Ruling

04402-18 Department for Health Northern Ireland v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      8th November 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04402-18 Department for Health Northern Ireland v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. The Department of Health Northern Ireland (DHNI) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Doctor leading cannabis review 'blocked epileptic boy's treatment'”, published on 29 June 2018.

2. The article reported on the appointment of a named doctor as head of a new government panel advising ministers on the medical use of cannabis. It reported that a woman, who had been involved in a high profile dispute with the government about her son’s access to medicinal cannabis to treat his epilepsy, had criticised the appointment. The article reported that the mother had said she had extensive experience with this doctor in relation to her son’s care, and highlighted an instance last year in which she alleged that the doctor contacted the Home Office regarding her son’s prescription for cannabis oil. She alleged that this intervention led directly to the prescription being stopped, and resulted in a highly publicised medical crisis for her son. For these reasons, the woman said that she had no confidence in the new appointment and she also claimed that “…Not one of the families campaigning for access [to medical cannabis] is happy with this appointment.” The article included a response and quote from the Home Office, which defended the appointment, and which it said that it had denied that the doctor had stopped the prescription as alleged. The article included a comment from campaign group Families 4 Access, expressing concern that the clinicians on the new panel did not appear to have been provided with appropriate guidance by the government.

3. The article was also published online with the headline: “Doctor leading cannabis review ‘blocked [named child]’s care’”. The online article was substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.

4. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) because the newspaper published the parent’s claims without further investigation as to their accuracy. The complainant accepted that a prescription for cannabis oil had been written, but they said there was no record of a prescription of medical cannabis being dispensed. The complainant said that therefore, the prescription was not the source of the child’s medical cannabis and any crisis which was created by the child being unable to access medical cannabis was not the responsibility of the named doctor, the complainant, or the government, and it was inaccurate to say that the prescription had been “stopped”. The complainant said that the newspaper had not taken care to establish the veracity of the parent’s claims, and that by publishing her allegations, the newspaper gave the misleading impression that the parent’s account was the accepted version of events, when the complainant said that this was not the case. 

5. The complainant said that the parent was not in position to speak for the other families campaigning for access to medical cannabis, and so it was misleading for the newspaper to report her comment. The complainant said that the newspaper should have challenged this claim, or investigated the extent to which it accurately reflected the opinion of those involved.

6. The complainant said that the article was not fair or balanced to the doctor. The complainant said that although the article included a response from the Home Office, this was not given as much prominence as the parent’s allegations, and so did not adequately correct the overall misleading impression.

7. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that the article was clearly presenting the claims of the parent, which it was entitled to report, and had taken care not to present her claims as facts. This extended to her claim regarding the views of the other families: this was presented as a quote from the parent and it clearly represented her own opinion on the matter. In addition, the newspaper pointed out that the parent was a leading figure in the Families4access group, which campaigns for better access to medicinal cannabis, and so it was confident she was in a position to speak for the other families involved in the matter.

8. The newspaper said that it had spoken with a retired GP who had been advising the parent for the past 10 years, who corroborated the parent’s claims and provided a range of supporting documents, including a copy of the child’s prescription for medicinal cannabis. The newspaper said that it had taken care to contact the Home Office prior to publication for a comment on the parent’s remarks, and had then published its response which made its position clear.

9. The newspaper said that that the fact that a GP was willing to prescribe the medication and had done so and then was told to stop was not in dispute; therefore it was not inaccurate to say that the child’s prescription had been “stopped”, and it was entitled to report the parent’s claim that this resulted in a crisis situation. The newspaper said that it had evidence that the prescription issued for medicinal cannabis had been fulfilled, but whether it had or not was not relevant to the main story.

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.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

11. The article reported the opinions of the parent regarding the new appointment of the doctor. The newspaper was entitled to report the mother’s claims, including her belief that the doctor had been responsible for stopping her son’s prescription. This had clearly been presented as a claim, as it was placed within quotation marks in the headline, and was presented as part of a quotation in the body of the article. The newspaper had approached the Home Office prior to publication, to give them an opportunity to comment on the mother’s claims, which was included in full in the article. This denial specifically addressed the mother’s assertion that the doctor had been responsible for stopping the prescription, and in these circumstances, the newspaper had taken sufficient care over the presentation of this claim. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. Similarly, the newspaper was entitled to report the mother’s comment that other families weren’t happy with the appointment. The complainant was not in a position to know whether she had spoken to other families, and whether or not they agreed with her views, and the newspaper had approached a campaign group representing other families for comment; their concerns about the panel were included in the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

13. It was accepted by the parties that a prescription had been issued, and then discontinued. In circumstances where a prescription had been issued, and then been discontinued, it was not inaccurate for the newspaper to report that the prescription had been “stopped”, regardless of whether it had ever been fulfilled. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

14. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

15. N/A

Date complaint received:12/07/2018

Date decision issued: 18/10/2018