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IPSO upholds accuracy complaint over MEN’s “friends with benefits” article

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The press watchdog, IPSO, has upheld a complaint about the Manchester Evening News.

It relates to an article in January, which was headlined: Doctor struck off for asking patient to be “friend with benefits”.

Written by a freelancer, the news piece covered a number of tribunals, starting in 2016, where a doctor was suspended for 4 months for “inappropriate conduct” – this related to texts he sent to a patient. The piece also said that he was suspended again in 2018 for 12 months, after carrying out an intimate examination without a chaperone present.

An online article was headlined: “Gynaecologist who suggested ‘designer vagina’ patient become ‘friends with benefits’ rather than pay for surgery struck off”.

The print version appeared on page 3, with the online version featuring on the website home page and also across social media.

However, the complainant said that he was not struck off the medical register for suggesting to a patient that she pay for surgery with a “friends with benefits” arrangement. Nor was this the reason for his previous suspensions. Instead it was that a judge found the second suspension, for carrying out intimate examinations without a chaperone, was too lenient. He added that there was no suggestion during this case that he had proposed sex for treatment.

The MEN argued that the article was written by a freelance reporter, and was based on the online Medical Practitioner Tribunal Service reports from 2016 and 2018, as well as the latest online court judgement.

The reporter was not present at the proceedings.

It accepted that the complainant was not struck off for suggesting “sex with benefits” to a patient in lieu of payment, and this had not been found by any previous tribunal. However, it said that in the wider context of the complainant’s behaviour, this was not a significant inaccuracy.

It pointed to the first tribunal in which the texts sent to the patient were “inappropriate and sexually motivated.” Also that the texts discussed the patient’s sex life and made reference to “mates with benefits.” It also said that it was not in dispute that the complainant had allowed the patient to delay payment for her treatment.

However, the MEN did accept that this tribunal only made passing reference to the text messages and was instead focused on the examinations.

When it received the complaint, the newspaper amended the headline and opening sentence and offered to publish a post on Facebook and Twitter where the original article was promoted, setting out that the wording had been updated.

The complainant declined these corrections as he disputed some of the content – including that he had been struck off for “inappropriate conduct.” He also said that the offer wasn’t sufficiently prominent.

In its ruling, IPSO upheld the complaint.

The Committee said that the article was “significantly misleading as to both the complainant’s professional conduct and the reason why he was struck off from the medical register.”

“This was a serious claim about his professional conduct and represented a significant escalation as to the charges he faced and were found proved; furthermore, this claim was intrinsic to the overall article. The Committee was also concerned that the inaccuracy appeared despite the accurate position being readily available and in the public domain via the tribunal and court documents the reporter consulted. For these reasons, the Committee decided that the appropriate remedy was the publication of an adjudication.”

As the original article appeared on page 3 and the inaccuracy appeared in both the headline and first line, IPSO ruled that the Manchester Evening News had to print the adjudication on page 3 or “further forward.” Equally the online article should appear on the “top half of the newspaper’s homepage, on the first screen, for 24 hours.”

The ruling added:

“a link to the adjudication should be published with the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication, and explaining the amendments that have been made. A link to the adjudication should also be included in the publication’s social media posts on Facebook and Twitter – the wording of these posts should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should also state that IPSO has upheld a complaint against the publication. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against the Manchester Evening News, and refer to its subject matter. It must be agreed with IPSO in advance.”

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