Andy Boreham accuses Waikato Times of failing to comply with Principles 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance) and 5 (headlines and captions) of the Press Council Statement of Principles in reporting matters arising from the death of Catherine McGregor in April 2010.

The complaint is not upheld 7:3, in a split decision of the Council.

On 4 December 2010 Waikato Times ran a story headed “Woman’s death linked to party pills”. The story reported on a coronial hearing as to the causes of Ms McGregor’s death. The opening paragraph read “She took up to four pills, had a seizure and never came to: a Hamilton woman’s death in April has raised new concerns over party pills”. The story went on to describe events leading to Ms McGregor’s death and testimony from a neurosurgeon, a police officer and associates of the deceased given at the coronial hearing. The story concluded with observations made by the Coroner when adjourning the hearing.

The coroner reportedly raised the issue as to whether party pills “were safe”, this being a matter of public interest.

The Complaint
Mr Boreham claims the Waikato Times headline was misleading in that it inferred legal party pills led to Ms McGregor’s death when there has been no finding to this effect.

Mr Boreham says that as the evidence presented to the coroner indicated Ms McGregor had also consumed alcohol and cannabis on the day she died, as well as testing positive for amphetamine, it was wrong for the newspaper to lead its story with the suggestion that “legal” party pills were the cause of death.

Mr Boreham refers to the evidence of the neurosurgeon, Dr Balakrishnan, who concluded Ms McGregor’s fatal brain haemorrhage was “most probably” drug induced, although he could not rule out that the haemorrhage could have been caused by a brain abnormality.

Mr Boreham’s point is that Ms McGregor could have died through any number of reasons, reasons still to be determined.

Mr Boreham claims the headline is “scaremongering”, “sensationalist” and misleading. Mr Boreham is concerned the article could cause “undue stress and panic” for legal party pill users.

The Response
Waikato Times responds by denying the headline is misleading. The newspaper says the heading is “…factually correct in that the death was linked to party pills – in a temporal sense – because Catherine McGregor died shortly after taking party pills. That’s the link”. Waikato Times says neither the heading nor the story states that Ms McGregor’s death was caused by her consuming party pills. The story referred to the coronial hearing being adjourned while further investigations were carried out.

The newspaper claims considerable public interest in issues around party pills.

The Decision
The Council has carefully considered the Waikato Times article. Mr Boreham’s complaint is directed at the headline not the article itself. The majority of the Press Council does not agree with Mr Boreham.

The issue revolves around the word “linked”. The word “link” in this context basically means “implicated in”.

The Council regards the article itself to be balanced and fair. It reported a judicial enquiry. It referred to uncontested evidence that the deceased not only consumed alcohol and cannabis but she also took party pills on the day she died. The article made it clear the hearing was being adjourned pending further investigation into the possible cause of the amphetamine’s presence.

It was appropriate for the headline to refer to a link between party pills and Ms McGregor’s death in the light of the Coroner’s refusal to suppress the deceased’s name and his statement that the question as to whether party pills are safe is of public interest. In these circumstances the majority of the Council did not accept the headline was inaccurate, misleading or that it failed to fairly convey the substance of the report.

A majority of seven members of the Press Council voted to not uphold the complaint.

A minority of three members of the Council would have upheld the complaint. The minority view is that “linked” as used in the heading conveys the meaning of “caused”. As such it does not fairly convey a key element of the story, namely that the cause of death has not been established.

Press Council members not upholding the complaint were Kate Coughlan, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Keith Lees, Chris Darlow, Penny Harding, John Roughan and Lynn Scott.

Press Council members who dissented from this decision were Barry Paterson, Stephen Stewart and Sandy Gill.


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