SIMON HAYES AGAINST MOUNTAIN SCENE

Case Number: 929

Council Meeting: JUNE 2003

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Mountain Scene

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge

The Press Council upholds the complaint of Mr Simon Hayes of Queenstown that the local newspaper Mountain Scene breached his privacy in putting together an article on 10 April, a two page feature on pages 6 and 7 under the headline, ‘HOMES ON SHOW.’ The Press Council did not uphold his complaint that the newspaper used subterfuge.

Mr Hayes objected in particular to the publication of two photographs of his house and its rateable value. Privacy issues arose, he believes because an arrangement he made out of a wish to contribute to a local charity led to publicity which he did not seek and clearly resents. There was subterfuge, he alleges, because the photographs were taken and the information for the story compiled without reference to him. His complaint accordingly centred on the Council’s principles 3 and 9.

As a fund-raiser, Wakatipu Plunket has, for the last eight years, organised tours of homes in the district. Mountain Scene’s report gave credit where credit was due,“eight generous local homeowners opened their doors for a good cause.” Those who took part paid $15 each and were given a land agent’s descriptions of the homes which they might visit, together with an information sheet setting out agreed conditions for conduct of the programme. No mention was made of prohibition of photography. The need to respect privacy was stressed only in an injunction to abide by the wishes of the owners as to which parts of their house were to be regarded as open.

Mountain Scene did not send a reporter or a photographer on this year’s tour. The newspaper states however that it had regularly featured “property news and individual properties.” As a result of the rapid increase in property values in the district local homes - “who owns which and what they’re worth are of high interest among a substantial portion of our readership.” The newspaper decided to run a feature this year when it became aware of photographs taken, quite openly, by a member of the public during the tour. The article in question was compiled, by making use of some of these photographs and public information about the properties, including their rateable values, plus information from the Plunket brochure, and observations “of striking features made by the person who took the photographs.” No fees were paid to the photographer. The newspaper took pains to “mask” the addresses of the homes which it featured. On the day of publication, to avoid any appearance of ‘exploiting’ the local Plunket organisation, the newspaper mailed them a cheque, equivalent to their standard freelance fee for a feature of that size. Publication of the report led to what Mountain Scene has described as a temporary “rift” with Plunket; after a meeting, “our earlier payment was increased somewhat, and a mix of advertising and editorial support offered. There was also a letter of regret (but not apology) to Plunket.”

In response to Mr Hayes, Mountain Scene, contended that the houses on the tour became public places by virtue of being opened to the public. The programme was not private; members of the public paid for the privilege; no restrictions were laid down as to who could join or about publicity or photography. The photographs were not taken surreptitiously; flash was sometimes used. The public character of the tour meant that there could be no question of subterfuge. The newspaper, in putting the story together, was merely doing its job of news gathering about a topic of self-evident local interest.

The Press Council does not accept Mountain Scene’s principal argument to the effect that because the houses were for a time opened to the public, they therefore became public places. A New Zealander’s, like an Englishman’s, home is his castle. The Council’s Principle 3 makes the point: “Everyone is entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information.” Privacy issues of course must be balanced against the public interest. There is however an important distinction to be made between what is interesting to the public and what is in the public interest. No doubt many members of the public in Queenstown, as elsewhere, are interested in other peoples houses; but that is not to say that it is in the public interest to publish information which the owners would rather not be published. It was thoughtless to impinge in this way on the private realm of individuals, especially in a small community. There is good cause to feel aggrieved when an instinct to support a local charity generates unwanted publicity.

There was, however, nothing clandestine or deceitful about the information gathering involved. The Council accordingly does not find that its principle 9, in relation to subterfuge was breached. Nevertheless, the newspaper would have done itself and the Wakitipu Plunket - and their ‘home tours’ fund-raiser - a service by consulting the home-owners concerned before publication. There is now a risk that home-owners may be less willing to support the programme in future. These are issues of courtesy and respect, more than transgressions of the Press Council’s principles to do with the role of a free press.
The Council upholds the complaint.