ALEXANDRA POPPLETON AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3259

Council Meeting: MAY 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Photographs
Privacy
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

Overview

[1] Alexandra Poppleton has complained about an article that appeared in Stuff on February 18, 2022, headlined ‘Woman dies at home of real estate boss after taking drugs at Christmas party’.

[2] The article reports the death of Bella Mulligan, 57, in Wellington last December, describing her as a “sales and marketing professional” and “the life and soul of the party” who took “what she thought was the drug MDMA” and died later that night. The article does not say what is what she might have taken if it was not MDMA and does not explicitly say the death resulted from the drug use.

 [3] The story emphasises the context surrounding Ms Mulligan’s death, stating in the first line that she died at the home of a “real estate boss” and, in the second line, that the party, at a different address, was attended by “a high-ranking police officer” who had since been interviewed by police. Ms Mulligan’s husband is identified as the owner of Motor Doctors in Johnsonville, where the Christmas party took place, but is only named as “John”. The real estate boss is named as Paul Ellis, a Harcourts franchise owner, and owner of the house where Ms Mulligan was taken when she became ill. The article says the police officer “cannot be named”.

The Complaint

[4] Ms Poppleton’s complaint is extensive and ranges across multiple principles, claiming the article “reduced Bella to a drug-user and party animal”.

[5] Under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, she says the article is inaccurate as there is no evidence Ms Mulligan died of drug use and the coroner is yet to report; it unfairly implicates Ms Mulligan’s husband, Mr Ellis and the police officer in drug use; and the story is wrongly categorised as a ‘crime’ story.

[6] Ms Poppleton says the article also fails under Principle 2, Privacy. She says even though Ms Mulligan has died she is due privacy and her death is not a matter of public interest. Stuff is sensationalising her death, using it to tell the story of Mr Ellis and the police officer. As such there was no need to use her name or photograph or the details of her husband’s business. By using those Stuff has caused harm and distress to Ms Mulligan’s family and friends. The detailed reportage is “unprofessional and callous”.

[7] On Principle 4, Comment and Fact, the complainant says that while the article claimed Ms Mulligan “took what she thought was MDMA”, there was no way the reporter could know her thoughts. It was also wrong for the headline to speculate her death was as a result of drugs.

[8] The complainant also says the article breaches Principle 6, Headlines and Captions. The headings and subheadings reference the real estate boss and police officer and these are not key facts if the story is about Ms Mulligan’s death.

[9] In a follow-up comment Ms Poppleton says even if there is a public interest in reporting the death, it could have been done without the use of names or photographs. Ms Mulligan did not have the profile to justify such a story.

The Response

[10] On behalf of Stuff, Editor-in-Chief Bernadette Courtney rejects all the complaints, saying Stuff was “very careful not to say Ms Mulligan’s death was a drug overdose, rather that she died after taking drugs”. She says the story was categorised under ‘crime’ because MDMA is an illicit Class B drug and the story reported that a senior police officer was at the party.

[11] In terms of Privacy, Stuff says that all parties involved in the story were approached and given the opportunity to comment. “This included providing them with the background to the story we planned to publish and a list of questions several days in advance of publication”. Using “a photo of Ms Mulligan’s husband’s business is fair and accurate reporting”.

[12] Stuff argues the story is certainly in the public interest as it highlights the potential dangers of taking drugs. The police investigation underway and the presence of a senior police officer are also matters of public interest.

[13] Ms Courtney says the police officer was unable to be named for legal reasons. They would have named him if they could. Finally, she says it is a fact Ms Mulligan died at the real estate boss’s house.

The Discussion

[14] Although there are issues of inaccuracy to be considered it’s important to note the complaint does not dispute the key elements reported in the story as to what happened, where, when and to whom. Rather, the complaint deals with how those details were reported and the implications drawn by Stuff.

[15] On one hand the story is a relatively straight forward report of an unexplained death in tragic and perhaps controversial circumstances. On the other it is unusually speculative, leaving doubt about the drugs taken, cause of death, and the involvement of the police officer.

[16] Notably, none of the facts and claims in the story are attributed and it is unclear how or where Stuff sourced them. It mentions the attendance of a high-ranking police officer without saying why his attendance is of significance, naming him or even saying why it can’t name him. It says “it is thought” investigators are waiting for toxicology results. The story even raises police concerns about synthetic cathinones without making any connection between those and Ms Mulligan’s death.

[17] The response from Stuff has done little to help the Council understand why the story has been reported this way. Stuff repeats many of the complainants concerns but actually addresses few of them.

[18] The Council is left to presume that the details of Ms Mulligan’s death were sourced from unofficial sources who did not want to be named and Stuff expects more to come out on this story in due course. It is unclear why Stuff does not say more about that in the story or in its response.

[19] It’s understandable that friends and family of the deceased are concerned by the manner in which the story has been reported, but as noted at the start of this section the story at its heart is relatively straight-forward and does not breach any principles.

[20] While the reader is left to join the dots between the drug use and Ms Mulligan’s death, Stuff has followed standard procedure in its careful wording – in both the headline and the story – that the death occurred after the use of drugs, not because of it. Stuff reports that the coroner is still to rule on the cause of death and that the police are still investigating, so readers are clearly told that information is yet to come.

[21] Stuff could have homed the story under another category than ‘crime’ given the tragedy of the death, but as Ms Courtney says the story is in part about the use of MDMA at a party, which is a criminal act.

[22] Any unexplained death – especially with these surrounding details, including illegal drug-taking – is certainly in the public interest and privacy principles do not apply here. While it can be hard for the families and friends of those involved, reporting on unexplained deaths and criminal activity is unquestionably in the public interest.

[23] Given there is no confirmation the drug use and the death are connected, it’s a reach for Stuff to claim the story acts to educate readers about the dangers of drugs. But it is nothing unusual for media to report on local unexplained deaths. When they do it is a journalist’s duty to report as many facts as they can gather and confirm (including basic information such as names, photographs and the deceased’s movements on the night). To not do so because it may upset their friends and whanau would undermine much daily reporting and the industry’s commitment to clarity and transparency.

[24] Despite Ms Poppleton’s concerns that Stuff used the real estate boss and police officer (a senior public servant) to sensationalise the story, no-one is challenging the fact they were there and so are a part of the story surrounding this loss of life.

[25] The complainant raises a fair point when she says Stuff could not have known what Ms Mulligan was thinking; again the story suffers from a lack of attribution but that does not breach any principle.

[26] Finally, Ms Courtney notes everyone mentioned in the story was approached for comment and this claim is unchallenged. No-one is obliged to speak to the media, especially in a period of mourning, but if someone had there’s no doubt Stuff would have used those comments, been able to give more detail about Ms Mulligan and it would have been a very different story.

 Decision: The complaint is Not Upheld under Principles 1,2,4 and 6

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Ben France-Hudson, Richard Pamatatau, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom, Reina Vaai and Tim Watkin.

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