Ruling

00607-23 Kerr v Greenock Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      11th October 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00607-23 Kerr v Greenock Telegraph


Summary of Complaint

1. Brian Kerr complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Greenock Telegraph breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'DOCTORS MISSED MUM’S TWO TUMOURS'/Mum planned baby shower for grandchild she never met”, published on 21 December 2022.

2. The article – which appeared on the front page of the newspaper before continuing to page five – was an interview with the family of a woman who had passed away after a cancer diagnosis. In the article, the family outlined what they considered to be a series of medical oversights which they said led to the woman’s death; the front page of the newspaper and page five featured pictures of the family in question. The article reported that “a courageous mum who died just a year on from a devastating cancer diagnosis [had] been denied an X-ray”. It went onto state “at the start of 2020, [the woman] started to experience pain in her hip and the family say her GP said it was likely to be arthritic bursitis.” It also included quote from the woman’s husband: “’she couldn’t get to see a doctor face to face, it was only video and phone calls, and they wouldn’t send her for an X-ray.”

3. The husband also reportedly said: “the GP told her it was fluid in her stomach and said she could go to hospital ‘if she wanted’. They were fobbing her off all the time.” The article also reported the woman’s “mum […] told the Tele that [the woman] had taken her bowel cancer screening test when it arrived earlier than expected. She said: ‘Nothing showed up in the test. Maybe if she had taken it later, something would have been picked up and she would still be here”.

4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “Mum organised baby shower for grandchild she wouldn't meet”.

5. The complainant was a GP who had been involved in the woman’s care; specifically, he said that he was the GP who had allegedly told the woman her health issues were connected to “fluid in her stomach and said she could go to hospital ‘if she wanted”’ and said that the pain in her hip was “likely to be arthritic bursitis.” He said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 in its depiction of the woman’s contact with medical professionals prior to her death. He said the publication should have contacted the woman’s GP practice before the article was published to check the veracity of the claims, or, at the very least, to ensure the practice’s position on the family’s claims could be included in the article.

6. Turning to the specific alleged inaccuracies within the article, the complainant also said that the headline was inaccurate, as the woman had been referred as a high-priority case. The complainant then said he had no record of the woman ever having been refused an X-ray. He also said that an X-Ray had in fact been arranged in July, 2020, and its findings were consistent with the pain the woman was reporting at that point.

7. He also disputed the husband’s claim that “she couldn’t get to see a doctor face to face”. He said the patient had been seen several times face-to-face regarding the complaints identified by her family in the article, and other unrelated complaints. He said the patient had been seen several times face to face regarding her original hip complaint, including in September 2020, where she was seen face to face at the surgery with a further, unrelated complaint.

8. The complainant initially said it was inaccurate to report that the woman had been told she had arthritic bursitis, although he did not say why. Later, during IPSO’s investigation said that an X-ray had revealed “arthritic changes” and did not dispute the woman had told that she had arthritic condition.

9. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report he had “told [the deceased woman] it was fluid in her stomach” and she could “go to hospital if she wanted” and the medical professionals involved in her care were “fobbing her off the whole time”. He said when he had spoken to the woman on the phone, he made clear he was taking her condition very seriously, had made a referral to a specialist, told her if she was concerned then she should go straight to hospital and – if she did not hear anything in the following few weeks – she should contact him.

10. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It firstly said the claims in the article about the woman’s care were not presented as fact, but as the views of her family. In any event, it said it had contacted the GP practice for comment before the article was published, and that a reporter had briefly spoken to a receptionist. It was unable to supply any further details of the phone call, or confirm when it had occurred. The publication said it had no way to verify whether the woman had been sent for an X-ray without access to the woman’s medical records or the practice sharing information with them.

11. The publication said it did not accept that the headline breached Clause 1 by referring to “[d]octors’ miss[ing] mum’s tumours”. It said this was clearly distinguished as a claim from the woman’s family, rather than a claim of fact on the part of the newspaper, and the headline did not state which doctors, at which practice, had missed the cancer. It also said it was not in dispute that the woman had had a bowel cancer screening which had been negative – therefore, it could not be inaccurate to report the tumours had been missed.

12. The publication said that the husband’s claims about the woman being unable to see a doctor face to face was distinguished as his account and not reported as fact.

