CAMPBELL FAMILY AGAINST MANAWATU STANDARD
Case Number: 2273
Council Meeting: AUGUST 2012
Verdict: Upheld with Dissent
Publication: Manawatu Evening Standard
Children and Young People
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of
The complaint is upheld by a majority of 7:3.
The photograph appeared on the front page of the Manawatu Weekend Standard on March 31, 2012 and accompanied and illustrated a report about a car accident in which two people had been killed and three injured.
The photograph shows a woman, the driver of one of the two cars, receiving help from surrounding firefighters and paramedics.
The woman’s face, in profile, is clearly visible to the viewer.
The rest of the car’s interior cannot be seen, because of a large plastic sheet and because the various helpers also block the view.
Another photograph, much smaller, shows the two cars which had both been destroyed by the impact.
The report, headlined “Two die and three taken to hospital after horror crash”, outlined various details and included brief comment from witnesses, police and firefighters.
The names of the victims were not given and the final paragraph explains that “the names . . . had not been released as this edition went to print”.
Hector Bassett, the husband of Shalome Bassett, the woman in the photograph, took his concerns to the editor.
He pointed out that his wife’s right to privacy had been breached and she had been shown no “special consideration” in being photographed while clearly suffering from distress – her mother, in the front passenger seat alongside her, had been killed, two of her children had been injured, and she herself was “in a semi-conscious state” and trapped in the car.
He also noted that work mates and friends had seen the newspaper and recognised her.
Then Logan Campbell, brother of Shalome and son of Heather Campbell, the woman who died in the crash, further complained on behalf of Heather Campbell’s husband, her five children and their spouses, and her fifteen grandchildren.
He explained how the whole family had been caused hurt and distress by the photograph and insulted by the editor’s ongoing stance that the publication was justified because it highlighted the importance of road safety and was thus in the public interest.
He argued that his sister’s privacy had been invaded - she had been in an “exposed and helpless situation” when photographed.
He claimed it was also obvious that his mother, Mrs Campbell, was deceased and behind the plastic sheet in the passenger seat of the car.
Further, the newspaper had blatantly ignored the principle that “those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration” especially as that principle applied not only to the people in the photograph but also to any distress likely to be caused to friends and family by the publication of photograph.
He suggested that the principle relating to children and young people had also been broken (“In cases involving children editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to override the interest of the child”) when the photograph had been published despite the newspaper knowing that two young children were in the back seat of the car.
He argued that the principle applying to photographic selection had also been broken. In his view, “photographs showing distressing or shocking situations should be handled with special consideration for those affected” applied to family and even others who would be affected, and the newspaper had not shown any such “special consideration” to them.
Finally, he suggested that the editor should have acknowledged that he had made an error in approving the photograph for publication and given a sincere apology to the family.
The complainant made several other allegations – such as, the newspaper’s reporter and photographer breaking through a police cordon established at the scene, the newspaper’s staff listening to the police frequency and emergency channels, the editor distributing photographs of the accident scene to other agencies, and then refusing to destroy the accident photographs held on file, and finally, that the newspaper had been insensitive in sending a reporter and a photographer to the family home two days after the accident.
The Editor’s Response
The editor stressed that it had been his decision to select and publish the photograph that had so offended the Campbell family.
He explained that he had carefully considered the distress that the photograph was likely to cause to the complainant’s sister and her family and friends but had weighed that against “public interest in seeing the consequences, in human terms, of an accident”. The photograph, in his view, added a “significant human element to the story”.
Further, the photograph did not show any injuries to the complainant’s sister and her face was in profile and at least partially obscured by a firefighter’s arm.
He suggested that the photograph should not be viewed in isolation: the story of the accident, taken as a whole, with a written report and two accompanying photographs, is presented sympathetically rather than sensationally.
He added that this was a matter of very significant public interest for the accident occurred locally, involved an emergency response from within the district and resulted in the deaths of two local people.
He did not believe Mrs Bassett’s privacy had been invaded because the image concerned was of a traffic accident that had happened on a public road ie it was a “public event” and he had indeed given the matter “special consideration” – for example, he had rejected as unsuitable for publication other images of the scene because they were too graphic and likely to cause unnecessary distress to the family.
The complaint relating to children and young people could not be sustained because the children were not portrayed anywhere in the photograph.
In addition, there was no indication that the mother’s body was under or behind the plastic sheet at the time when the photograph was taken.
