MELANIE REWAI-COUCH AGAINST TVNZ

Case Number: 2730

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2018

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: TVNZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Children and Young People
Headlines and Captions
Privacy
Schools, Identification of
Social Media

Overview

1. Melanie Riwai-Couch complains against the New Zealand Herald, Stuff andTVNZ about their publication, on websites and Facebook pages, of the details of an incident at a schools rugby championship match. She is of the view that there were breaches of Media Council principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), 2 (privacy) and 3 (children and young people).

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint against TVNZ.It upholds in part, the complaints againstStuff and the New Zealand Herald as a breach of Principle 3.

Background

3. On September 7, 2018, there was an incident at a schools rugby championship match which resulted in the issuing of a red card to a player. There is some debate over the precise nature of the incident, but it was reported by all three media outlets as stomping on the head of an opposing player and punching another player shortly afterwards.The match was televised, and a video of the incident with some comment was published on theStuff and NZ Herald Facebook pages and on the Stuff and TVNZ websites. The 16-year-old player was not specifically named but was easily identifiable.Stuff published follow-up articles on 9, 11 and 13 September. The last article reported the outcome of a judiciary board hearing at which the player was banned from playing for six weeks. The judiciary found that there had been foot connection with a shoulder and a punch but no head stomping. This last piece of information was not reported byStuff, and was apparently not available to it at the time of its last report.

4. The publication on Facebook of the video and commentary resulted in a large number of online comments, some supporting the player but many highly critical of him and including very hurtful remarks.

5. In view of the effect of the comments on the player, Dr Riwai-Couch asked both theNew Zealand Herald and Stuff to take down the Facebook post. The New Zealand Herald took down its post, but the Stuff post remained in place.Stuff asked Dr Riwai-Couch to identify the offensive comments and indicated that they were moderating comments. Some comments were then deleted at Dr Riwai-Couch’s request.

The Complaint

6. Dr Riwai-Couch complains first of a breach of the Media Council Principle 1. In her letter to the deputy editor ofStuff, Keith Lynch, she lists her concerns as:

  • The reporting of this particular red card, but not others issued in the course of the championships
  • The failure to report that despite the serious nature of the incident, the injured player was not significantly injured and was able to continue playing both in that game and later in the tournament
  • The apparent targeting of one school team in the championships

7. Her second complaint is of a breach of the young person’s privacy, given that he was easily identifiable. She considers there was also insufficient weight given to the requirement for special consideration for those suffering from trauma or grief.

8. The third complaint concerns Principle 3 which requires the media to demonstrate an exceptional degree of public interest before it may override the interests of a child or young person. In this case there were significant concerns for the young person’s mental health and it was clearly not in his interests to be subjected either to the initial publicity or the subsequent comment.

9. In addition, Dr Riwai-Couch raised other ethical grounds for her complaint, particularly the failure ofStuff to remove the story on request and its reliance on her, as a member of the public, to monitor the Facebook page and advise of offensive comments. In her viewStuff created a forum for significant online harassment and bullying without consideration of potential mental health issues. It did not afford the young person the same protection against identification as is given in the courts, despite his involvement in a judicial process.

10. Dr Riwai-Couch’s complaints against the New Zealand Herald andTVNZ are largely identical to the complaint against Stuff, with the omission of items relating toStuff’srefusal to remove the story. She also calls in question the editing of the video and the accuracy of a headline that mentions stomping on a player’s head.

The Response

Stuff response

11. Geoff Collett, Editor-in-Chief, editorial verticals, responded to the complaint.He explained that whileStuff does not routinely cover school-grade rugby, such events are monitored for newsworthy items. In this case, staff were alerted to the incident by aTVNZ news report.

12. Stuff’s report itself was straightforward, brief and non-sensational. In the audio track to the video the referee can clearly be heard saying “He’s stomped on a player’s head and on top of that he’s gone and laid [?] a punch out after I’ve blown the whistle” Stuff did not name or otherwise identify the player, but a highlighted circle was placed over his body for a short segment of the video to help readers see him during the incident. This is standard practice.

