The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Barry Williams of Pakuranga about a front-page photograph and report in the Howick and Pakuranga Times on 28 January 2002. They concerned a tapu-lifting ceremony held three days before at the Pakuranga site where a 12-year-old boy tragically fell to his death on 13 January.

Mr Williams claimed that the newspaper breached his family’s privacy by reporting the ceremony, by detailing the names of his wife and children, and by referring to him as the deceased boy’s stepfather, “a term which is never and has never been used when describing my relationship with my son.” He alleged that the Council’s principles regarding Children and Young People, and Photographs, had also been infringed. He claimed that he had indicated to the reporter that he and his family wished “to be left alone to deal with our loss” and that she had said “ Don’t worry we won’t do anything”. He also complained that his attempts to contact the editor had been dealt with too casually.

The editor advised the Press Council that the newspaper had carefully considered how to cover the tapu-lifting ceremony. The boy had been playing with a younger cousin on the roof of a Watercare Services pump station and had fallen through a skylight. There was community concern that such a tragedy could occur on a publicly-owned facility, and the Pakuranga Community Board had discussed what needed to be done to prevent a recurrence. The newspaper had been advised by a local resident that the tapu-lifting ceremony was being held. The ceremony was attended by family and friends, and by Watercare Services senior management and staff. The editor took the view that it was a newsworthy event in the community, and defended the professional conduct of his staff. The reporter denied that she had said “Don’t worry we won’t do anything.” The photographer said that he took considerable care not to be intrusive, the photograph showing a back view of two figures walking away after the ceremony. They were not individually identified.

An earlier report of the boy’s death in The New Zealand Herald quoted a police source as saying that “the family had not given permission for the boy to be named”, and Mr Williams wished that constraint to continue. His desire for total privacy is understandable, and testifies to the depth of his care and concern for his family, but it was unrealistic. Given the circumstances, and the community concern and sympathy that were aroused, it was inevitable that the boy’s name would enter the public arena. The reporter had obtained it in a routine way from another police source, and the death notices in The New Zealand Herald had given all the other family information used in the report (including the description of the boy as Mr Williams’s stepson).

The Press Council considers that the photograph and the brief text below it do not breach its principles. The right to privacy is not an absolute one. It must be weighed against the newspaper’s right and responsibility to inform its readers of significant events in the local community. Full consideration appears to have been given to the several cautionary statements in the Press Council’s Statement of Principles. The text is respectful and sensitive in tone, and the photograph is dignified and moving. It is unfortunate that Mr Williams was not able to raise his concerns directly with the editor as promptly as he wished, but the Council does not think the newspaper acted in an unfeeling or arrogant way towards him.

The complaint is not upheld.


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