Ruling

01114-19 King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      2nd May 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 8 Hospitals

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01114-19 King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust v The Sun

Summary of Complaint 

1.    King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 8 (Hospitals) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Corpses stored in hospital car park”, published on 2 January 2019. 

2.    The article stated that a hospital – run by the complainant – had been accused of “disrespecting” corpses by “stashing dead bodies in a car park after running out of space in its mortuary”. It said that the hospital had needed to use two refrigerated mortuary containers “in its underground car park” due to an increase in deaths. 

3.    The article said that this “overflow unit” was “not always locked so anyone could walk in from the street and gain access” and that it was understood that this was because coroners required access to the units and did not all have the necessary keys. The article then stated that the hospital said that bodies were stored in individual locked boxes, which were monitored constantly by CCTV. It reported an unnamed source’s comment that “’anything could happen to the bodies because it is not locked. All it would take is one curious member of the public to try the door or someone to think about stealing jewellery from the bodies’”. 

4.    The article included a comment from a representative of a patient charity, who said that “’A car park is no place to leave dead bodies in a civilised society…It is a terrible insult and quite unacceptable’”. The article said that the car park was next to the mortuary and could be accessed by the public, although it was “not for official visitors”. A spokesman for the hospital was quoted as saying that the ‘”purpose built concrete containers are in the discrete mortuary area of the hospital and not in public view’”. 

5.    The article also appeared online, on 1 January 2019, under the headline “BODY SHAME: A failing hospital stashed dead bodies in a car park after its mortuary ran out of room”. This article was substantively similar to the print article, but included an additional comment from the hospital, stating that the containers were “’only accessible by appropriate hospital staff’”. 

6.    The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said that the mortuary containers were not positioned in a car park or underground car park, but in the mortuary area of the hospital, which was accessed via a side road off the road to the staff car park. It said that the hospital did not in any case have an underground car park. It said that the mortuary area was clearly signed and anyone not authorised to be there would be trespassing. The complainant also said that the article’s reference to an “increase in deaths” was misleading because it gave the impression that only this hospital had experienced an increase in mortality over the winter period, when this was not the case. 

7.    The complainant said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that the overflow unit was “not always locked” or that “anyone could walk in from the street”. It said that each individual box was locked with a key, irrespective of whether it was occupied, and the containers housing the boxes were always locked. In addition, occupied boxes were secured with a padlock. It said that the containers were covered by CCTV and only accessible to the appropriate staff; coroners were only able to access the containers when accompanied by an appropriate staff member. It was therefore misleading to say that members of the public could gain access to the boxes or to the containers. 

8.    The complainant also said that the publication had breached Clause 8 (Hospitals) because, during the course of its enquiries in relation to the article, it had entered the mortuary area of the hospital, without seeking any permission; it said that this was a non-public area of the hospital, and that permission was therefore required under the terms of this Clause. 

9.    The publication denied that it had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said that, when its journalist visited the hospital, she found that there were two cars parked next to the wall the containers were behind, with another next to the containers themselves. It said it was therefore accurate to describe the containers as being in a car park, and the article had made clear that this car park was accessible to the public but was not for official visitors. It said that this ‘car park’ was below ground level, so it was not inaccurate to describe the car park as “underground”. 

10. The publication said that it had been informed, by a source in a position to comment, that the containers were not always locked, due to coroners requiring access; it said the source had opened the containers himself on a number of occasions. The publication said that the area in which the containers were located was completely accessible to the public; there were no barriers to prevent anyone from walking to the containers, and when its reporter had done this she had not been challenged, and had been able to open the door of a container. In addition, the source had said that members of the public regularly wandered into the area by accident, and parked their cars in the bays next to the containers on weekends. 

11. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 8 (Hospitals). It said that the purpose of this Clause was to protect individuals receiving medical care from intrusion; its reporter had not accessed any area where people were receiving medical care, and the area she had accessed had been open to any member of the public. It was not therefore a ‘non-public’ area, under the terms of Clause 8. 

12. The complainant denied that two parking bays outside the mortuary constituted a “car park”; in any case, it said that these bays were reserved for mortuary professionals, and were not public, and its security team had no record of members of the public using them. It said that the mortuary area was clearly signed, and the journalist should have known that entering this area was inappropriate. The complainant said that it believed that the deceased had as much right to privacy as patients, and expressed concerns that, by entering the mortuary area and opening a container door, the journalist had shown a lack of respect for the deceased. 

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. 

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. 

Findings of the Committee 

14. The claim that “anyone could walk in off the street and gain access” to the mortuary area and to the containers was based on the journalist’s experiences of visiting the mortuary area, and on the account of a source. It was not in dispute that the journalist had been able to walk into this area unchallenged, as a member of the public. There was dispute, however, over whether the containers were always locked. The Committee was not in a position to determine whether in fact this was the case; nevertheless, its role was to determine whether sufficient care had been taken over this claim, and whether the article gave rise to a misleading impression. The publication had obtained information from a source, which it had then sought to verify by visiting the hospital site; where the journalist and source were said to have been able to access the containers, and the complainant had not suggested that any physical infrastructure prevented them from doing so, there was no failure to take care over the claim that members of the public could gain access to them. The hospital’s response - that the boxes were locked and the containers monitored and obscured from public view in the mortuary area of the hospital - was included in the article, and in these circumstances, the article as a whole did not give rise to a misleading impression that required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

15. The article had reported, as a direct quotation, a source’s concern that “’Anything could happen to the bodies… All it would take is one curious member of the public to try the door or someone to think about stealing jewellery from the bodies’”. This was not adopted as fact by the publication, and the article did not make the direct claim that the individual boxes containing the bodies were unlocked. It also included the hospital’s position that “bodies are stored in individual boxes, which are locked and monitored by 24-7 CCTV”. In these circumstances, and where care had been taken to report the source’s concerns as claims, rather than as fact, reporting this concern did not give rise to any misleading impression that required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

16. It was accepted that there were parking bays next to the mortuary containers, and it was apparent that these were located below ground level. The article stated that this car park was “not for official visitors”, but could be accessed by the public. While signage was said to indicate that this was a mortuary area, the complainant had not stated that any physical barrier prevented any member of the public from parking in this area. In these circumstances, and where cars could be parked adjacent to the containers, there was no failure to take care over the claim that the containers were located in a car park. Given that the article made clear the nature and function of the car park, there was no misleading impression that required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

17. It was accepted that there had been an increase in mortality over the winter months; it did not therefore appear to be inaccurate for the article to state that there had been an “increase in deaths”, and this did not suggest that this was an issue exclusive to the named hospital. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

18. The Committee considered that the mortuary area could be considered a non-public area of the hospital, under the terms of Clause 8 (Hospitals), because it was not an area to which the general public would have access. Clause 8 was therefore engaged by the journalist’s enquiries in this area. However, any intrusion arising from these enquiries was limited: this was not an area of the hospital in which any patients were located, or in which any treatment was occurring. In addition, Clause 8 is subject to a public interest exception, such that an intrusion without permission may be justified in pursuit of a particular public interest. In this instance, the journalist had entered a non-public area of the hospital in order to attempt to verify claims made in relation to a matter of clear public interest. In these circumstances, any limited intrusion arising from the journalist’s enquiries could be justified by the public interest in verifying the claims the article reported. There was no breach of Clause 8.  

Conclusions 

19. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial action required 

20. N/A 

Date complaint received: 29/01/2019

Date decision issued: 17/04/2019