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Complaint over psychiatric unit articles rejected

A chief executive of a mental health trust who complained about photos of psychiatric patients published in two newspapers has had her complaint rejected by the Press Complaints Commission.

Sue Turner from Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Trust complained about front-page articles in the Birmingham Mail and Birmingham Mail Extra on 20 February and 25 February 2010, headlined “Suicide pact” and “Our suicide pact” respectively.

The articles reported three patients at a psychiatric unit, Main House, had attempted suicide several days before publication because of fears about the future of the centre.

Included in the stories were pixellated photographs of the service users being informed of the subsequent decision to close the unit, showing them in a distraught state, with the articles saying they had been supplied by the patients via their psychiatrist.

The complainant said the articles were intrusive because the patients were extremely vulnerable adults who were not in a position to give clear consent and said the photos were taken in breach of patient confidentiality by a GP who was not their main carer – who had since been dismissed.

But in response, the newspapers argued the closure of the unit was a major local issue and careful consideration had been given before publication of the photos.

They felt justified in publishing them because they had been taken with the knowledge of the patients by a medical professional, the patients had given their consent and were keen for the photos to be shown, and a parent of one of the patients had supported the use of them.

The newspapers said they had taken steps to protect the patients’ identities by pixellating their faces and the articles had given a voice to mental health patients who felt their views were being ignored.

The PCC said legitimate concerns would exist about the patients’ capacity which the papers had been obliged to take into account.

But it ruled there were other factors which taken together tipped the balance in favour of the newspapers’ decision to publish, including the involvement of the doctor, the pixellation of patients’ faces and the public interest of the story.

The Commission found “the newspapers had managed to balance their duty to behave responsibly towards vulnerable individuals with the need to cover a story of important public interest”.

PCC director Stephen Abell said: “As often in cases before the PCC, this was about the need for 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.”