Ruling

05940-21 Cygnet Health Care Limited and Dr Tony Romero v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      2nd December 2021

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 05940-21 Cygnet Health Care Limited and Dr Tony Romero v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Cygnet Health Care Limited and Dr Tony Romero 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 wins fight over heroin 'cover-up'”, published on 4 May 2021.

2. The article reported on the findings of an employment tribunal, in which one of the complainants – Cygnet Health Care Limited – had been named as a respondent. The opening sentence of the article reported that “an employment tribunal has found” that Cygnet had “attempted to cover up claims that heroin had been found in the room of a dead patient and sacked a doctor who told a coroner about it”. 

3. The article went on to report that Dr Romero, the then Managing Director of Cygnet, told the doctor “that she should not mention the heroin at the inquest into the patient’s death” and “wrote to [the doctor], saying: ‘Are you telling me you will go to the police?’ and ‘Do you know the implications of what you are saying?’” In the next paragraph, the article stated that “[w]hen [the doctor] asked him what to say to the coroner, he advised her: ‘Do not make your life complicated.’” The article also reported that the doctor “was told by [Cygnet’s] solicitor not to mention the drugs” prior to her disclosure at the inquest.

4. The article also reported the sequence of events, namely that the doctor “was suspended” from her workplace following the disclosures she had made at the inquest; that then “no action was taken and [the doctor] returned to work”; and that she was later dismissed after she “decided to administer an antipsychotic drug to an aggressive patient without [the patient’s] knowledge”.  The article reported that the “employment tribunal found that following her return to work [following her suspension], the doctor was targeted by staff” in her workplace and “was later dismissed for gross misconduct over her care of a patient”. The article closed by reporting that the judge had ruled against Cygnet, finding that it had breached the doctor’s contract by dismissing her for gross misconduct “adding that senior managers had seized an opportunity to dismiss her”.  The article included a statement from a spokesperson for Cygnet confirming that it was appealing the decision and that “We reject any suggestion that there was an attempt to cover up the circumstances surrounding the patient’s death.”

5. The article also appeared online in largely the same format, under the headline “Doctor wins fight over heroin ‘cover up’”. The article was accompanied by a photograph of an arm and a discarded needle. The full article appeared behind a paywall, and only the first paragraph of the article appeared in full to users who did not have paywall access, which included the opening sentence set out in paragraph 2 above.

6. The complainants said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, and that there had been a failure to distinguish between comment and fact. They said, firstly, that the article inaccurately implied that the doctor had been dismissed because she had made disclosures to the coroner at an inquest into the death of a patient. It said that this misleading impression arose from the headline which was not supported by the text of the article, and the opening sentence of the article which, having referenced the alleged ‘cover up’, reported that “an employment tribunal had found” that Cygnet “had sacked a doctor who told a coroner about it”. It said that the photograph chosen to illustrate the online version of the article, featuring an arm and a discarded needle, supported the misleading impression given by the headline and the opening sentence to the article. They said that, rather, the doctor had been dismissed for gross misconduct following her decision to administer drugs to a patient without his knowledge; as such, references to earlier events were, according to the complainants, “unrelated” to the dismissal. The true position, they said, was outlined in the tribunal judgment, which said that “[a]lthough the claimant was not dismissed for making public interest disclosures, it was clear that senior management were not happy with the situation and that her conduct in relation to the covert administration of [medication] was used to establish a reason for dismissal“. Therefore, the complainants noted, the tribunal had found that the doctor’s inquest disclosures had not directly resulted in her dismissal. They said that they accepted that a fuller description of the reasons behind the dismissal were set out later in the article; however, this would not be visible to readers who did not subscribe to the publication, as there was a paywall in place preventing non-subscribers from reading this portion of the online article.

7. The complainants also said that, secondly, it was inaccurate for the article to report that the doctor “was told […] not to mention the drugs at the inquest”. While the complainants accepted that the direct quotations from Dr Romero’s emails included in the article were accurate, they did not accept that the tribunal found that Dr Romero had told the doctor that she should not mention the drugs at the inquest. They also said that it was inaccurate to report that the solicitor retained by Cygnet to provide advice in relation to the inquest had told the doctor “not to mention drugs at the inquest”. The complainants said that they considered that the article’s claim that the doctor “was told […] not to mention the drugs at the inquest” was the publication’s opinion on the meaning of Dr Romero’s and the firm’s solicitor’s interactions with the doctor, and that this was not distinguished from the findings of fact established by the tribunal.

8. The complainants also said that their position was that, regardless of the inclusion of a statement from Cygnet at the end of the article, the article was inaccurate and misleading and should, as such, be corrected promptly and with due prominence, and any such correction should also include an apology.

9. The publication said it did not accept that the article had breached the Code. It said that the article made clear that the doctor had been dismissed for gross misconduct after she “administer[ed] an antipsychotic drug to an aggressive patient without [the patient’s] knowledge” and made clear the chronology of events, and that the dismissal had occurred after “her return to work” from her suspension following the inquest at which she had made disclosures. It noted that the tribunal found that the doctor’s disclosures to the inquest formed the “general background” to the dislike of the doctor on the part of the senior managers, who had later “seized the opportunity to dismiss her”. As such, it said that the article made the chronology of the events leading to the doctor’s dismissal, and the reason given for the dismissal, clear.

