Clauses Noted: 3, 8, 12
Publication: The Northern Echo
Messrs Dale & Co, solicitors, of Lincoln complained on behalf of a client that an article about her in the Northern Echo on 9 January 1998 headlined "Arsonist's outings to the pub" identified her, thereby intruding into her privacy in breach of Clauses 3 (Privacy) and 9 (Hospitals), and also made prejudicial references about her illness in breach of Clause 13 (Discrimination) of the Code of Practice.
The article said that the regional health trust had "run into fresh controversy for allowing a mentally-disordered convicted arsonist out of hospital to drink in pubs on her own" . According to the piece the unnamed woman, (the complainant), had been convicted for setting fire to her house, was judged a serious threat to the public and was one of 3,700 patients nationwide to be under Home Office restrictions. It gave the year of her conviction, where she came from and said that she was in her forties. The pubs were named and local proprietors were quoted saying they were unhappy not to be alerted and because the visits were unsupervised. However, according to the health trust the Home Office knew of the outings which were part of a rehabilitation programme and the various establishments had not been alerted to avoid stigmatising the patient. Concerned trust staff had contacted the newspaper to raise fears for public safety about the outings and to express worries about management style and staff sickness, although the chief executive denied such problems.
The piece also referred to the health trust causing a previous "row" over patients' outings and being subject to a current inquiry into possible shortcomings in dealing with complaints of patient abuse. A further piece the same day headlined "Lurching from one scandal to the next" referred to the complainant's case in its debate on how mentally disordered offenders should be rehabilitated. It also made reference to previous controversy concerning the health trust, and to staff disaffection.
The complainant's solicitors considered the article alarmist, thereby misleading, as the Home Office approved the unescorted leave. Their client's fellow patients did not know of her mental and criminal history and the piece implied she posed a risk of fire raising, whereas she had started a fire in her own home ten years ago and had not committed arson since. Further, the complainant had been easily identifiable, as she was the only female patient at the named hospital under Home Office restrictions. The solicitors also said the piece appeared to be prejudicial to their client on the grounds of her mental disability - because had she received a custodial sentence for arson she would have been released from prison several years ago. They also commented that the history of the hospital was irrelevant to the question of whether the complainant had personally been discriminated against or her privacy intruded upon.
The newspaper responded by referring to a current inquiry into the health trust, and provided further cuttings as evidence of failures in procedure at the hospital in question. It was against this background that a member of the hospital staff had made contact about the complainant's outings, and the newspaper denied that the published piece had been alarmist, given the recent record of the treatment of patients and other incidents involving patients outside the hospital. Furthermore, the newspaper did not consider it had identified the patient nor published information that would lead to her identification to anybody who did not already know of her history. The newspaper also stressed that her condition, including alcoholism, had led to her conviction for arson which had endangered life, and there was therefore an overriding public interest in the type of care and control the patient receives.
In response to the allegation that the article appeared to be prejudicial, the newspaper said that it had reflected public concern about the health trust's treatment of mentally disabled patients and that the complainant's case was directly relevant to the story. Had she received a custodial sentence for arson she would not have featured. In conclusion the newspaper considered that the public interest in the concerns about the health trust's care policies and the wider issues of rehabilitation justified the story - the health and safety of both the public and patients had been jeopardised in the recent past by practices at the hospital in question, and the newspaper had endeavoured to disclose information about errors, accidents and treatment, which the health trust had sought not to release.
Since publication of the article the NHS Executive inquiry into previous, unconnected events concerning the health trust had been concluded, and its findings were critical.
There were a number of issues for the Commission to consider. First of all, it considered whether the article had been misleading in breach of the Code because it had been "alarmist". It was clear to the Commission that there had been significant local interest in the policies and the procedures of the hospital - as well as a subsequent critical inquiry report. In the circumstances, it did not believe that the article had been misleading or distorted.
Secondly, the Commission considered whether the article had intruded into the privacy of the complainant. It was clear that the article reported on a matter of public interest, on which it was right for the newspaper to comment. It was also clear that it could not have been written without some reference to the complainant. The newspaper had known the name of the woman, but took the correct action under the Code in not publishing it. Although some of the details in the piece may have contributed to her identification among some who already knew her in the hospital, it was unlikely that they were totally unaware of the reasons for her conviction. To those outside identification would have been impossible. Given the public interest involved, the newspaper had therefore shown due respect for her privacy by not revealing her name or any other precise identifying details.
Finally, the Commission considered whether there had been any discrimination against the complainant under Clause 13 of the Code. The Code makes clear that no details of a persons mental illness should be published unless they are directly relevant to a story. In this case, such a reference - which was not even made about a named person - was clearly relevant to a story in the public interest and there was therefore no breach of the Code.
The complaints were rejected.
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