HOUSING NZ AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2711

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2018

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Privacy

Overview

Housing NZ complains that a July 19 story published by Stuff, originating from Franklin County News,breaches NZ Media Council Principle 2 (Privacy) by breaching the privacy of unidentified tenants who may move into a HNZ address.

The Complaint

Housing NZ complains that a July 19 Stuff story Note tells neighbours to beware of people moving into house that Housing NZ has bought breached the privacy of any tenants who might be moving into a HNZ address by identifying the address of an empty HNZ property.

The story said a note was being circulated in Tuakau, warning people that HNZ owned a property in Brian Cowley Pl in the north Waikato town.

The text of the story did not identify the address of the HNZ property. But an illustration of the note published with the story did, and the story included a photo of the particular house. The note was not complimentary about HNZ tenants and the perceived impact they would have on Brian Cowley Pl.

The Stuff story reported the reaction of Brian Cowley Pl residents, saying they were welcoming people and were shocked by the “discriminatory” note.

In its complaint to the Media Council, HNZ says it asked Stuff to not identify the address, to safeguard the privacy of incoming tenants, and notes other media outlets chose not to.

HNZ says Stuff breached the tenants’ privacy, regardless of the home being empty, because the Stuff story identified the incoming residents as beneficiaries, and identified them in a way that caused harm.

The complaint also noted that the “fact of being a beneficiary” was private and therefore subject to Principle 2.

“Publication of people’s income or financial status is amongst the most sensitive information a media outlet can distribute”.

In their complaint, HNZ also rejected Stuff’s assertion that the address was already publicly known, saying that the scale of publicity in Tuakau versus Stuff’s website were incomparable.

The Response

Stuff’s response noted that the yardstick to measure the merit of HNZ’s complaint was to ask “whose privacy had been breached”.

Stuff argued the answer was “No one” because the person did not exist when the story was written.

HNZ had also not identified a “single identifiable individual” whose privacy had been breached.

If there had been a person living in the home, Stuff says it would have considered whether to name them, and would have consulted with them directly.

Stuff also noted that ownership records of homes are easily available online - this was how Stuff confirmed the address in question was owned by HNZ. These records are also available to the public.

Stuff concluded by noting that the story was seen by hundreds of thousands of readers and the tone of comments online “largely backed” the residents’ desire to welcome their new neighbours without prejudice.

The Decision

NZ Media Council Principle 2 states:

Privacy

Everyone is normally entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information, and these rights should be respected by publications. Nevertheless the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest. Publications should exercise particular care and discretion before identifying relatives of persons convicted or accused of crime where the reference to them is not relevant to the matter reported. Those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration.

HNZ argues that incoming tenants have had their privacy breached.

Stuff’s response asks “whose privacy had been breached” and says “no one” because the person did not exist when the story was written.

One could argue the person does exist – but they have not been identified and may not know themselves yet that they are to be a tenant at the address in question.

Given the absence of an identifiable individual who has had their privacy breached, the Media Council has little option but to not uphold the complaint.

The Council also notes that there are several websites available to the public which allow Housing NZ properties to be identified.

However, as we have said before, we urge editors to think carefully about publishing exact addresses in their stories. On most occasions, they do not substantively add to the story especially when the public interest element of the story is covered off by other parts of the article. In other words, what is to be gained – or lost – by publishing the exact address.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Chris Darlow, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.