10. The publication again relied on the tribunal judgment, which it said supported the article’s claims that Dr Romero ”told the doctor ‘that she should not mention the heroin at the inquest into the patient’s death’” and that the doctor was also told by the firm’s solicitor “not to mention the drugs”. It noted that the judgment referred to the email sent by Dr Romero to the doctor in which he told her “not make [her] life complicated” when she sought advice as to what to say to the coroner. The publication also noted that the complainants accepted that Dr Romero had sent emails to the doctor in the terms set out in paragraph 3, above.  With regard to the solicitor who was advising Cygnet at the time, the publication noted that the judgment included references to the doctor’s conversation with the solicitor which it considered supported the article’s claim that he had “told [her…] not to mention drugs at the inquest”; in particular the judgment recorded, under the heading “The Facts”, that the solicitor had advised the doctor that “if she mentioned the discovery [of the drugs] it would affect [the doctor’s] credibility and that she must have mis-remembered the event”.

Relevant Code Provisions

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 under complaint was a news report – rather than a law report – of the findings made in tribunal proceedings brought by the doctor named in the article.  The tribunal had found that Cygnet was in breach of contract for having dismissed the doctor for gross misconduct, finding that the doctor’s decision to treat her patient, following consultation with colleagues and the patient’s family, had followed the applicable guidelines.  The judgment, which ran to over 70 pages, recited the parties’ respective positions on a number of events, which included a disclosure made by the doctor at an inquest into the death of a patient.  She had told the coroner that she believed that drugs had been found in the patient’s room, which the complainants disputed.

12. Clause 1 (i) of the Code requires that publications take care not to publish headlines which are not supported by the text of the article. It does not require a headline to give the full context of the story in question, but the article must support the headline; headlines should, therefore, be read in conjunction with the article as a whole. This consideration also applies in cases where only a portion of an article may be visible, as was the case in the online version of the article under complaint, where a part of the article which gave the full explanation behind the doctor’s dismissal was not visible to those who were not signed into the website.

13. The headline to the articles reported “Doctor wins fight over heroin ‘cover-up’” and the opening sentence of the article, which was visible to all readers, stated that: “One of Britain’s largest providers of mental health services attempted to cover up claims that heroin had been found in the room of a dead patient and sacked a doctor who told a coroner about it, an employment tribunal has found”. Both the headline and the opening sentence of the article, therefore, linked the disclosures made by the doctor at the inquest with her dismissal, but neither reported that she had been dismissed for making the disclosures. Reporting on a link between the disclosures and the dismissal did not render the headline or the article misleading or inaccurate, where a link was made in the tribunal judgment; the tribunal had found that “[a]lthough the claimant was not dismissed for making public interest disclosures, it was clear that senior management were not happy with the situation and that her conduct in relation to the covert administration of [medication] was used to establish a reason for dismissal.  The disclosures acted as a backdrop”.  Neither the headline nor the opening sentence of the article was misleading or inaccurate as to the reason for the doctor’s dismissal, even when read in isolation. The Committee was further satisfied that the article made clear that the doctor was “later dismissed for gross misconduct over her care for a patient”.  There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of the report of the reasons for the doctor’s dismissal.

14. It was not in dispute that, after the doctor had indicated an intention to give evidence to the inquest of her belief that drugs had been found in the patient’s room, Dr Romero had sent an email to her saying “Do not make your life complicated” and that he had also sent emails to her about the issue in the following terms: “Are you telling me you will go to the police?”, “Do you know the implications of what you are saying?”. These emails were accurately reproduced in the article and were characterised by the publication as Dr Romero having told the doctor that she should not mention the heroin at the inquest into the patient’s death. The Committee noted that the judgment indicated that it was the view of the solicitor who was advising Cygnet in relation to the inquest that the doctor’s claim regarding the discovery of drugs in the patient’s room was not relevant to the patient’s death.  However, it was not in dispute that the tribunal judgment had recorded, under the heading “The Facts”, that the solicitor had advised the doctor that “if she mentioned the discovery [of the drugs] it would affect [the doctor’s] credibility and that she must have mis-remembered the event”, which the publication had characterised as him telling the doctor not to mention the drugs. The Committee noted that the article clearly identified the findings which had been made by the tribunal, and that the characterisations as to what the doctor had been told by Dr Romero and the solicitor were not reported as findings. Taking into account the nature of the emails sent to the doctor by Dr Romero and the passages in the tribunal judgment, above, the Committee did not consider that, in all the circumstances, the publication’s characterisations were inaccurate or misleading in breach of the Code. There was no breach of Clause 1.

15. The Committee understood that the complainants had expressed concern about the use of a picture published in the online version of the article which appeared to depict drug use. The Committee did not consider that the picture rendered the article inaccurate, misleading, or distorted, where the article made clear that the tribunal proceedings on which the article reported had heard that evidence had been given to an inquest about alleged drug use by the deceased patient. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

17. N/A


Date complaint received: 03/06/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  16/11/2021