Ruling

10324-21 Morgan v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      31st March 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 10324-21 Morgan v The Daily Telegraph

Summary of Complaint

1. Stuart Morgan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The cancer backlog is a scandal - and it's even worse than you think”, published on 22 September 2021.

2. The article was a column in which the writer criticised what she saw as the hesitancy of GPs to undertake in-person appointments with patients because of concerns about Covid. The column set out the writer’s view that delays in diagnoses caused by the pandemic were not proportionate to the threat caused by Covid-19: “The pandemic of panic should be well and truly over”. The columnist was critical of GPs, who she described as “putting their own comfort and safety above the wellbeing” of patients. The columnist commented: “As the Covid risk diminishes for the vaccinated majority of the population, will GPs insist they must be ‘safe’ when that means sticking with phone and online consultations which are clearly less safe for the sick people who depend on them?”  The columnist acknowledged that “we need thousands more GPs to bring us into line with primary-care provision in other countries. Doctors lists should be a lot shorter to guarantee a good standard of care” but concluded that a “severe case of Elite Risk Minimisation has led to a loss of feeling in the caring profession which, increasingly, seems to care only for itself.”

3. The article cited an academic study on the issue: “A report by University College London said that the pandemic is likely to have caused an extra 10,000 cancer deaths. A lack of emergency referrals by GPs since the first lockdown is a major factor with researchers claiming that neglect is likely to have resulted in 40,000 late diagnoses. We are already seeing the calamitous effects of delay.”

4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “The cancer backlog scandal is so much worse than you think”.

5. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as the report referred to in the article did not use the phrase “neglect”. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate as some of the data in the referenced report was not obtained by the report authors, but rather from another, separate, study.

6. The complainant provided a copy of the report, which said as follows:

As a result of the disruption caused by the Covid 19 pandemic some 40,000 UK citizens may be living with cancers that would otherwise have been diagnosed. It can be conservatively estimated that in the order of 10,000 individuals will die of cancer significantly earlier than would have otherwise been the case because of delays in diagnosis and treatment.

[…]

Since January 2020 the Covid 19 pandemic has required the urgent attention of policy makers, health professionals and members of the public throughout the world. Inevitably, the resources available for the detection and treatment of cancers and all other forms illness have as a result been limited.

[…]

With regard to cancer, the numbers of emergency referrals by GPs fell significantly from March 2020. Across the UK there were by early to mid-2021 some 40,000 fewer individuals diagnosed as living with the disease than expected (The Lancet Oncology, 2021) There is also evidence that the proportion of cancers being diagnosed early (that is, at stages 1 and 2) has fallen and there are some fears that the survival of cancer patients affected by Covid 19 in the UK during the last 12-18 months may have compared poorly with the rates achieved in some EU countries.

7. The publication denied that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, and said it was satisfied that the article had accurately characterised the report’s conclusions. It said that the report suggested that the lack of emergency GP referrals was an important factor in the rise in missed diagnoses, but nevertheless noted that the word “neglect” was not attributed to report. Rather, while the article attributed the figures to the report, “neglect” was the columnist’s characterisation of the reduction in emergency referrals noted in the report and what the figures represented. The publication further noted that it was a matter of public importance to highlight the potential failings of the health service.

8. The complainant reiterated his position that the phrase “neglect” was attributed to the researchers, rather than to the article’s writer; while it was not attributed as a direct quote, he considered it was clearly “passed off” as the report’s conclusions – which was not the case.

9. The complainant then turned to the wording of the report itself, which he noted stated that ”the Covid 19 pandemic has required the urgent attention of policy makers, health professionals and members of the public throughout the world. Inevitably, the resources available for the detection and treatment of cancers and all other forms illness have as a result been limited.” Therefore, he said, it was clear that the report itself did not consider that “neglect” had been a factor, where it acknowledged that the impact of the Covid-19 had had an inevitable negative effect on the ability of medical professionals to carry out diagnostic tests for cancers.

10. The complainant then said that the article was inaccurate in its use of tenses; he said that the phrase “likely to have resulted in 40,000 late diagnoses”, by the way of its use of the past tense, inaccurately implied that the diagnoses had now been made – when in fact, they hadn’t. Rather, he said, this was the predicted figure based on the number of people who had been diagnosed in the year prior to the pandemic starting.

11.  The publication said that it remained its position that the article was accurate and noted that each point of alleged inaccuracy identified by the complainant had its basis in the University’s report. The article’s claim that the report “said that the pandemic is likely to have caused an extra 10,000 cancer deaths” was supported by the portion of the report which stated that ”[it] can be conservatively estimated that in the order of 10,000 individuals will die of cancer significantly earlier than would have otherwise been the case because of delays in diagnosis and treatment.”

12. In addition, the publication said, the article’s claim that “[a] lack of emergency referrals by GPs since the first lockdown is a major factor” had its basis in the report’s statement that “[w]ith regard to cancer, the numbers of emergency referrals by GPs fell significantly from March 2020”.

13. Finally, it said, the basis for the article’s claim that “researchers claiming that neglect is likely to have resulted in 40,000 late diagnoses” could be found in the following portion of the report: "As a result of the disruption caused by the Covid 19 pandemic some 40,000 UK citizens may be living with cancers that would otherwise have been diagnosed." It also said that its position was that the article should be read with emphasis on the word “that”; read in this manner, it would be clear that the use of the term “neglect” was distinguished as the writer’s characterisation of the “lack of emergency referrals by GPs”.

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

14. The Committee first made clear that newspapers have an obligation to take care not to publish inaccurate information, even in comment pieces. The columnist was entitled to share their interpretation of the study in the column, provided it was clearly presented as such, and readers would not be misled as to the study’s conclusions.

15. In this instance, the column was critical of GPs and their response to the pandemic, and it was clear that the writer was not speaking on behalf of the University but was rather offering their characterisation of the study, which was that delays in diagnoses were due to “neglect”. The factual basis of this characterisation – that a study had found that 40,000 late diagnoses had resulted from delays in the diagnoses process – was correct and, in the context of a piece that was highly critical of GPs and of delays in diagnoses, it was clear that “neglect” was the writer’s characterisation of the delays in diagnoses caused by the pandemic, as the writer considered that such delays were not proportionate to the threat of the pandemic. Where the characterisation of the delays as “neglect” was distinguished as the writer’s comment rather than fact, and the factual basis for the characterisation was not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

16. The Committee did not consider that the omission of a reference to the original data upon which the report was based represented an inaccuracy; it was not in dispute that, although it attributed it to the original source, the University’s report adopted the figure and quoted it as established fact. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The complainant had further said that the article was misleading in its use of tenses, as he considered that the phrasing of “likely to have resulted in 40,000 late diagnoses” implied that the diagnoses had now been made. The Committee, however, found that the use of the word “likely” made clear that the diagnoses had not yet been made and that this figure was conjecture on the part of the report’s authors. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusion(s)

18. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

19. N/A


Date complaint received: 26/09/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 11/03/2022