Ruling

09808-23 Boyle v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      6th July 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Summary of Complaint

1. Richard Boyle complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “How junior doctors 'took over' the British Medical Association”, published on 14 January 2023.

2.The article reported on the junior doctor members of the British Medical Association’s (BMA) who had, according to the article,”injected a dose of radicalism which could lead to a three-day strike”. The article reported that: “Latest NHS data shows the average hospital doctor earns £86,698 a year, twice the amount of the average nurse who earns £36,579. First-year junior doctors take home £36,947 a year, rising to an average of £62,605 for the most experienced junior doctors. Consultants earn £125,938 a year on average.”

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “How junior doctors ‘took over’ the British Medical Association and drove it to strike”.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as it stated that first-year junior doctors (known as ‘F1 doctors’) “take home £36,947 a year." He said that, according to figures released by the BMA, an F1 doctor’s salary was £29,384. He said that the figures cited in the article were likely inclusive of ‘locum’ work, which is work done in addition to an F1 doctor’s contracted hours. The complainant said the industrial action dispute – which the article reported on – was limited to contractual rates of pay so including locum pay in the figures without making clear that this was not part of F1 doctors’ contractual pay was misleading.

5. The complainant also said that the article had inaccurately stated that the most experienced junior doctors (known as Specialty Registrars) earned an average of “£62,605”, whereas the BMA had said their salary was £58,398.

6. The complainant also said the article’s claim that “the average hospital doctor earns £86,698 a year” was misleading. He noted that the article led with this figure, which likely included the salaries of consultant doctors – which he considered to be misleading in the context of an article which he said was about junior doctors only.

7. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the figures referenced in the article were NHS statistics, showing the mean average earnings of medical staff. The figures therefore showed what doctors were actually paid, as opposed to their basic salary only. It said that the paragraph where the figures appeared in the article had referred to how much doctors "earn[ed]" and "t[ook] home”; it also used the word "average" three times, reflecting that the figures referred to the mean average amount of doctors’ earnings rather than their basic salary.

8. It supplied a link to the NHS data in question, as well a screenshot which showed that F1 doctors’ mean annual earnings per person was £36,947 a year, Specialty Registrars’ was £62,605 and HSHC doctors’ mean annual earnings per person was £86,698. The publication said the data published gave a true picture of what doctors earn, given the complex nature of components which make up a doctor’s average salary.

9. In response to the complainant’s assertion that the potential strike related only to contractual rates of pay, the publication said that contracts of NHS doctors cover a range of payments, not just the basic salary the complainant cited. It said that in England, for those on 2016 contracts, these included enhanced payments for unsociable hours, weekend allowance payments, on-call allowances, and additional payments for extra hours worked. It said different arrangements were in place in other UK countries and that a range of other payments were included in the NHS data, including band supplements and geographical allowances. The publication also said the BMA’s stated objective was to achieve “full pay restoration“ and that, to the publication’s knowledge, the BMA had never said this demand only applied to basic pay.

10. The publication said it was helpful for readers to place junior doctors’ earnings in the context of the earnings of other groups within the NHS. It did not accept that including the pay of all doctors, including consultants, was inaccurate or misleading.

11.The complainant accepted that the data itself was accurate, but he said it had been used in a misleading way. He said his concern with the figures related to the inclusion of locum pay. The complainant said that when referencing figures which included such additional payments, it should be made clear that this includes elements like unsociable hours, and weekends and nights.

12. The complainant then said that a reasonable person would infer from the context of an article on a potential salary dispute that the phrase “first-year junior doctors take home £36,947 a year” meant one of three things: the basic salary for a 40-hour week was £36,947; their salary for a 40-hour week plus night and unsocial hours allowances, weekend allowances and hours contracted to work over 40 was £36,947; or their ‘take-home pay’ after deductions like income tax, national insurance and student loans was £36,947. The complainant said that none of these scenarios applied.

13. The publication said that, in the context of a paragraph that was clearly and repetitively discussing average earnings, it was not misleading to state that the average doctor and first year junior doctor “took home” those referenced figures.

Relevant Clause 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

14. The Committee noted that the article did not claim that £36,947 was the contractual salary of first-year junior doctors, nor that experienced junior doctors’ contractual salary was £62,605. Rather it said that doctors at this grade “take home £36,947 a year”, which rises to “an average of £62,605” for most experienced junior doctors. The Committee further noted that it was not in dispute that the mean annual earnings of an F1 doctor and Specialty Registrar were, at the time of publication, £36,947 and £62,605 respectively. While the BMA’s figures, provided by the complainant, gave a different number which referred to salary only, the publication was entitled to rely on the NHS’s data where it was made clear that this was the source of the figures, and the article made no claim that it related specifically to the contractual pay of doctors. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

15. The article had also quoted an average hospital doctor’s mean earnings as “£86,698” as opposed to an average hospital doctor’s contracted salary as a point of comparison. The publication was able to supply NHS data which confirmed that this was the mean salary according to its records, and the complainant did not dispute the accuracy of the figure itself. Publications are entitled to select which information they publish provided they do not otherwise breach the Editors’ Code, and the publication was therefore entitled to include the average salary of all hospital doctors, even if this figure did include consultants. Doing so did not render the article significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 14/01/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 21/06/2023