of correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). It did not dispute that some dietitians had worked on the frontline of the Covid-19 response, however it said that not all had and so the article was not inaccurate to state that “some” dietitians had been “twiddling thumbs for months.” It went on to say that an NHS directive had been issued in March 2020 telling NHS providers that they had discretion to “wind-down all elective activity” and should also “postpone all non-urgent elective operations.” It also said that elective admissions had decreased by over 71.8% in May 2020 compared to the previous year, GP referrals had decreased by 71% over the same period, and during April 2020 43% of ICU beds were unoccupied. Therefore, it said, it followed that it was not inaccurate to state that “almost all NHS services [were] cancelled during the first lockdown in the spring.”

6. The publication said that it did not consider that the terms of Clause 8 had been engaged, as the Clause relates to the conduct of journalists when in hospitals and similar medical settings, and the complainant’s concerns over the accuracy of the article did not relate to the terms of the Clause.

7. While the publication did not accept that the Code had been breached, it offered to amend the article to change all references to “nonessential” NHS workers to “non-frontline.”

8. The complainant said that the action offered by the publication would not be sufficient to address his concerns, and said that where the quoted IEA representative had said that he had intended to refer to “nutritionists” the article should have been changed to make this clear. He also noted that many patients had been seen remotely and in outpatient settings, rather than in acute settings. Therefore, it did not follow that a decrease in elective admissions meant a that “almost all NHS services had been cancelled.”

Relevant Clause 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.

10. Clause 8 (Hospitals)

i) Journalists must identify themselves and obtain permission from a responsible executive before entering non-public areas of hospitals or similar institutions to pursue enquiries.

ii) The restrictions on intruding into privacy are particularly relevant to enquiries about individuals in hospitals or similar institutions.

Mediated Outcome

11. The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter.

12. The publication offered to amend the article to make the following changes: all references to “nonessential” NHS staff to be amended to refer to “non-frontline” staff; amend all references to “dietitians” to “nutritionists”; and to change the sentence “almost all NHS services were cancelled during the first lockdown in spring” to read “almost all elective NHS services were cancelled during the first lockdown in the spring”. It also offered to print the following correction in its regular online Corrections & Clarifications column:

In a report on November 9, 2020, about union calls for all NHS staff to receive a pay rise, Mr Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the IEA, was quoted as saying he presumed dieticians had not been as busy as doctors and nurses during the pandemic and so he considered their pay claim `cynical​'.   We are happy to make clear that the next day, Mr Snowdon tweeted that he had meant to say `nutritionists​,' rather than `dieticians'.

13. The complainant said that this would resolve the matter to his satisfaction.

14. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.


Date complaint received: 11/11/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 09/02/2021

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