Ruling

13762-16 Dobell v The Sun on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      13th April 2017

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 13762-16 Dobell v The Sun on Sunday

Summary of complaint 

1.    Emily Dobell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Ill yer boots”, published on 4 December 2016. 

2.    The article reported that a “secret questionnaire” of 9,500 junior and student doctors had found that 93 per cent of respondents would support the full privatisation of the NHS if their salaries were to increase substantially. It said that the survey, which had been conducted by a medic from Hull, had asked respondents about the NHS, the proposed new contract, and potential future strike action. The article concluded by stating that a British Medical Association (BMA) spokeswoman had said “this is not a BMA survey”. 

3.    The article was also published online with the headline “Ill yer boots: Survey shows 93% of junior doctors would back a fully privatised health service if it meant a pay increase”. 

4.    The complainant expressed concern that the newspaper had reported the findings of the survey without giving sufficient information on how the survey had been conducted meaning that readers were unable to assess the validity of the results. She said there were more than 55,000 junior doctors in England, and it could not be claimed that 93 per cent of them supported the privatisation of the NHS. 

5.    The newspaper said that the survey had been conducted by a junior doctor and his colleagues in Hull who were concerned that they were being misrepresented. The newspaper had not been given access to the original poll, but a reliable, confidential source from the BMA had provided its findings. It considered that as a newspaper, and not a medical journal, it could not be expected to describe the methodology used in detail. 

6.    The newspaper said that 9,500 junior and student doctors were contacted by email over a period of seven weeks. Respondents were asked “do you support privatisation of the NHS if this resulted in significantly increased remuneration for doctors?”, as well as questions relating to proposed new contracts and the working life of doctors in general. The newspaper considered that many of the respondents would not wish for their names to be made public, which was why the survey had to remain secret. 

7.    The newspaper said that it had taken care to verify the existence of the poll and to present its findings in a responsible way. Before publication, the newspaper had established that the findings had been presented to the Junior Doctors’ Committee (JDC) at a meeting at the BMA headquarters on 2 December 2016, and it provided an email trail between members of the BMA and the JDC, which demonstrated that the survey and its results had been discussed by them, including by a former Chair of the JDC. 

8.    The newspaper said that its reporter had also put the facts of the story to the BMA before publication, and the BMA spokesperson had said the following: 

I’ve spoken to our JDC – there isn’t very much to say about this. On background, the JDC meeting was confidential so we can’t comment on what goes on at the meetings. You can say that a BMA spokesperson said that this is not a BMA survey. 

The newspaper said that the BMA had not disputed the facts of the survey, and the article would not have been published without its comment. It argued that as the JDC had considered the survey important enough to discuss at a meeting, its decision to publish the story had been justified. 

9.    The complainant considered that it was clear that there had been a motive behind the survey and a desire for a particular result; without any details given on how it had been carried out, there could not be an assessment of the level of bias involved. She noted that the newspaper had not been in possession of the actual poll before publication. 

10. The complainant also considered that the response from the BMA that “there isn’t much to say about this” suggested that it had not found the findings noteworthy at all. 

Relevant Code provisions 

11. 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. 

Clause 14 (Confidential sources)

Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information. 

Findings of the Committee 

12. The newspaper had established before publishing the article that members of the JDC and the BMA had discussed the survey’s striking findings by email and at a JDC meeting held at the BMA headquarters. The newspaper had also contacted the BMA and had sought its comment on the story. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that the BMA’s comment had suggested that the survey was not noteworthy, the newspaper was still entitled to report the findings as long as it did so in a manner that was not significantly inaccurate or misleading. 

13. The article itself had made clear that the survey was a “secret questionnaire” of 9,500 junior and student doctors, and that it had been carried out by a medic from Hull. It had also reported the BMA’s statement that this was “not a BMA survey”. As such, the article had not given the significantly misleading impression of the sample size, or that the survey had been an official poll conducted by a recognised body or polling company. In this context, the omission of information relating to the method by which the data had been obtained was not significantly misleading. 

14. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i), and the Committee did not identify any significant inaccuracies or misleading statements in the article. There was no breach of Clause 1.  

Conclusion 

15. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 04/12/2016

Date complaint concluded: 27/03/2017