PCC rejects complaint over photos of psychiatric patients

The Press Complaints Commission has rejected a complaint from the head of a mental health trust about pictures of apparently suicidal patients at a psychiatric unit which appeared in two regional newspapers.

Sue Turner, chief executive of the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Trust, wrote to the press watchdog complaining about front-page articles which appeared in the Birmingham Mail and Birmingham Mail Extra.

The articles, headed ‘Suicide pact’and ‘Our suicide pact’which appeared, respectively, in the papers on 20 February and 25 February, reported that three patients at the Main House psychiatric unit, in Birmingham, had attempted suicide because of concerns about its future.

The articles – which were published after it emerged that the unit was set for closure – included pixellated photographs of the patients being informed of the decision.

The photographic coverage, which showed patients in a distraught state, was accompanied by text saying the images were ‘supplied by the patients themselves via their psychiatrist”.

Turner complained that publication breached the Editors’ Code as intruded into the privacy of patients, intruded into their grief and shock, and broke strict rules about journalists operating in hospitals.

She claimed the photos were intrusive as the patients were extremely vulnerable adults not in a position to give clear consent for pictures to be taken or published.

In addition, she said the photographs were taken in breach of patient confidentiality by a GP who was not their consultant or primary carer.

He had subsequently been dismissed following a disciplinary hearing and the case had been referred to the General Medical Council, she said.

The newspaper argued publication could be justified for several reasons: the closure of the psychiatric unit was a major local issue; the photos had been taken with the consent of the adult patients by a medical professional; and it had taken steps to protect the patients’ identities by pixellating their faces.

In addition, journalists said a parent of one of the patients had supported the use of the images and that they had given a voice to mental health patients who had complained they were being ignored.

Rejecting Turner’s complaint the PCC said that any attempt to compromise the welfare of patients, would be the subject of ‘vigorous censure by the commission’but it did not believe that was the case in this instance.

The PCC said it recognised that ‘legitimate concerns would exist about the patients’ capacity”, which the papers had been obliged to take into account.

However, it said there were other factors which, when taken together, ‘tipped the balance’in favour of the newspapers’ decision to publish.

These factors were the involvement of the doctor; the decision to pixellate faces; and the public interest in the story.

The PCC concluded that the newspapers had managed to balance their duty to vulnerable individuals with the need to cover a story of important public interest.

The PCC said that while it did not receive a complaint from a patient or their families it had taken the complaint forward as the NHS trust was an interested party.

PCC director Stephen Abell said: ‘As often in cases before the PCC, this was about the need for a proper balance to be struck.

‘The Commission had to weigh here the apparently conflicting views of both the patients and of the Trust.

‘In the end, while reaffirming the strong protection afforded to the vulnerable by the code, the commission recognised that the newspapers had acted appropriately in publishing the pixellated images to illustrate a story in the public interest”.

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