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Complainant Name:
Mr Douglas Brown

Clauses Noted: 3, 8, 12

Publication: The Sun


Mr Douglas Brown, Press and Public Relations Officer at Rampton Hospital Authority complained that an article published in The Sun on 10 June 1999, headlined "Double killer pops out for a McDonald's", was an intrusion into the privacy of a hospital patient in breach of Clauses 3 (Privacy) and 9 (Hospitals) and was pejorative in breach of Clause 13 (Discrimination) of the Code of Practice.

The complaint was rejected

The article concerned a patient at the high security hospital who the paper described as having "slaughtered two surgeons with a hunting knife". It was illustrated by photographs and reported that he had been allowed to pay a shopping visit to a nearby town escorted by two nurses. The article also quoted the reactions of shop staff and of the victims' widows.

The complainant said that all patients at Rampton are entitled to the same privacy and confidentiality as any other patient in the National Health Service. He believed that the reporting of the man's escorted visit was intrusive since it covered in detail his clinical background and a specific element of his treatment. He referred to clause 9(ii) of the Code of Practice which states that "The restrictions on intruding into privacy are particularly relevant to individuals in hospitals or similar institutions".

He objected to the use of the word "psycho" to describe the patient. He said that this epithet did not reflect the patient's disorder - which is specifically mental illness - and had been used in a pejorative sense.

The newspaper replied that it considered the story and photographs to have been in the public interest. The term "psycho" was a reasonable one in view of the killing of the two surgeons. They believed that the hospital had embarked on a campaign to suggest that its patients should be treated in newspapers in the same way as "any ordinary law-abiding NHS patient". They took the view that the patient was being prepared for release and that the public had a right to know this.

Not Upheld


With regard to the allegation of invasion of privacy, the Commission noted that the patient's visit was to a town centre. It did not believe that such a place could be said to provide a "reasonable expectation of privacy" as set out in the Code and did not therefore take the view that the reporting or photographs represented an invasion of the patient's privacy. Indeed, the Commission would not take the view, if considering a complaint from any other complainant, that a place such as McDonald's represented a private place and did not consider that any differentiation should be made as a result of the patient's illness. Neither did it believe that the article had gone into intrusive detail regarding the man's treatment at Rampton.

The Commission has in the past published an editorial on the subject of those patients detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983. It did this to remind editors that those suffering mental illness should not be described in an inaccurate manner which might breach the Code of Practice and asked them to avoid the use of descriptions such as "nutter".

The Commission recognises that newspapers will inevitably use strong language to describe those who have committed serious crimes such as that of murder reported in the article and make use of abbreviations of terms such as "psychopathic" or "schizophrenic". In this instance, the newspaper clearly viewed the man's crime as "psychotic" though he was not in fact diagnosed as a psychopath.

The Commission's editorial on the subject made clear that "The detention of over eight in ten of these patients does not stem from any appearance in court but from a decision by mental health professionals that they require care and treatment in hospital. Those detained under the Act following conviction have also been found to be in need of treatment and have the same entitlements under the Patient's Charter as other patients in the NHS."

The Commission will continue to urge editors to avoid the use of prejudicial language in stories about those suffering mental illness and took the opportunity, while rejecting this particular complaint, to remind them of their obligations under the Code.


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