13. The publication did not accept that the article inaccurately reported on the phone call between the woman and the complainant. It said the complainant had not disputed that he had told the deceased woman she should go to hospital if she was worried. That the family had interpreted this as “fobbing her off” was clearly their opinion and presented as such.

Relevant Clause 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

14. The Committee wished to emphasise it was not in a position to make findings on the highly sensitive and technical matter of whether the woman’s medical care had been administered appropriately. The Committee’s remit was limited to whether the publication had breached the Editors’ Code.

15. Clause 1 (iv) of the Editors’ Code makes clear that newspaper can publish comment and conjecture, including the views and speculation of individuals. However, any comment or conjecture must be distinguished from fact, with care taken over the accuracy of any claims of fact made by individuals.

16. The Committee first considered whether the publication had clearly distinguished the claims of the family as comment rather than stating them as fact. The article’s opening sentence stated as fact that the woman “had been denied an X-ray”, and the publication had not verified this: it had not spoken to any of the doctors involved in the woman’s medical care, nor sought to obtain any other documentation to support this. Although it had contacted the GP Practice prior to publication, it did not appear to have followed up this call and had not provided any notes of the conversation it had had with the receptionist. The publication had therefore presented an unverified claim as fact, and had not distinguished it – in the opening of the article – as the family’s comment on the care the woman had appeared. For this reason there was a breach of Clause 1 (iv).

17. The Committee then considered whether the headline breached the terms of Clause 1. The Committee first noted that the headline appeared in inverted commas next to a picture of the family, indicating this was not a claim of fact but rather the position of the family. This was also suggested by the fact that the headline referred to the woman as “mum”, therefore presenting it as the words of the family. The article then set out the basis for this: according to the family, the woman had at one point received negative cancer results and had later died. As such, there was a basis for the claim in the article and the Committee did not consider the headline’s summary of the family’s claim to breach the terms of Clause 1.

18. On the matter of whether the woman had been able to receive face to face care, the Committee noted that this claim was distinguished as the account of her husband, and it didn’t claim that this was the fact throughout the diagnoses process. In any event the accounts provided by the respective parties about whether there had been face to face appointments differed significantly and in the absence of any access to confidential medical records clear documentation relating to the disputed position, the Committee was not in a position to reconcile the two accounts. Taking these factors into account, and on balance, the Committee did not find a breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The Committee then considered whether it was inaccurate to report that the woman had been told she had the pain in her hip was “arthritic bursitis”. It was not in dispute that, at one point during the woman’s care she had presented with hip pain that attributed to arthritic changes, and the complainant did not dispute this. The Committee did not consider the article to be significantly inaccurate or misleading on this point.

20. The Committee finally considered whether the article had reported the phone call between the deceased woman and the complainant accurately. The Committee found it was the essentially way the tone of the call was conveyed by the family the complainant objected to; he did not dispute any of the core facts of the interaction. Although the complainant had told the woman she could go to hospital if she had concerns, Whether or not the family considered telling the deceased woman she could go to hospital if she wanted was “fobbing her off”, was a matter for them; this was clearly a subjective opinion and one they were entitled to express. There was no breach on this point.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

22. 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 an adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

23. The Committee considered had reported as fact that the woman had been refused an X-ray, and this this represented a failure to distinguish between comment and fact in breach of Clause 1 (iv). Action was therefore required to remedy the breach of the Code. The publication had not offered any form of clarification or correction on this point.

24. Where the breach arose from a single reference in the text of the article, on balance, the Committee considered a correction was the appropriate remedy. The correction should acknowledge the publication had presented an unverified claim of fact. It should also note that according to a doctor involved in the woman’s care, the woman had been sent for an X-ray.

25. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. While the information that breached the Code appeared on the front-page of the newspaper, front page corrections are generally reserved for the most serious breaches of the Code. Where the Committee had found a correction to be necessary rather than an adjudication, it did not consider a front-page correction to be proportionate. However, seeing as the article had appeared on the front page, it considered it appropriate for the correction to appear in a prominent position within the newspaper. Therefore, it should appear on the second page of the newspaper.

26. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, the correction on the article should be published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the correction should be published as a footnote.

27. The wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear it had been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.


Date complaint received: 09/02/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 10/08/2023


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.