13. The decision to post the item on the Facebook page was prompted by audience interest in the story. In general, the Facebook comments were mixed and did not stand out as being especially unfair or offensive in the context of social media comments. However staff moderated the page and took down those comments about which there were direct complaints.

14. The day after the story was posted, there was discussion about requests to take down the Facebook page.There was specific discussion of Media Council Principle 3, and the conclusion was reached that in the context of rugby violence, head injuries in sport, the prominence of the event and young people’s interest in top-level schoolboy rugby, the item met the public interest threshold. It was in the category of other ugly incidents that had emerged from schoolboy sports events and had been widely reported.

15. Requests to take down the page continued and there was a further discussion in the light of comments suggesting that the boy’s mental health was at risk. There was no specific suggestion of self-harm or worse, butStuff staff contacted the school principal for his opinion. He made it clear that “the boy was suffering and remorseful for the incident but there was no indication to us of any serious risk of self-harm or similar.”

16. Mr Collett detailed Stuff’s general practice in response to requests to remove a story and concluded that this was not a case where the consequences of publication were disproportionate to the story.

17. Stuff reporters were excluded from the judicial hearing and participants in it declined to provide any information other than that the player had received a six-week ban. There was informal and confidential advice that the ban was not for stomping, but no formal information on this point. However Stuff removed the reference to stomping from the report on the outcome of the hearing.

The New Zealand Herald response

18. Oskar Alley, Senior Newsroom editor, responded on behalf of theNew Zealand Herald. He considers that there is no doubt the stomp took place, and it was accurately reported. TheNew Zealand Herald did not edit the video in any way, and published it in accordance with a “fair use” agreement which required it to be taken down after 24 hours. The fact that the injured player was able to continue playing both on the same day and later in the tournament is irrelevant to the seriousness of the incident. In any event, the next match in which he played was on the day after publication.

19. It is unrealistic to suggest that a nationally televised rugby game is a private event. In addition, theNew Zealand Herald did not name the player.It is not accepted that the “grief and trauma” provision applies. The fact that the player was facing a judiciary hearing is “entirely of his own making”.

20. Mr Alley submits that newsroom managers specifically discussed the principle relating to children and young people, and the likelihood of negative feedback on social media and other forums. As a result they decided not to name the player. However the foul play took place in public, was televised and was very much a matter of public interest.

21. The article did not create a forum for harassment and cyber-bullying – it was an accurate report of an incident at a high-profile rugby tournament. It is now routine for journalism to be published on social media and to attract comments. The New Zealand Herald allocates considerable resource to moderating comments but has no control over wider publication.

22. In general, Mr Alley is of the view that “a 16-year-old is close to becoming an adult, can legally drive and should take at least some responsibility for their actions. In this case the media coverage and inevitable social media debate serve to demonstrate how socially unacceptable extreme violence on the sports field is.”

The TVNZ response

23. The TVNZ complaints committee considered Dr Riwai-Couch’s complaint and responded to her and later to the Media Council. Its response to the complaint was similar to that of theNew Zealand Herald and Stuff in its views on the questions of accuracy, fairness and bias. It noted that it did not have any information about the seriousness of the injuries inflicted and also that the player’s school had an agreement (that did not extend to other schools) with SKY television about televising the school’s games. The incident had been covered by the broadcast on SKY and was information in the public domain, so that there was no breach of privacy. It did not agree that being red-carded for a foul was occasion for trauma and grief.

24. TVNZ did not respond in any detail to the complaint under Principle 3. It said that in the circumstances of the screening it did not agree that the interests of the young person were overridden. “The footage and incident were already in the public realm before TVNZ published and this publication had been agreed to by the parties concerned.” In response to the complaints on general ethical grounds, it noted thatTVNZ does not permit comments on “1 News Now”. The comments on the Facebook page were moderated according toTVNZ policy. It did not consider the rugby judiciary as comparable to a court of law.

The Decision

25. Although Dr Riwai-Couch complains about three separate media organisations and there are some differences between the three complaints and the organisations’ response to the complaints, the underlying issues are the same and the Media Council has decided to consider them all together.

