Ruling

01582-18 Little v The Mail on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      7th June 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01582-18 Little v The Mail on Sunday

Summary of complaint

1. Sarah Little complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “NHS CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?” published on 28 January 2018.

2. The article reported that “hundreds of senior NHS doctors enjoyed a taxpayer-subsidised conference at a luxury Alpine ski resort”, while “the health service was in the grip of its worst winter crisis”. The article identified the complainant as one of the attendees at the conference; it said that during a ski slalom race, the complainant had been praised for her ski style by commentators. It also contained a photograph of the complainant, wearing a ski suit and large goggles, which had been taken while she had been participating in the race.

3. The article explained that doctors had been attending the medical conference as part of their continuing professional development (CPD). It reported that a spokesperson from the hospital where the complainant is employed had confirmed that its doctors could claim up to £500 of taxpayer money towards conferences, and that “any additional costs are funded by the doctors themselves”.

4. The article reported criticism that doctors were able to claim taxpayer funding to attend the conference: “there’s nothing wrong with doctors wanting to train and improve but there’s simply no reason why this needs to be done at a ski resorts. It’s not credible for trusts, least of all those failing, to demand more and more money from taxpayers when so much is being frittered away on luxuries like this”. A photograph of the complainant skiing accompanied the article, in addition to the subheadline: “Hitting the champers after a hard day on the slopes of a tres chic ski resort…400 doctors take a break from NHS’s worst winter emergency at a medical conference- bankrolled by YOU”.

5. The complainant said that she had attended the conference as an invited speaker during her annual leave and entirely at her own expense. She said that her attendance had not been “bankrolled” by the taxpayer; the article’s suggestion to the contrary had been professionally damaging, particularly where she had attended the conference at no cost to the NHS. The complainant said that the newspaper had made no attempt to question her over her attendance at the conference, or obtain her consent for her photograph to be taken, the publication of which she said had been intrusive.

6.  The complainant further said that the article had implied that by attending the conference abroad, the doctors had contributed to the “winter crisis” by neglecting their duties. She said that there was no association between doctors attending conferences for further education and a rise in waiting times for emergency or elective care: better educated, more skilful doctors are clearly likely to make the NHS more efficient.

7. The newspaper did not accept that the article had suggested that each one of the doctors identified as having attended the conference, had done so at taxpayer expense. It said that the article had made clear that individuals attending the event had paid for it in different ways: some took time as paid study leave while others took it as holiday; some may have used their £500 annual training allowance to pay for the fees and some did not. The newspaper said that the article did not state whether or not the complainant had attended the conference on annual leave or had received CPD expenses; it said that there was no reason not to identify the complainant as having attended the conference since the article had made clear that there were a variety of methods of funding available.

8. The newspaper said it did not contact the complainant directly regarding her attendance at the conference, because it said that it is conventional to address inquiries about doctors to their employers. The newspaper said that in its experience, individuals often object to being contacted at home about matters concerning their professional life and may also feel unwilling to comment without permission from their employer.

9. The newspaper said that in light of this, it had approached the press office of the complainant’s employers on two occasions. On the first occasion, on 26 January 2018, the journalist had requested the hospital’s response to a series of questions relating to the number of doctors who attended the conference and the way in which their places had been funded. The complainant’s name appeared on a list of doctors who the newspaper believed were attending the conference.

10. The journalist had made a further approach to the press office on 27 January 2018 at 18:33 and asked specifically if the complainant “took study leave/ annual leave, or a mix of the two” or “claimed any CPD related training expenses”. The press office replied at 18:38 and said that it was unable to provide this information. The newspaper said that there were about two hours in which the press officer could have responded prior to the publication of the first edition of the newspaper. It said that if the press officer had responded at any time later that evening it could have changed the article before it went online and in later editions of the newspaper.

11. On receipt of the complaint, the newspaper accepted that the complainant had not received CPD funding to attend the conference and instead had attended during her annual leave at her own expense. It offered to publish the following footnote on the online article:

Since publishing this article we have been asked to make it clear that Dr Sarah Little took annual leave to attend the event as an invited speaker and claimed no expenses from the NHS.

12. The newspaper also offered to publish the following wording on p.2 in its established Corrections and Clarifications column, as well as online:

On January 28 we reported about the Doctors Updates conference at the French ski resort Val d’Isere and said the NHS paid for some doctors to attend. We are happy to make clear that Dr Sarah Little, a specialist at St George’s Hospital, London, took annual leave to attend as an invited speaker and received no expenses from the NHS. We apologise to Miss Little for any embarrassment caused.

13. The newspaper said that the photograph of the complainant had been taken in a public place, on a ski slope while the complainant had been taking part in a slalom competition. It said that the complainant’s name had been broadcast over the public address system and in the schedule on the conference’s public website. It said that the picture had been chosen simply because it provided a good image of a skiing doctor at the event; it was not captioned with the complainant’s name and the newspaper said that it was unlikely that she would have been identified by those who would not already have known of her attendance at the conference.

Relevant Code provisions

14. 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.

Clause 2 (Privacy)

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Findings of the Committee

15. The newspaper had been put on notice, prior to publication, that the press office was unable to confirm whether or not the complainant had received tax payer-funded subsidies in order to attend the conference. It did not take any further steps to confirm the nature of the complainant’s funding arrangements. The article had criticised the use of public funds by doctors and had named the complainant as an attendee: this presented the complainant’s attendance as being indistinguishable from those doctors who had attended by virtue of claiming CPD expenses. The newspaper’s failure to establish the nature of the complainant’s funding arrangements, and the subsequent presentation of the complainant’s attendance in that way, was a serious failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1 (i).

16. The article had noted that there were a variety of ways in which funding could be obtained in order to attend the conference; however, the article did not make clear how the complainant had been able to fund her place. In doing so, the article had presented the complainant’s attendance as having been funded at the expense of the taxpayer when, in fact, she had not attended at the financial cost of the NHS. The misleading impression created was significant, because it went to the core of the article’s criticism that money from taxpayers was being used by doctors in order to attend an overseas medical conference at a ski resort. This required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). The Committee considered that it was appropriate for the correction to include an apology: the significantly misleading impression contained in the article had the potential to be damaging to the complainant; she was not a public figure, and she had been named in the context of an article which criticised doctors using public funds, in circumstances where she had funded her place at the conference without claiming expenses from the NHS.

17. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the article had suggested that the attendees had neglected their duties and had contributed to the winter crisis in the NHS. However, the newspaper was entitled to criticise NHS management for organising the conference at a ski resort abroad, to highlight the use of public money, and to place this criticism in the context of wider concerns about waiting times and the state of the NHS. This was a matter of editorial discretion: The newspaper’s reporting of the conference in general, did not represent a further breach of Clause 1.

18. The complainant had been photographed in a public place on a ski slope, during a slalom competition. The complainant had not been engaged in an activity which could be considered to be private in nature and the photographer had not captured anything that would not have been visible to anyone in the complainant’s vicinity. The Committee noted that the photograph had not revealed the complainant’s likeness, on account of the fact that she was wearing large goggles. Further, the caption which accompanied the photograph did not identify her by name. In those circumstances, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, nor did the publication of this photograph represent an intrusion into her private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusion

19. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

20. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

21. The newspaper had promptly offered to publish a correction in its established Corrections and Clarifications column, as well as online, which made clear that the complainant had taken annual leave to attend as an invited speaker and had received no expenses from the NHS. The Committee considered that the publication of a standalone correction and apology in print and online, as well as the publication of a footnote correction to the online article was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). This should now be published.

Date complaint received: 14/02/2018
Date decision issued: 24/05/2018