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Complainant Name:
The British Medical Association

Clauses Noted: 3

Publication: Daily Mail


The British Medical Association (BMA) complained that an article in the Daily Mail on 5 October 1996 headlined "Aids scare doctor's lover killed himself" which published the name of one of its members was an unwarranted intrusion into the man's privacy, as was publication of details concerning the man's relationship with his former partner in breach of Clause 4 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice.

The piece described how the partner of the named BMA member - a surgeon - died less than eighteen months before. The BMA member was diagnosed HIV positive. He continued to operate in a named hospital for six months "while fearing he might be at risk from the virus". It was clarified later in the article that he continued operating in accordance with Department of Health guidelines after his first test proved negative. The relevant NHS Trust sent letters to three hundred patients after his next test proved positive and a telephone helpline was set up which received more than six hundred calls. The deceased committed suicide while suffering from depression, but turned out not to be HIV positive. The piece featured details of how the deceased suffered from work related stress, the method of his suicide and facts about the couple's relationship.

The BMA did not dispute the accuracy of the article but considered that as soon as its member was diagnosed as HIV positive he became a patient with the same right to confidentiality as every other patient. From the time of the diagnosis the surgeon had abstained from clinical practice and neither he nor his employers had misled the public. Further, details about his previous relationship and the death of his partner were irrelevant to the story.

The newspaper denied there had been an intrusion into the surgeon's privacy as a patient. A hospital press conference had been held after the positive diagnosis, and his previous relationship was relevant in that the surgeon's employers must have been aware of his personal life. Details had been obtained from public records (for example the deceased's Will) and from an interview with the deceased's father. The newspaper considered that public concern about such situations put an onus on newspapers to publish the full facts to prevent "rumour feeding greater fears".

Not Upheld


The Commission first considered whether identification of the surgeon was an unwarranted intrusion into his privacy in breach of Clause 4 (Privacy).

While it was usually the case that stories which reveal the state of health of an individual should not identify that individual, exceptions inevitably included situations where the identity or certain other central information was already in the public domain and/or where identification was in the public interest within the meaning of Clause 18 (The Public Interest) which deals with the protection of public health and safety. In this instance, the Commission considered that there had been no unwarranted intrusion, because the surgeon's diagnosis (but not his identity) had been put into the public domain at a press conference: letters to patients and the setting-up of a helpline resulted in an increasing number of people becoming aware of his identity, and at the same time public anxiety was increasing. In the Commission's view, these factors combined to provide sufficient justification for the publication of his name.

The Commission also considered whether the publication of details of the surgeon's former relationship were in breach of the Code. While the Commission disagreed with the newspaper that the information had significant relevance to the diagnosis story or provided sufficient public interest justification under Clause 18 (The Public Interest), the Commission found no unwarranted intrusion within the terms of Clause 4 (Privacy) - again because the deceased partner's father had seemingly been willing to reveal his account of his son's relationship, putting the information in the public domain as a result.

The Commission rejected the complaints.


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