26. The Media Council would like to acknowledge the careful preparation that has gone into both the formulation of the complaints by Dr Riwai-Couch and the responses from the three media outlets. The issues are clearly identified and supported with evidence, and this has made the consideration of this complex matter much easier that it might otherwise have been.

27. Under Principle 1, Dr Riwai-Couch raises one question of accuracy and others of fairness and balance. The question of accuracy relates to theTVNZ headline which mentions “stomping on player’s head”.After the rugby judiciary hearing it became apparent that there had been no stomping but the video recording of the incident includes a clear statement from the referee that he was giving the red card for stomping on a player’s head and throwing a punch after the whistle had been blown. The headline was an accurate reflection of this information. It appears that at least up until the date of the final responses to this complaint,Stuff had been unable to obtain any detail of the outcome of the hearing other than that a six-week ban had been imposed.

28. Dr Riwai-Couch sees the reporting as singling out a particular incident and a particular team when other red cards had been issued and at least one similar incident involving another team had occurred during the tournament. In addition she considers there to be bias and unfairness in the failure to report that the injured player was not seriously hurt and was able to continue playing, both that day and later in the championships. If the report in question had been a general report on the tournament and had included only the one red card incident, the suggestion of bias or unfairness might have been valid. However the report was simply a report of what appeared to be a particularly extreme instance of foul play, and the context in which it should be taken is the debate on violence in sport rather than general sports reporting. In that context, no bias or unfairness is apparent.

29. Equally, the Media Council does not consider that the publication amounted to a breach of the player’s privacy.He was participating in a tournament played in public, in a match that was televised by arrangement with his school. Players’ names and their positions in a team were available to spectators, including those commentating on the game. His name was not made public by any of the publications against which this complaint is made. While he was undoubtedly upset and concerned for himself, his team and the injured player, this does not amount to trauma and grief of the kind envisaged by Principle 2. The principle is more likely to apply to extreme cases such as a child who has witnessed the death of a parent.

30. The assessment under Principle 3 is a question of balancing interests.It is clear that the young person is suffering, and could reasonably be expected to suffer from the attention paid to him by the media and by individuals commenting on the media reports. It is also clear that there is a public interest in reporting and condemning violence in sport, especially in rugby, and especially among young players where injuries can have particularly catastrophic consequences. However Principle 3 requires not merely some public interest but an exceptional degree of public interest to override the interests of the young person.

31. While Principle 3 does not distinguish between the interests of a young child and the interests of a young person who is approaching adulthood, it needs to be recognised that it may not always be in the interests of the latter to be protected against the consequences of his or her actions. It will, however, be in his or her interests to be protected against disproportionate consequences.

32. If the Media Council was only considering the effect on the interests of the young person of the publication of the video and news stories, it would have little difficulty in deciding not to uphold the complaint. The reporting was factual, it was not sensational and it did not demonise the player. It was published in the context of considerable public interest in violence in sport, particularly rugby. However the same cannot be said of the comments that were posted on the two Facebook pages. The nature of online social media comments is now well known, and both Stuff and theNew Zealand Herald must have been aware that they were exposing a young person, who was already uncomfortably facing the consequences of his actions, to the likelihood of disproportionate abuse and vilification. While theNew Zealand Herald appears to have removed the story from its Facebook page reasonably promptly (at Dr Riwai-Couch’s request),Stuff did not. Individual comments on the Stuff Facebook page were removed from time to time, but only when Dr Riwai-Couch requested their removal.There is no evidence ofStuff’s moderators initiating any action. The Media Council acknowledges Stuff’s action in contacting the school principal about the player’s mental health before deciding not to take down the story, but is not satisfied that the action was sufficient. The Facebook page should have been taken down.

33. The complaint against TVNZ is not upheld. The complaint against Stuff is upheld under Principle 3 only. While the Media Council recognises the reasonably prompt action taken by theNew Zealand Herald to take down its Facebook post, it also upholds the complaint against it under Principle 3 on the basis that the story should never have been posted on Facebook in the first place, and recognising that the majority of comments will be made within a short time of the first posting.

Decision

Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tracy Watkins.

Craig Cooper took no part in the consideration of the complaint against the New Zealand Herald.