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Trial by media

Dr Alan Doris, MPS Head of Professional Services (New Zealand), looks at a recent MPS case involving a doctor who was unfairly treated by the media

Some people are comfortable in the media spotlight and others are desperate to attract it; for many health professionals media attention is intrusive, unwelcome and unpleasant. When the media coverage names individuals and is critical, it is particularly distressing as well as potentially damaging for the person’s professional standing, career and business.

As health stories are popular in the print and broadcast media, MPS is often asked to advise and assist members who are dealing with the media. When incorrect or misleading information is in the media, often a clarification, retraction or apology from the broadcaster is adequate to resolve the issue, though this is not always the case.

On 21 March 2013, Television New Zealand (TVNZ) broadcast a piece on its early evening current affairs programme Seven Sharp, regarding the healthcare provided to a young woman in Southland. The journalists involved made a number of comments and presented material in a way that greatly upset and alarmed a GP named in the programme, as well as members of the practice from which she worked, which was also identified. The doctor and the practice owner approached MPS for assistance in responding to what they believed to be an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of their care of the young woman.

The process that followed over the succeeding nine months was stressful and frustrating for the doctors, though ultimately successful. MPS arranged for a barrister with specialist skills in medical and media law to assist in pursuing whatever legal remedies were available in this situation for the members involved.

A complaint was laid with the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) on the basis that the broadcast breached accepted standards of accuracy and fairness. Additionally, in June 2013 defamation proceedings were prepared with the assistance and support of MPS, and these were filed with the High Court in Auckland in July, alleging that TVNZ had defamed the GP in the broadcast. An expert opinion was commissioned by MPS, which was of the view that the doctor’s management of the case could not validly be criticised.

When health professionals are in the media, either willingly or not, there is a risk that the experience may be unpleasant or harmful to them

A jury trial was anticipated and prepared for, though before this commenced a negotiated settlement was reached with TVNZ, concluding matters in late December 2013. It was agreed that the doctor would cease the legal action against TVNZ and the complaint to the BSA would be withdrawn.

TVNZ did not admit liability but provided a written apology, in addition to a previously broadcast one. In addition, the original broadcast was not to be available for re-broadcast though the clarification and apology made on-air by TVNZ on 20 June 2013 would remain available online. TVNZ also agreed to pay a sum of money to the doctor, and the parties agreed that the actual sum paid would remain confidential, and that there would be no comment made that gave any indication of the payment amount or level.

When health professionals are in the media, either willingly or not, there is a risk that the experience may be unpleasant or harmful to them. MPS offers advice to members on engaging with the media to reduce the likelihood of difficulties arisingand can assist members in taking appropriate steps where the coverage may have been in breach of journalistic standards or of the law.

References

  1. MPS factsheet, Managing the media
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