The Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint against weekly newspaper of the year the Essex Chronicle over an interview conducted in a hospital stroke unit.
The complaint related to a story headlined 'Victim of attacker 'lucky to be alive' after coma ordeal", published on 3 February 2011, in which a reporter interviewed a man suffering serious head injuries after an assault.
He was invited to carry out the interview by the patient's parents, who were in the room, and they made no complaint about the subsequent story.
The complaint was made by Malcolm Stamps, the chief executive of Mid Essex Hospital Service NHS Trust, who claimed the Chronicle reporter had 'not notified the trust, nor any of its staff, of his identity as a journalist or the purpose of his visit'– a claim strongly denied by the newspaper.
The trust said its policy was that all story requests should have to go through its PR team and should be pre-arranged, particularly in cases relating to vulnerable patients.
According to today's adjudication, a nurse who supervised the visit claimed they asked the reporter who he was and the patient's father replied that he was "from the court".
She insisted that at no point during the visit did it feel like an interview was in progress – claiming she had not seen a notepad or any recording equipment and that 'the reporter had simply asked how the patient was".
The senior ward sister also claimed the patient had been unaware he had spoken to a journalist and was "upset and angry" when he found out.
Under clause eight of the PCC's code of practice, journalists must identify themselves to a 'responsible executive'and obtain permission before entering a non-public area of hospitals such as wards and treatment areas.
The newspaper denied that its reporter had breached the clause, arguing that he had been invited to see the patient in hospital by his parents, who wanted the paper to publish an article about the 'effects of drunken violence".
The paper, which won weekly newspaper of the year at the Regional Press Awards this year, believed the patient had provided his consent.
The Chronicle said the journalist had 'made clear to nursing staff his status as a journalist and identified the publication he worked for".
It also 'disputed the veracity of the statements provided by the staff", and said the reporter had 'conducted a relaxed interview with the patient and had indeed carried a camera (which he had not used) in addition to using a notepad".
A nurse was present throughout the interview, and the paper alleged that another member of staff 'had given advice to the reporter on how the case should be reported".
In today's ruling the PCC acknowledged there was a 'significant dispute over what had occurred during the visit to the hospital", and said it was unable to resolve the 'conflict of accounts".
It concluded, however, that it was 'nonetheless able to establish a breach of the Editors' Code on this occasion".
It said: 'In the view of the commission, the reporter could have acted to ensure that there was no uncertainty about his identification, and that the necessary permission had been obtained from a 'responsible executive', before entering the unit where the patient was being treated.
'This could have been achieved, for example, by asking at reception at the beginning of the visit to speak to a relevant executive, or approaching the hospital in advance.
'Bearing in mind that the patient was in an especially vulnerable condition, the onus was on the reporter to ensure that he was open about his status with the hospital."
While it acknowledged there was a public interest in the story, it was not sufficient to 'justify the manner in which the material had been obtained".
PCC director Stephen Abell said: "The commission now is asked to consider relatively few complaints under clause eight of the Code, which demonstrates that journalists' conduct in regard to people in hospital has improved in recent years.
'The commission's case law certainly demonstrates the strict standards the PCC expects of journalists and photographers in this area. The protection of an individual's privacy – particularly those who are most vulnerable – is paramount in the Editors' Code, and clause eight is clear in the need for identity and consent to be properly established at an early stage".
The newspaper offered an assurance that it would coordinate future visits through the hospital's communications department.
Editor Alan Geere said: "We view this very much as a technical breach of the code. We were invited to the bedside by the family, wrote a fair and balanced report and received no complaint from anyone except the hospital.
"The PCC acknowledge the public interest in the story and we are very disappointed that our vigourous, campaigning style of journalism has resulted in this public slap on the wrists."
The PCC has issued the following guidance on hospital visits:
Unless there is a public interest reason for doing otherwise, journalists must identify themselves to a 'responsible executive'and obtain permission before entering a non-public area of hospitals, which includes wards and treatment areas. Clause 8 of the Code also covers 'similar institutions'to hospitals, which also offer medical facilities, and – for example – the PCC has upheld a complaint about a journalist entering a nursing home without the consent of an executive.
The Code makes clear that the restrictions on intruding into privacy are particularly relevant to enquiries about individuals in hospitals or similar institutions. Clause 3 (Privacy) states the newspapers must show respect for a person's private life, which specifically includes their health. The PCC has made clear that a person's medical details – which could, for example, include specific information about illness or treatment, or the fact of pregnancy before the twelve-week scan – should be considered private unless there are good public interest reasons to suggest otherwise.