Times newspaper condemned over 'abhorrent' letter about NHS sexual assault scandal

The newspaper has been criticised after publishing a letter from a retired doctor telling 'snowflake' female surgeons to 'toughen up'.

Rear view of surgeon before an operation
Female surgeons reported 11 instances of rape in the study published in the British Journal of Surgery. (Getty)

The Times newspaper has been criticised after publishing a letter from a retired anaesthetist saying “snowflake" female doctors need to "toughen up”.

The letter was sent to the paper in response to a survey which revealed almost one in three female surgeons had been sexually assaulted in the past five years.

Female surgeons reported 11 instances of rape in the study, which was published in the British Journal of Surgery on Tuesday.

The survey found 29% of women who responded had experienced unwanted physical advances in the workplace, more than 40% received uninvited comments about their body and 38% were subjected to sexual "banter" at work.

Dr Peter Hilton, a consultant anaesthetist between 1986 to 2020 from Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, Wales, has come under fire after suggesting that women were being hired mainly on their academic performance and needed to “toughen up” because “sexually inappropriate actions do occur”.

He wrote in a letter to The Times: “Medical training and practice is brutal and demanding, with long hours, and bullying happens.

“Sexually inappropriate comments and actions do occur. It is stressful. All I can say is that if they want to make a success of this rewarding career then they should toughen up.”

The Times newspaper was also criticised by the Association of Anaesthetists, which said on X, formerly known as Twitter: "The views in this letter are abhorrent, unrepresentative of the specialty of anaesthesia and we condemn them absolutely.

"We reiterate our public stand against all forms of sexual harassment and our support for the NHS England’s Sexual Safety Charter.

"We are astonished that The Times have chosen to publish this letter. Once again, one man has been given a platform to speak about something he will never be unanswerable for, yet millions of women live with the consequences of every day."

Others, however, praised the newspaper for shining a light on unsavoury views.

Dr Ann Olivarius, a lawyer who specialises in sexual discrimination, said: "I thank the Times for introducing Dr Hilton to the broader public - he exists, he's not a Private Eye parody, he has friends in high places - and we take them on regularly."

'Totally unacceptable'

Dr Fiona Donald, president of The Royal College of Anaesthetists, was one of the leading voices condemning Dr Hilton’s comments.

“The attitude expressed by retired anaesthetist Dr Hilton in @thetimes is totally unacceptable,” she wrote on X. “People affected deserve compassion, justice and commitment to zero tolerance from their employers and colleagues.

“We must do everything we can to eradicate these attitudes and behaviours.”

Dian Donnai, professor emeritus of clinical genetics at Saint Mary's Hospital in Manchester, said: “Almost - but not quite - unbelievable. What a misogynist dinosaur. I thought they were dying out but it is learnt entitled behaviour by weak men.”

Rear view of male and female surgical team wearing gowns, caps, shoe covers, and walking down hospital corridor to operating room.
The survey also found 29% of women who responded had experienced unwanted physical advances. (Getty)

UCL professor emeritus Dame Jane Dacre wrote: “Oh my goodness! Sadly, he can’t be the only one that thinks like that. And that is our problem! We must stop sexual misconduct!”

Compiled by the University of Exeter from 1,436 responses to an anonymous online survey, the research was commissioned by The Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery – a group of NHS surgeons, clinicians and researchers who say they are “working to raise awareness of sexual misconduct in surgery, to bring about cultural and organisational change”.

The report concluded: “Sexual misconduct occurs frequently and appears to go unchecked in the surgical environment owing to a combination of a deeply hierarchical structure and a gender and power imbalance.

“The result is an unsafe working environment and an unsafe space for patients.”

Yahoo News has approached The Times for comment.

Sexual harassment and the NHS: in numbers

  • Almost 90% of women said they had witnessed sexual misconduct in the past five years, with 81% of men giving the same answer.

  • Only 53% of medical schools offered “some or good sexual harassment training”.

  • Some 8% of healthcare staff reported being sexually harassed in 2019.

  • Sexual harassment was most often committed by colleagues (54%).

  • Some 31% of people who had been sexually harassed said it had happened regularly.