Ruling

Resolution Statement – 20397-23 British Medical Association v The Sun on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      11th October 2023

    • Outcome

      Resolved - IPSO mediation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Resolution Statement – 20397-23 British Medical Association v The Sun on Sunday


Summary of Complaint

1. The British Medical Association (BMA) 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 “NHS PAY GAP”, published on 23 July 2023.

2. The article – which appeared across pages 30 and 31 of the newspaper, and underneath a banner reading “AS TOP DOCS GO ON STRIKE FOR HUGE SALARY INCREASE” – reported on the “vast pay difference” between consultants and nurses. It reported “one top doctor earned 14 times more than the average nurse in 2020”, going on to state that the “average salary of a consultant [is] up to £128,000” compared to “£33,000 - £35,000” for nurses – who stopped their strike action in May 2023 after a “five per cent pay rise” was agreed with the government. It reported the complainant was “threatening another consultants’ strike”, with consultants saying, “they have suffered a 35 per cent drop in the real-terms value of their wage since 2008-09 and are seeking ‘full restoration’”. It added the Chair of the BMA’s consultants committee said consultants’ pay had “been cut more than every other group across the public sector”.

3. The article also reported that consultants “benefit from large bonuses”, with “senior doctors [able to] receive annual payments of up to £40,000 on top of their six-figure salaries, via merit aware”; “top up their earnings with private work”; claim “up to £10,000 of tax-free ‘life admin’ expenses, including redirecting post and nursery fees”; and can now “expect to receive a pension in excess of £60,000 per year”. It reported that consultants “spend four to seven years at medical school, followed by two years of foundation training”, and then “embark on core and speciality learning that can often last up to seven years”. The article went on to report that “a newly qualified nurse in England and Wales, on a salary of around £27,000, pays about £183 on their basic salary into their pension each month” and can “only qualify for very modest expenses, such as tax relief on an allowance worth £125 […] for washing uniforms”.

4. The article concluded with the following statement from the complainant’s spokesman: “We strongly believe that, alongside doctors, our nursing colleagues need a proper pay uplift. It is misleading to suggest these payments are typical for an average consultant. It completely fails to reflect reality for the profession and what consultants are actually being paid. Consultants are not asking for a pay rise, but for fairness — ending the pay cuts they have experienced over the last 15 years and reforming the rigged pay review process that has overseen them.” The article was accompanied by a graphic which summarised the complainant’s position: ”‘Consultants are asking for fairness, ending the pay cuts of the last 15 years. We strongly believe our nursing colleagues need a pay uplift too’”.

5. The article was accompanied by two further graphics, which compared consultants and nurses on the following metrics: average salary (“£128,000” and “£35,000”), overtime/ allowance (“£161 – £269 an hour” and “£30 per hour”; and bonuses (“20,000 – £40,000” and “Up to £1,600”). The consultant graphic stated, “PAY RISE DEMAND 35%” while the nurse graphic stated, “PAY RISE 5%”.

6. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “MIND THE PAY GAP Striking senior doctors on £128k salaries claim their pay is ‘down more’ than nurses – despite earning 12 times more”.

7. The complainant said the article was inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1. First, the complainant denied consultants were calling for a “35%” pay rise, or “full restoration” of their pay. It added that its consultants committee had not called for either of these – and attributed these demands to junior doctors, not consultants.

8. Further, the complainant said the headline of the online article was inaccurate and misleading: it implied all consultants earned “12 times more” than nurses. It added that the article misleadingly compared an average nurse’s salary to that of a “single anomalous high earning consultant”, which was not reflective of the average or typical earnings of a consultant.

9. In addition, the complainant said the article was inaccurate to report consultants earned “overtime/allowances” of “£161 – £269 an hour”; these rates were not contractually agreed, nor representative of many doctors’ personal situations. It also said the article was inaccurate to report that consultants can receive “annual payments of up to £40,000 on top of their six-figure salaries, via merit awards” as this figure related to those who held senior national leadership positions; and which was equivalent to 150 consultants and less than 1 per cent of its workforce.

10. The complainant also said by reporting that newly qualified nurses contributed “£183 a month” to their pensions – but omitting that consultants pay a higher percentage of their wages in pension contributions – rendered the article inaccurate and misleading. The complainant also denied consultant training took “up to 7 years” when, in fact, core and speciality training for consultants lasted for more than 10 years.

11. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It denied the article reported the complainant’s official policy was to demand a “35%” pay rise from government on behalf of its members. Instead, the article accurately reported that some consultants, irrespective of their membership to the complainant, had indicated their support for the “full restoration” of their pay and for which the publication considered could reasonably be described as a “35% pay rise” that addressed the alleged 35 per cent real terms take-home pay cut for consultants since 2008/09.

12. Notwithstanding this, on 23 July and following direct correspondence with the complainant, the publication amended the online article to make clear “the BMA says that since 2008-09, the take-home pay of consultants in England has been cut by 35 per cent in real terms, and wants to see a pay increase above inflation.” It also removed the graphic which stated “PAY RISE DEMAND 35%” from the online article.

13. At the start of IPSO’s investigation, and in a further effort to resolve the complaint, on 6 September, the publication offered to print the following corrections in its Corrections and Clarifications column and as a footnote to the online article, respectively:

“NHS consultants are not seeking a 35% pay rise as the graphic in a July 23 article ("NHS pay gap") stated. Rather, they want an above-inflation rise to compensate for what they say is a 35% reduction in their take-home pay between 2008/09 and 2021/22.”

“One individual NHS consultant earns 12 times more than nurses' average pay - not all consultants, as this item's original headline may have suggested. Further, consultants are not seeking a 35% pay rise as the graphic originally included in the article stated. Rather, they want an above-inflation rise to compensate for what they say is a 35% reduction in their take-home pay between 2008/09 and 2021/22.”

14. Though the publication accepted the headline of the online article was potentially inaccurate and misleading, it did not consider that this represented a breach of the Code. However, upon receipt of the complainant’s concerns on 23 July, it amended the headline to read: “MIND THE PAY GAP Striking consultants on £128k salaries claim pay is ‘down more’ than nurses – despite top doc earning 12 times more”. It then added a footnote on 26 July explaining why the headline had been changed, which read:

“One individual NHS consultant earns 12 times more than nurses' average pay - not all consultants, as this item's original headline may have suggested. It has been amended.”

15. Further, the publication did not accept that the article was significantly inaccurate to report that consultant training took “up to 7 years” as opposed to more than 10 years, where the article focused on the difference between pay, specifically, between consultants and nurses. Nevertheless, upon receipt of the complainant’s concerns and as a gesture of goodwill, on 26 July, the publication amended the online article to clarify that training can last more than “10 years” for consultants.

16. While the publication accepted that the rates cited for overtime and allowances within the article were not contractually designated, it did not consider that this rendered the article inaccurate or misleading: the complainant’s own publicly-available guidance stated that it had developed a “minimum rate card” and was “now advising all NHS / HSCNI consultants to ensure that such extra-contractual work is paid at the BMA minimum recommended rate and to decline the offer of extra-contractual work that doesn't value them appropriately”.

17. In addition, the publication did not consider the omission of the rate of pension contribution for consultants rendered the article inaccurate or misleading, given the article focused on the differences between specific pension benefits available to the two group as opposed to distinctions between the respective rates and quality of pension contributions. It also noted that it had previously sought – and had not received – comment from the complainant, prior to the article’s publication, on the fact that consultants also benefit from “better bonuses, award schemes, pensions and expenses allowances” than nurses.

18. Finally, the publication did not accept the article was misleading to report that “Senior doctors can receive annual payments of up to £40,000 on top of their six-figure salaries, via merit awards” where the article made clear that it was possible for a “senior doctor” to achieve these payments – not that they were a standard remuneration procedure.

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.

Mediated Outcome

19. The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter.

20. During IPSO’s investigation, the complainant said the publication of the following corrections, in the publication’s Corrections and Clarifications column, and as a footnote to the online article, would resolve the matter to its satisfaction:

“NHS consultants are not seeking a 35% pay rise as the graphic in a July 23 article ("NHS pay gap") stated. Rather, they want an above-inflation rise to compensate for what they say is a 35% reduction in their take-home pay between 2008/09 and 2021/22, and reform of the pay review body, which would rule on future pay claims.”

“One individual NHS consultant earns 12 times more than nurses' average pay - not all consultants, as this item's original headline may have suggested. Further, consultants are not seeking a 35% pay rise as the graphic originally included in the article stated. Rather, they want an above-inflation rise to compensate for what they say is a 35% reduction in their take-home pay between 2008/09 and 2021/22, and reform of the pay review body, which would rule on future pay claims.”

21. In order to resolve the complaint, and as a gesture of goodwill, the publication agreed to publish these corrections.

22. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.


Date complaint received: 07/08/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 26/09/2023