EION WALKER AGAINST WANGANUI CHRONICLE

Case Number: 1013

Council Meeting: MAY 2005

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Wanganui Chronicle

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

The Press Council has upheld the third-party complaints from two residents of Wanganui, Martin Rothman and Eion Walker, about an article published by the Wanganui Chronicle on 18 December 2004.

Published under the banner headline, Eye patient sees red, the article outlined the complaints of Paul Trownson against the Whanganui District Health Board in relation to his treatment by a Board’s eye specialist who is named several times in the article. Dr Trownson’s perception of his treatment at Wanganui Hospital is given substantial coverage, and the article alleges that mismanagement of his case resulted in severe eye damage which had to be treated by another specialist in Wellington. The article was accompanied by a large photograph of Paul Trownson, glasses perched on the end of his nose, and pointing to his eye. The caption underneath the photograph is: Paul Trownson can still see out of his left eye, thanks to the intervention of a private specialist and Wellington Hospital.

The article also refers to the confirmation by the Board’s Chief Executive Officer that an investigation by the Whanganui District Health Board into Paul Trownson’s complaint, was underway, and that as this investigation proceeded, further information would be made available only to Dr Trownson because of a possible breach of the Privacy Act by making such matters public.

The story - both as reported directly from Dr Trownson, who has a PhD in mediaeval history, and in the newspaper's summation - conveys the impression that the treatment of Dr Trownson’s eye condition was mismanaged by the Wanganui specialist. Two years after his arrival in Wanganui after leaving Northland with instructions “to keep an eye on his cataracts” Dr Trownson sought medical advice on his deteriorating eyesight in March 2002. The article then goes on to detail Dr Trownson’s account of his significant problems, ongoing visits to, and examinations by, the Wanganui specialist, and his eventual treatment by a Wellington specialist. The article also states that the Wanganui ophthalmologist involved (named) “has been invited to comment but has not done so”.

The story presents, without qualification or further enquiry, Dr Trownson’s view that he was the victim of a medical error. He complains that his problem was with the Wanganui ophthalmologist “whose diagnosis was ‘dreadfully wrong’” and whom he believed put pressure on his left eye, tearing the retina.

The overwhelming impression left by reading this article is that Dr Trownson received bad treatment in Wanganui which could have led to permanent eye damage, and that his attempts to get correct treatment failed.

The complainant Eion Walker specified:
- First, that the Wanganui Chronicle article is misleading with regard to the statement that “the ophthalmologist involved (named) has been invited to comment but has not done so”. The complainant states that it is common knowledge that hospital employees, not only in Wanganui, but also throughout the country are forbidden to comment about individual patients and their treatment. “It is patently unfair and misleading for her (the reporter) to suggest otherwise, leaving the reader with the impression that (the Doctor) was unwilling to comment, or worse, had something to hide”.

- Second, with regard to the fairness and balance of the article, Mr Walker alleges that only one side of the issue was presented, namely Dr Trownson’s perception of misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and injustice.

- Third, in a situation where the facts had not been established and were still under investigation, why not wait, in the interest of fairness, instead of starting a name and blame campaign.

The complainant further goes on to say that “in matters involving our hospital and medical services, extra diligence is required in the interest of accuracy, fairness and balance”.

The second complainant about the article, Martin Rothman, complained about what he believed was a breach of the Press Council’s principle on accuracy, fairness and balance, and (that newspapers) should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.

He further complained that the publication of the Wanganui ophthalmologist’s name in the article, when the matter was still under investigation by the Whanganui District Health Board, was a breach of privacy, and in breach of the Press Council’s principle about the right of privacy. He stated that the Wanganui Chronicle could not claim that publication of the specialist doctor’s name was to protect the public from this doctor “who has been shown to have acted correctly”.

The Wanganui Chronicle responses to these issues centred on several points.

- One, the editor maintains that the article represented Dr Trownson’s own story and that it was not presented by the newspaper to embarrass the Board or influence the Board in its decision- making when it considered Dr Trownson’s complaint.

- Two, the editor states that there were discrepancies between “the events” as outlined to the paper by Dr Trownson, and what the Whanganui District Health Board officials (in defence of their treatment of Dr Trownson) claimed.

- Third, the editor stated that his reporter made every effort to contact the Wanganui eye specialist, and that the doctor’s failure to return calls was therefore properly reported in the article.

The Wanganui Chronicle’s response to the complainants is basically that this was a story that was newsworthy and needed to be told, was not an attempt to “name and blame”, and that the newspaper had not continued with this story after publication and was awaiting the result of the inquiry before printing anything further on this story.

The Press Council, however, viewed the story as an expression of criticism of a particular specialist working for the Whanganui District Health Board. The story was likely to alarm the many patients of the named eye specialist, and of specialist eye services at the Wanganui Hospital. Furthermore, the newspaper - which serves a relatively small community - could have been in no doubt that the publication of this story, which named the specialist who had no rights of response in a public arena, would damage his professional standing and patient confidence in him.

In considering this complaint, the Press Council has had access to the Wanganui ophthalmologist’s report to the Whanganui District Health Board, and it presents a very different picture from that conveyed in the Wanganui Chronicle story. The Press Council believes that had the newspaper waited before it published the story, and included the other side of the picture, a much more balanced story would have emerged.

The Press Council has made it clear through many judgements and in its publications that in normal circumstances it is unacceptable, where serious accusations are made, not to provide an opportunity for the opposing side to express its viewpoint.

The Wanganui Chronicle noted that their reporter had tried and failed to make contact with the Wanganui ophthalmologist before going to press. Even so, it was not responsible of the newspaper, in dealing with a matter of this sensitivity, to suggest that messages which received no responses should be seen as its attempt to present the other side of a story. The need to publish at once was not obvious. Again, the Press Council's views have been expressed before: "Deadlines or token attempts at making contact are not a sufficient reason for failing to provide balance". Indeed, this “story” had been around for some time. It should have been clear that a more balanced article could have been obtained once the investigation into Dr Trownson’s complaints had been considered by the Whanganui District Health Board, and another view of events could have been published.

The story and headline failed to meet necessary criteria for objectivity, fairness and balance. This was especially unfortunate when the publication of the Wanganui specialist’s name was likely to cause serious concern about the quality of specialist eye care in the Wanganui region. Publication of the article was also likely to seriously damage the professional reputation of the Wanganui eye specialist named in the story. The Press Council considers that this was indeed a breach of privacy.

The Press Council acknowledges that subsequent to the publication of the article, the newspaper published several letters in support of the eye specialist, and also articles conveying the Board’s unease at the publication of the article and its lack of balance. However, it does not find that these publications have lessened the negative impact of the lead story of 18 December 2004 with its headline and accompanying photograph and caption

The Press Council upholds the complaints.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Jeffries (Chairman), Suzanne Carty, Aroha Puata, Lynn Scott, Ruth Buddicom, Alan Samson, Murray Williams, Keith Lees, Terry Snow and John Gardner.