Staff had approached the family after the accident but this was common practice and they had left promptly when informed there would be no comment. He accepted that it would have been preferable for the reporter to have telephoned before the visit.
He explained that he had not distributed the photographs for publication by other newspapers. Rather, the photographer had uploaded a total of 17 photographs to the Fairfax Newslink system which allows each Fairfax-owned publication access. The editor had then selected that particular image from those 17 photographs.
While it was correct that he had declined to order the destruction of the photographs on the Newslink system, he had placed a restriction on all 17 photographs that they not be used until this complaint was settled.
He “categorically denied” that the staff had crossed any kind of police cordon. Also the allegations about “listening to the police frequency” were speculative and the chief reporter said he dispatched staff to the scene immediately following a tip from a member of the public.
In sum, while he regretted the additional distress suffered by the family because of the photograph, he stood by his decision to publish.
Discussion and Decision
First, the Council is not able to rule either way on the allegations about the newspaper’s reporter and photographer crossing the police cordon, if any such cordon was in operation, or about the staff listening to the police emergency frequency. No clear evidence has been provided to support those claims.
In addition, the editor’s explanation that it is not his role to distribute photographs to other media outlets is reasonable. The photographer uploads the images onto a system where they are stored for possible use by any of the Fairfax-owned publications. After that each editor is responsible for what appears in their particular publication.
The Council understands the family’s view that the reporter’s visit after the accident only caused more hurt and frustration. Approaching the bereaved will always require special tact and sensitivity. Nevertheless, this incident does not in itself constitute a transgression of the Council’s principles.
The Council is also unable to see any transgression of the principle applying to children and young people. The two injured children are mentioned briefly in the report (though not by name) but cannot be discerned in the photograph. Here, the Council agrees with the editor that this part of the complaint cannot be sustained.
Further, the Council considered that its principles had not been crossed by the photograph showing the plastic sheet blocking part of the car’s interior. The complainant asserted that the photograph showed Mrs Campbell still in the vehicle with the sheet covering her body, but it is uncertain if that were so when the photograph was taken. The attention of the viewer is not drawn to the sheet in any way and, in any case, some of the Council (and perhaps many readers) assumed that the sheet was instead a safety air-bag that had deployed in the accident. The situation is too vague to sustain this part of the complaint.
However, the nub of this whole complaint turns on the photograph revealing the driver, trapped in the car.
That aspect of the overall image gave much greater cause for concern.
The Council has noted before (as the editor emphasised) that people at the centre of important news events may at times be identified, even though this may cause distress for those involved. However, in such cases, editors have to show intense and compelling public interest, such as, perhaps, photographs of victims in the Christchurch earthquake or survivors of the Wahine disaster.
Certainly the photograph is a sympathetic portrayal. The attention of the viewer is drawn towards a survivor who is completely surrounded by people who are trying to help. The caption is “Helping hands” and there are hands holding and comforting and supporting while other hands try to force back debris and twisted metal.
However, a crucial aspect is that enough of the driver’s face was revealed for her to be identified by colleagues, friends and family, and the result was that the family had to field a sequence of inquiring calls – while still in shock and trying to cope with their loss and grief.
Significantly, the victim would have been identified by many readers well before the names of the two people who died in the crash had been released by the police, doubtless causing further distress to the family. This was a crucial factor for several members of the Council in their consideration of the complaint.
Clearly, Mrs Bassett was exposed to the readership of the Standard at a time of vulnerability and helplessness and the newspaper has to demonstrate a significant level of public interest to justify publication of the photograph and the invasion of her privacy. The Council’s second Principle states that “everyone is entitled to privacy of person . . .” unless there are “significant matters of public record or public interest”. Further, “those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration”.
In this particular case, the Council takes the view that any public interest that might lie in this report of a road accident, even such a tragic accident, does not outweigh the “special consideration” and compassion that should have been extended to the Campbell family, especially when the photograph was published before the names of those who had died had been released.
The face of the driver could easily have been pixelated so that she was unable to be identified, or the photograph should not have been published at all.
This complaint about the selection and treatment of a newspaper photograph is upheld on the grounds that privacy was not respected and that a photograph showing a distressing or shocking situation was not handled with special consideration for those affected.
Press Council members upholding the complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, and Stephen Stewart.
Press Council members who dissented from this decision were Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding and John Roughan.
Clive Lind took no part in the determination of this complaint.