GEOFF STEVENS AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 989

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint about coverage in The Press of a fatal climbing accident on Mount Aspiring.

The report, which appeared on April 21, actually originated from the New Zealand Press Association and featured extensive comments by professional climbing guide Paul Rogers, of Wanaka. Mr Rogers had actually been, the night before, at the hut from which the three climbers departed on their fatal climb, and had offered them some advice.

Mr Rogers said that from his observations he formed the impression that the group members did not know each other well. "You should know the people that you tie in with and you should have an agreed plan . . . they were a dysfunctional group of people on the mountain."

Geoff Stephens, of Christchurch, complained to The Press that he had noticed a pattern for articles about mountain-climbing accidents, like this one, to include comments from a professional guide which, in his view, often amounted to an advertisement for guiding services.

Mr Stephens also complained that the criticism of the climbers in this case lacked any balance such as a comment from a group member who survived.

The Press responded by publishing Mr Stephen's criticisms as a letter to the editor with a footnote that an attempt had been made to get comment from the survivor who had declined to respond.

Not satisfied, Mr Stephens complained to the Press Council, emphasising that the essence of his complaint was that the critical comments by Mr Rogers had not been balanced by friends or relatives of the group members.

The editor responded that it was a longstanding practice to seek expert comment on any tragedy and the comments by Mr Rogers were particularly apposite because he had seen and spoken with the climbers immediately before the fatal climb. Those comments were in no way a plug for professional climbing services. Mr Rogers had merely outlined what happened and how he believed the tragedy could have been avoided.

The editor said The Press had carried an article quoting family and friends of the climbers a few days previously and had approached the survivor about Mr Rogers' comments but he had declined to be interviewed.

The Council believes it was entirely proper for The Press to have reported Mr Rogers' comments, giving as they did an expert and close-up view of what happened.

Certainly newspapers need to avoid gratuitous criticism of accident victims but this report represented a constructive follow-up, offering a useful pointer to how similar tragedies might be avoided.

The complaint is not upheld.