BRIAN MACKRELL AGAINST THE DOMINION

Case Number: 678

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 1997

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint against the Dominion involving a column written by Rosemary McLeod.

The complaint arose from a column Ms McLeod wrote criticising changes to the mental health system. Using as examples the cases of James (sic) Mackrell and Christopher John Lewis, men with psychiatric problems who committed violent crimes, she particularly attacked the policy of closing psychiatric institutions and releasing mentally ill people into the community. In her concluding paragraph she wrote: “The greatest tragedy is that the Mr Mackrells and Mr Lewises of this world can’t help what they do. We have no such excuse.”

This prompted a protest to the Dominion from Mr Brian H.Mackrell, of Palmerston North, who objected that the reference to “the Mr Mackrells of this world” was an insult to himself and other “Mr Mackrells.” The editor responded that readers would have understood this to be a figure of speech, but if Mr Mackrell wished to clarify the position through a letter to the editor, he was welcome to do so.

Mr Mackrell then complained to the Press Council that this was not an adequate response. In his complaint he criticised the fact that in her article Ms McLeod had incorrectly referred to “James Mackrell” -(his first names are Jason Craig)and that she had described him as mentally ill when a jury had rejected that plea and found him guilty of rape, sodomy and murder. It was clear from his letter, however, that his primary concern was that “our family name has been defamed.”

The Council felt it was unfortunate that the first name for Mackrell in the column was not accurate, but this did not impact materially on either its message or on the fundamental reason for the complaint. It considered the reference to “the Mr Mackrells and Mr Lewises of this world” would be seen by readers as a reference to mentally disturbed criminals rather than to anyone called Mackrell or Lewis. Therefore the complaint was not upheld.

The complaint could, however, serve to highlight to journalists the need for sensitivity in regard to use of names in a generic fashion. It might, for instance, have been safer if the column had referred to “the Jason Mackrells and Christopher Lewises of this world.”