THE NZ MEDICAL ASSOCIATION AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 796

Council Meeting: August 2000

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld four complaints made by the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) against the New Zealand Herald.

The NZMA's complaints were against a series of articles and two editorials published over six consecutive days in February 2000. Although there were four separate complaints the NZMA believed that they needed to be read in the wider context of the whole series.

The series focused on a Herald investigation of patients who had suffered 'Medical Misadventure.' The Herald also published two editorials arising from the coverage of the patients' views and the conclusions which the Herald had arrived at as a result of their investigation.

The first complaint centred on a weekend editorial headed ' A haven for the harmful' with a sub heading 'Provision needs to be made to call doctors to account for negligence or carelessness'. In the same edition there were two full pages with four other 'Medical Misadventure' stories. The NZMA complained that the editorial criticised New Zealand doctors for being unaccountable and being virtually the only ones in the world who were not fully answerable at law when they were negligent and did serious harm. They claimed that the editorial did not berate other health professionals for being unaccountable, despite the fact that the Herald's case studies in the same edition highlighted medical errors by other health professionals who were not doctors.

The NZMA were particularly concerned about a follow up article published five days later headed 'Doctors duck blunder levy' with a sub heading, 'New commissioner seeking answers'. Continuing the 'Medical Misadventure' series the new Health and Disability commissioner advised that the 1992 ACC Act allowed for medical professionals to be levied for a medical misadventure fund - ACC law states the premium "shall be paid by every registered health professional". However, this levy had not been implemented. The article quoted Sir William Birch, the architect of the 1992 legislation which scrapped lump sum compensation, as saying that there was a clear intention to collect the levy but "the medical profession itself did not support it". The NZMA protested that once again doctors were being singled out among health professionals, in this case, to avoid paying a levy which the government had never implemented. They claimed that the headline was stated as fact when the story offered no evidence to support this, notwithstanding that the article was quoting the 1992 ACC Act and reporting on a comment made by Sir William Birch.

The third complaint was about the headline of an article printed the next day. 'Levy us and you'll pay say doctors.' NZMA chairwoman Dr Pippa MacKay, responding to the previous days headline, said that "doctors aren't ducking the blunder levy - health professionals have not been asked for it." She said she would happily pay it but "if a cost comes on to me I'm going to pass it on" which comment prompted the headline. Dr MacKay had been interviewed at length and had spoken about many other issues surrounding medical misadventure. The NZMA believed that the headline and angle of the story were unbalanced.

The final complaint dealt with a second editorial the following day, entitled 'Doctors should pay share of ACC levy' which the NZMA considered as continuing the focus on doctors to the exclusion of other health professionals. They also believed that the Herald was insinuating that NZMA had put pressure on the government not to implement the levy.

In summary the NZMA stated that their concerns were that the series conveyed the general impression that doctors were not accountable for their mistakes and that they have deliberately avoided paying an ACC Levy to a medical misadventure fund.

Taken in the wider context which the NZMA suggests should be adopted, the articles were not directed at criticism of doctors, or other health professionals. Rather the emphasis was on the failings of the ACC system, and the inability of individuals to sue health professionals for negligence. The Herald series highlighted the complex issues surrounding the ACC's role in compensation for medical misadventure and the articles were a wide ranging examination of the current problems facing mistreated patients. The issue was an important one and the Press Council considered that the series could have benefited from being developed further.

None of the complaints were upheld.