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Complainant Name:
The British Medical Association

Clauses Noted: 3

Publication: Daily Express


The British Medical Association (BMA) complained that an article in The Express on 5 October 1996 headlined "Suicide tragedy for Aids doctor" 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 gave details of the suicide of a named radiographer eighteen months ago. It then named his partner, a doctor (the BMA member on whose behalf the complaint was made) and described how the doctor was now diagnosed as HIV positive after a previously clear test. It noted that over three hundred letters were to be sent to patients and that the hospital's chief executive had explained that the doctor did not have Aids and could not have carried the virus for longer than nine months. According to the article thorough checks had been made into all the medical procedures ever carried out by the doctor and there was no cause for concern. The piece also stated that both the doctor and the radiographer had worked for the hospital and that before 1991 the doctor had worked in all the major hospitals in Northern Ireland.

The BMA did not dispute the accuracy of the article, but considered that as soon as its member, a surgeon, was diagnosed HIV positive he became a patient with the same right to confidentiality as every other patient. Since the diagnosis, arrangements had been made to enable the doctor to work at no risk to public health and neither he nor the relevant hospital NHS Trust had sought to mislead the public. The BMA also denied any suggestion that the radiographer had been HIV positive or that he had worked at the same hospital. Any references to the men's relationship and the suicide were irrelevant to the diagnosis story.

In its response the newspaper referred to the three hundred letters sent to patients putting the identity of the doctor into the public domain. Further, the information was also a matter of public interest within the terms of Clause 18 (The public interest) in that it was a matter concerning public health and safety. So too was the identity and information about the deceased radiologist as he was the doctor's former partner from whom the doctor could have contracted the virus although this had not been the case.

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 should not reveal the state of health of a named individual, exceptions inevitably included situations where the identity or certain 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). In this instance the Commission considered that there had been no unwarranted intrusion: as the NHS Trust hospital had sent letters to patients, the surgeon's identity had been put into the public domain.

As far as the publication of details of the surgeon's relationship with his deceased partner was concerned, the Commission considered disingenuous the newspaper's suggestion that, had circumstances been different, HIV could have been passed to the doctor by the deceased radiographer. However, the Commission found no unwarranted intrusion in the brief details given of the former partner's tragic death. Although the diagnosis was seemingly unconnected with it, it was a matter in the public domain.

The alleged inaccuracies on the part of the newspaper (including a reference in the article that the surgeon and his deceased partner had worked in the same hospital) were matters which the Commission considered either not significant in the context of the subject of the doctors privacy or rather more matters which pertained to his deceased partner and so could not properly form part of the BMA's complaint.

The Commission rejected the complaints.


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