Ruling

04123-19 Philips v dailyrecord.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      26th September 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04123-19 Philips v dailyrecord.co.uk  

Summary of complaint 

1.    Michael Philips complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that dailyrecord.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Carstairs staff suspended after 'encouraging violent patient to punch vulnerable man'”, published on 26 September 2018, and an article headlined "Carstairs nurse axed after 'encouraging violent patient to punch vulnerable man'", published on 15 December 2018. 

2.    The articles reported on the complainant’s suspension, and ultimate dismissal, from his employment as a nurse at a psychiatric hospital. 

3.    The first article reported that the complainant had been suspended from his role at the hospital, after “allegedly goading a patient to attack a man with profound autism”. The article reported quotes from a source at the hospital describing the alleged incident; “Michael [and another man] were assaulted by a patient on March 6, but not seriously. This patient has profound autism and other learning difficulties and is quite vulnerable. The next day, it’s alleged they encouraged a known violent patient to punch him in retaliation”. The source claimed that the alleged incident was reported by a housekeeper, who had “heard and witnessed” it. The article reported that a spokeswoman for the hospital had said that “employee confidentiality meant they couldn’t comment on matters concerning individual employees”. 

4.    The second article reported on the complainant’s dismissal; it said that he had been “axed after ‘encouraging violent patient to punch vulnerable man’”. The article referred to the previous coverage, and said “we revealed in September that Philips [and another man] were suspended on full-pay after the incident was reported last March”. The article repeated the source’s description of the alleged incident, as reported in the first article. 

5.    The complainant denied that he had been “assaulted” by a patient and in retaliation, had then “encouraged” another patient to “punch” them, as reported in the articles. The complainant said that these allegations formed no part of the reasons for his suspension and ultimate dismissal; he said that there was never any single allegation during the full investigation that suggested revenge of any description. In support of this, the complainant provided a copy of the outcome of his Employee Conduct Hearing, dated 7 December 2018; this document stated that the complainant had been dismissed after it was alleged that he had witnessed a patient assaulting another, but had failed to respond. 

6.    The publication said that it had been approached by a trusted and reliable source, and had reported their claims accurately. It said that the source had been relied upon in previous stories regarding the hospital, and noted that this was the first instance a complaint regarding the accuracy of their testimony had been raised. The newspaper said that it took further care to contact the hospital for comment on 25 September, specifically in relation to the allegation that the complainant had “manipulated a patient into punching another vulnerable patient after they had been assaulted themselves”. The newspaper said that it was unfortunate that the hospital were unable to either confirm or deny these allegations, prior to publication, due to patient confidentiality. 

7.    The publication said that it had reverted to the hospital again, prior to the publication of the second article. The journalist had asked, “We understand [the complainant] was fired last week for gross misconduct and reported to Police Scotland following allegations he and another staff member encouraged an assault on a patient”. The hospital had responded, “due to data protection/ confidentiality we are unable to provide any information on specific patients or staff, past or present”. 

8.    Upon receipt of the documentation provided by the complainant, the newspaper acknowledged that there had been no mention in the disciplinary hearing of the “goading a patient” into violence, or the complainant having been assaulted the previous day. However, the newspaper said that given the information provided by its source, it was not possible to entirely dismiss the possibility that the claims may have formed part of the original complaints made against the complainant immediately following the alleged incident. 

9.    In an attempt to resolve the complaint, the publication offered to remove both articles from online and publish the following correction on Page 2 of the Daily Record, as well as a standalone correction on the website, which would appear on the homepage for 24 hours: 

On September 26 2018 we reported on disciplinary action taken against two staff members of the State Hospital for goading one patient into attacking another who had earlier assaulted them. We subsequently reported that this led to the sacking of both employees. In fact, contrary to our report, a conduct hearing heard no evidence that one of them, Michael Phillips, had been assaulted previously or encouraged the attack on the patient. Mr Philips was dismissed for wilful neglect after failing to take any action during the attack. We are happy to clarify the matter.  

Relevant Code Provisions 

10. 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. 

Findings of the Committee 

11. The Committee first considered the care taken not to publish inaccurate information, in respect of the first article. 

12. The newspaper had reported on the testimony of its source and had also taken steps, prior to publication, to obtain on the record statements from the complainant’s employer. The newspaper had requested that the hospital provide a statement in response to the specific allegation that the complainant had “manipulated a patient into punching another vulnerable patient after they had been assaulted themselves”. The statement which the newspaper had received in response did not explicitly confirm the source’s claims, however it did not contain any denial. Further, at the time of publication of the first article, no finding had been made in relation to the events which had led to the complainant’s suspension. The publication had taken care not to adopt the source’s description of the alleged incident as established fact; their testimony was clearly presented as claims throughout. Taking into consideration the factors referred to above, the Committee considered that the reporting of the source’s description of the incident in the first article, in connection with the complainant’s suspension, did not represent a breach of Clause 1(i). 

13. The Committee then turned to consider the care taken not to publish inaccurate information, in respect of the second article. 

14. At the time of publication of this article, the publication had been aware that the investigation into the complainant had concluded, and the complainant had been dismissed. The Committee acknowledged that the publication had continued to present the source’s comments as claims, and it had approached the hospital for further comment. However, as an official finding had been made, further care was required. At the time of publication, the publication had not received confirmation of the findings of the conduct hearing, and the article did not make clear that publication had been unable to establish whether the source’s claims had formed part of the panel’s reasoning. In this instance, the reporting of the source’s claims, in connection with the reason for the complainant’s dismissal from his employment, represented a failure to take care not to publish misleading information, in breach of Clause 1(i). 

15. Upon receipt of the correspondence provided by the complainant, the publication accepted that the conduct hearing had heard no evidence that the complainant had been assaulted previously or encouraged the attack on the patient. It was notable that the complainant had neither confirmed nor denied that the source’s description of the incident had formed part of the original allegations made against him. However, the Committee considered that in light of the documentation provided by the complainant, which was accepted by the publication, it was a significant inaccuracy to report that the complainant had been suspended, and subsequently dismissed, following the events described by the source. The claims made by the source had given the clear impression that the complainant had acted in retaliation, by actively encouraging a vulnerable patient into violence. The Committee considered that this allegation was distinct, in a significant way, to the allegation that he had fallen below the standards expected of him by omission, by failing to take any action during the attack. 

16. The publication had offered to publish a correction 9 days after it had received the complaint via IPSO. A form of words, which made clear that conduct hearing had heard no evidence that the complainant had been assaulted previously or encouraged the attack on the patient, was offered a week later. The wording also made clear the reasons for the complainant’s dismissal. It was offered promptly, and the publication of the wording as a standalone correction online represented due prominence. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii). In order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii), the publication should now publish the online correction, as offered. 

Conclusions 

17. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i) in respect of the second article. 

Remedial Action required 

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

19. The correction was offered with sufficient promptness and prominence to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii) and should now be published. 

Date complaint received: 10/05 2019
Date decision issued: 21/08/2019