Ruling

18239-23 Burke v Liverpool Echo

  • Complaint Summary

    Ellen Burke complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Liverpool Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “No sanction for midwife”, published on 13 April 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      15th February 2024

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 18239-23 Burke v Liverpool Echo


Summary of Complaint

1. Ellen Burke complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Liverpool Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “No sanction for midwife”, published on 13 April 2023.

2. The article, which appeared on page 14, reported on a hearing held by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) into allegations against the complainant. It reported that she had “escaped a sanction after falsely claiming she had completed hundreds of hours of required work”. It went on to report that “after retiring Ms Burke ha[d] avoided punishment”. The article closed by stating that the “charge of making an incorrect entry was accepted” by the complainant.

3. The article also appeared online, under the headline “Midwife escapes punishment for false work logs”. The online version of the article also reported that the complainant “had not worked as a registered midwife since 2015” and that “it was alleged that Ms Burke may have incorrectly revalidated her registration”.

4. The online version of the article also reported that removing the complainant from the NMC register was deemed the “only appropriate decision for the investigation committee panel to make”. It also stated that “[l]egal representatives had sought to impose an interim suspension order of the former midwife ‘out of an abundance of caution’ but it was noted that Ms Burke had stated she is retired and does not wish to return to work as a registered midwife”. The online version also reported that the NMC committee decided “this was not a fraudulent entry case”.

5. The complainant said that the article inaccurately reported, in breach of Clause 1, that she had “escape[d]” punishment or sanction as – given that she had not been employed as a midwife for three years prior to her incorrect entry – the NMC had accepted that her actions were not fraudulent and that she had merely made a digital error. Accordingly, the complainant said that she was “not punishable” for her oversight, and could not therefore have escaped punishment/sanction. The complainant also said that, although she was removed from the register, this was not a punishment – as it was a simple correction of her error.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It said it had relied upon the judgement from the NMC hearing, which was available online, and that it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading to report that the complainant escaped punishment or sanction – the complainant’s error had been investigated by the NMC, she accepted she had made an error, and the article made clear the NMC’s decision and the reasoning behind its decision. The publication said that it was not in dispute that the complainant was on the register and was later removed from the register, it said that the online article had accurately reported this sequence of events.

7. While the publication did not accept a breach of the Code, on 20 July, upon receipt of the complaint from IPSO and in an attempt to resolve the complaint, the publication amended the online article, so that the headline instead read: “Midwife faces no sanction over incorrect work logs”. On the same date, the publication also added the following correction underneath the headline of the online version of the article:

“A previous version of this article stated that Ms Burke ‘escaped punishment’ after falsely claiming to have completed hundreds of hours of midwifery practice. In fact, as explained further in the article, the NMC Registration Department did not impose an interim order on Ms Burke after she accepted the charge of making an incorrect entry.

The sanction was not imposed due to a number of factors, including that the panel did not consider the case to have been a fraudulent entry case and Ms Burke had retired. We are happy to clarify this.”

8. The complainant did not accept this as a resolution to her complaint. IPSO begun the investigation into the complaint on 18 August, after which, the publication offered the following correction on 25 August, which would appear in print on page 2:

“Our article 'No sanction for midwife' 13 April, stated that Ms Burke had ‘escaped sanction’ after falsely claiming to have completed hundreds of hours of midwifery practice. In fact, the NMC Registration Department did not impose an interim order on Ms Burke after she accepted the charge of making an incorrect entry. The sanction was not imposed due to a number of factors, including that the panel did not consider the case to have been a fraudulent entry case and Ms Burke had retired. We are happy to clarify this.”

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

9. The Committee noted that, by the complainant’s own admission, by inadvertently revalidating her registration as a midwife in 2019, she had confirmed that she had completed a number of hours of midwifery work in the preceding three years when in fact she had already retired as a midwife in 2015. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant’s error was not considered by the NMC hearing to be fraudulent, but rather it had been a clerical error. Both the print and online article reported that in revalidating her registration in 2019, the complainant had falsely claimed that she had completed “required” work. However, this was not the case in circumstances where the complainant had previously retired and was not practicing as a midwife over the period in question. The print version of the article had not acknowledged that the NMC did not consider the complainant’s error to be fraudulent and whilst the online version did state that the NMC decision confirmed that it was not a “fraudulent entry case”, this was contradicted by the reference to the work having been “required”. This misrepresented the true position and led to the headline reference to the complainant having “escape[d] punishment” to be a distortion of the finding made by the NMC. The Committee considered that the articles implied that the complainant had acted dishonestly by the reference to her “escaping” sanction or punishment when, in fact, this did not reflect the approach to the matter which had been adopted by the NMC. Therefore, the Committee considered there was a breach of Clause 1 (i).

10. The Committee considered the distortion was significant where the articles implied that the complainant had acted dishonestly and had avoided a punishment which ought to have been imposed for a dishonesty offence and that this was likely to have a negative reputational impact on her. Therefore, the articles needed a prompt and prominent correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

11. With regards to the online article, on receipt of the complaint from IPSO the publication amended the headline to “Midwife faces no sanction over incorrect work logs“ and published a correction which appeared below the headline. The Committee was content that this was published promptly, and corrected the record by stating the NMC Registration Department did not consider the case to have been a fraudulent entry case. In this instance, while the distorted information had appeared in the headline, where the publication had amended the headline promptly and where it was not in dispute that the complainant had made an error and that a sanction had not been imposed at the hearing which the articles reported on, the Committee was satisfied that the correction was sufficiently prominent.

12. The Committee next considered the print version on the article, which had been introduced to the complaint following the start of the investigation. The publication offered a print correction seven days after the investigation began, which it said would appear on page two. The Committee was content that this had been offered prominently and promptly and that the proposed wording corrected the record as with the online correction. For the above reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusions

13. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (i).

Remedial action required

14. The published online correction put the correct position on record and was offered promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required with the online version of the article.

15. The print correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.


Date complaint received: 05/07/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 29/01/2024