Ruling

11996-22 Higginson v liverpoolecho.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      2nd February 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11996-22 Higginson v liverpoolecho.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Antony Higginson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that liverpoolecho.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Mum given paracetamol overdose while in hospital for pneumonia”, published on 19 October 2022.

2. The headline of the article – which appeared online only – was followed by the sub-heading: “The CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] has revealed its decision not to bring charges against the NHS hospital”. The article explained that the woman – who was the complainant’s wife – had been given “too much paracetamol” when admitted to hospital with sickness and pneumonia, and had “died two weeks later from multiple-organ failure, sepsis and Gitleman’s syndrome”. It then stated that “[t]he CPS has found the overdose did not contribute to her death”. The article included statements from the complainant, the hospital trust who had treated the woman prior to her death, and the CPS, with the latter stating: “Having carefully considered all the available evidence in the case, we concluded that no charges could be brought against the hospital trust”.

3. The complainant said that the article misrepresented the findings of the CPS, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). He denied that the CPS had found the overdose of paracetamol did not contribute to his wife’s death. Instead, he said that the CPS concluded that it could not bring charges for gross negligence manslaughter against the hospital trust.

4. The publication accepted that its article was inaccurate on this point. When it was notified of this by the complainant directly, on 20 October 2022 – the day after the article’s initial publication – it apologised to him, via e-mail, for the error and distress caused. It also amended the article to remove any reference to the CPS finding that the paracetamol overdose did not contribute to his wife’s death; and published the following footnote correction:

“An earlier version of this article said that the CPS found the overdose did not contribute to her death. This was incorrect. The CPS has not made any public comment about this. We are happy to clarify the matter.”

5. The complainant considered that the wording of the correction should include an apology. To resolve the matter, he requested a meeting with the editor and a full explanation for the error, the publication of an apology and the promise of additional coverage for the forthcoming inquest and beyond.

6. In response, the publication confirmed that it would be happy to report any significant future developments in the case. It also confirmed that the footnote correction was updated on 15 November 2022 to include an apology – 26 days after the publication had first been notified of the error, and 6 days into IPSO’s investigation:

“An earlier version of this article said that the CPS found the overdose did not contribute to her death. This was incorrect. The CPS has not made any public comment about this. We are happy to clarify this and would like to apologise for the error and any distress caused. The article was amended on the day after publication.”

7. The complainant did not consider that this was sufficient to resolve his complaint. He said that he felt “gaslit” by the publication and had not been provided with a satisfactory explanation for the error.

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

8. The Committee first wished to express its condolences to the complainant and his family for their loss.

9. The Editors’ Code makes clear that publications must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. This is particularly important when reporting on deaths, where the utmost care should be taken to avoid making mistakes. In this instance, it was accepted by both parties that the article misrepresented the findings of the CPS and had incorrectly reported that it had made a specific ruling on the circumstances of the complainant’s wife’s death. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter and where a full inquest was yet to conclude on the circumstances of the death and the possible contributing causes, this represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i).

10. Given that this was a serious and avoidable error that had the clear potential to cause distress to the complainant in the context of his bereavement, a correction and an apology were required to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

11. On the same day that the complainant had contacted the publication to express his concerns, the online article had been amended and a footnote correction published. This correction identified the inaccuracy, put the correct position on record, and was sufficiently prominent. While the newspaper had acted promptly, the published wording did not include an apology for the error. Though the Committee noted that an apology had subsequently been added, this was published 26 days after the publication had first been notified of the error. In these circumstances, and given the nature and context of the breach, the Committee did not consider this was sufficiently prompt to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). There was, therefore, a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusion(s)

12. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

13. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In coming to a view on the appropriate remedy in this case, the Committee considered the seriousness and extent of the breach of the Editors’ Code. It also noted that steps taken by the publication, both prior to and during IPSO’s investigation to address and correct the inaccuracy.

14. While the Committee expressed concern that the initial correction did not include an apology, it noted that the publication had provided the complainant with a direct personal apology once it was notified of the error. It also noted that the publication had included a public apology in the correction once the complainant had requested that they do so. For these reasons, and where the inaccuracy had been corrected, though the Committee recorded its view that the correction did not meet the requirement under 1(ii) with respect to promptness and the inclusion of an apology, the Committee did not consider that further action was required.

 

Date complaint received: 20/10/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  16/01/2023