Ruling

04034-15 Aitchison v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      17th August 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04034-15 Aitchison v The Times

Summary of complaint 

1. Dr Philip Aitchison complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Older cancer patients are failed by GPs”, published on 4 June 2015. 

2. The article reported that Professor Patricia Ganz, a cancer and public health specialist at the University of California, had said that older patients were at risk of being denied potentially life-saving cancer treatment because GPs failed to realise the treatment could be beneficial. 

3. The complainant said that GPs were not failing cancer patients by denying them treatment, as reported. He said that GPs played a major role in cancer diagnosis and in the provision of palliative care, but they did not decide what treatment a cancer patient was offered. He also expressed concern that Professor Ganz’s opinion had been based on “discredited anecdote-based” medicine, and not on evidence. He said he had not received a response from the newspaper when he contacted it directly to raise his concerns. 

4. The newspaper said that its report of Professor Ganz’s speech was accurate. Professor Ganz had drawn from her experience in the US, but her arguments were supported by several recent British studies. It accepted, however, that the article’s reference to GPs had been potentially misleading as GPs decided whether to refer a patient to a specialist, but did not decide what treatment the patient would or would not receive. Although the newspaper did not consider that this had represented a failure to take care over the article’s accuracy or a significant inaccuracy, it published the following clarification in its Corrections and Clarifications column on page 20 of the newspaper, and beneath the amended article online: 

Clarification: We reported that cancer treatments may be withheld from elderly patients (News, June 4, early editions), because “GPs fail to realise it can be life-saving”. We have been asked to clarify that specialists, not GPs, are responsible for making treatment decisions. 

5. The newspaper said it had been entitled to report Professor Ganz’s opinion. It did not consider that it had breached the Code by failing to report every shade of medical opinion in its report. It noted that it had not received the complainant’s initial complaint because he had not directed it to the newspaper’s complaints department.  

Relevant Code Provisions

6. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance. 

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Findings of the Committee

7. It was accepted that it was specialist doctors, and not GPs, who were responsible for deciding whether or not a patient would receive cancer treatment. The headline and first line of the article, however, had given the significantly misleading impression that GPs had denied older patients cancer treatment. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i), and a correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). 

8. On receipt of the complaint, the newspaper had published a correction in its established Corrections and Clarifications column, which made clear that GPs were not responsible for making decisions regarding cancer treatment. The newspaper had also amended the online article and appended the correction to it. The Committee considered that the prompt action taken by the newspaper was sufficient to meet the requirement of Clause 1 (ii). There was no further breach of the Code on this point. 

9. The complainant had expressed concern that Professor Ganz’s views had been based on “discredited anecdote-based” medicine. The newspaper, however, had been entitled to report Professor Ganz’s opinion, and it had clearly attributed the comments to her. The opening sentence had referred to a warning from “one of the world’s leading experts”, and the article went on to quote from her speech directly. The newspaper had not failed to distinguish comment from fact. This point did not raise a breach of the Code.   

Conclusions

10. The complaint was upheld. 

Remedial Action Required

11. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. 

12. The newspaper had promptly published a correction, which corrected the inaccuracy, and had amended the online article and appended a note in response to the complaint. No further action was required. 

Date complaint received: 10/06/2015

Date decision issued: 17/08/2015