The decision of the editor of the Kapiti Mail to run a photograph on his front page depicting two young girls involved in an alleged abduction, has been strongly criticised by the New Zealand Press Council.

The photograph, published under the heading “abduction was a hoax” told the story of two young sisters, a 10 year old and a three year old, who wandered away from where they should have been, to a local park. They were found there by an older brother who advised them they would be in trouble at home for wandering away. The 10 year old, afraid of the consequences then fabricated a story that she had been grabbed by a man and shoved into the back of a car but that she had managed to escape..

The parents believed her and reported the allegation to Paraparaumu police who followed it up spending much time knocking on doors and appealing for information. The news media were alerted. Within 36 hours it was established there was no truth to the story and the media advised accordingly.

During the time police were working on the case, the parents supplied a photograph of their daughters to the police on the firm understanding it would be published only for the initial enquiry and that it could not be published unless the faces of the girls were blacked out completely. On this understanding the police supplied a copy of the photograph to the Kapiti Mail on the same conditions.

The colour photograph of the girls (the three year old entirely innocent) was reproduced with the faces of the girls blurred but both were wearing distinctive clothing. The parents immediately complained to the police and to the newspaper. The Area Controller of Kapi Mana police Mr C.G.O’Fee also complained to the editor. There was no doubts the girls the girls were identified by others and subject to unwanted attention and harassment over the incident, which also caused distress to their family.

In his reply to the controller the editor, Richard Woodd, said when it was revealed there had been no abduction he decided to publish the photo “purely to illustrate the seriousness of the situation and to illustrate the lengths to which police went to deal with it. I was impressed by the way the police handled this incident and I feel the public should be aware of the effort.”

The photograph had been sent to the scanning department with the instruction that the faces be obscured. “Unfortunately this instruction was not completely followed. However it is not possible to identify these girls from their faces,” Mr Woodd told the Council. The evidence available to the Council indicated the children were easily identified from the photograph.

In his response to the Press Council, Mr Woodd said he was distressed when the photograph appeared without the blacking out of the faces. “It appeared the scanner operator chose to ‘muddy’ the facial features but not sufficiently to remove their features. I believe I did everything required of me to disguise the girls’ identity.”

The use of the word “hoax” in the headline was due to the fact that the reporter on the story told him the girls’ story had turned out to be a hoax. “I was making up the front page at the time and it was a word that fitted nicely. I agree that in hindsight it was not an appropriate word for the circumstances.”

The photograph of the girls was supplied to the police and by the police to the newspaper with firm conditions on any use made of it. Clearly the use made by the Kapiti Mail of it, was in violation of those conditions. No matter that the editor issued instructions that the faces in the photograph were to be blacked out, the fact that the photograph was used at all is of great concern to the Council. The newspaper already was aware that the story the 10 year old had concocted was false yet went ahead with publishing the photograph on the front page. The Council considered there is an overriding public interest to protect children and young persons from unnecessary media attention, of which this was an example.

The Council has no great difficulty with the article itself which covered the background, but the use of the word “hoax” in the headline was unjustified.

The complaint is upheld.


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