DEBORAH GREENE AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY
Deborah Greene has complained that an article and a related double page feature in the Herald on Sunday of May 17, 2015 headlined "The rise and rise of the baby whisperers" breached Press Council Principles 3 (children and young people) and (by implication) Principle 1 (fairness, accuracy and balance).
The complaint is not upheld.
The feature, the news "write off" and an online version dealt with the growth and efficacy of techniques to deal with babies that did not sleep well or who woke during the night and how parents could get them back sleep.
It covered some methods including various ones used by Emma Purdue and her consultants that involved leaving children to cry for varying lengths of time partly to help parents starved of a good night's sleep. They included "no cry", controlled crying and the "extinction" method of leaving the child to cry till it falls asleep.
It also mentioned competing sleep consultant Karen Biddlecombe's Karen's Simple Sleep business and included the views of various experts who were not in the consultancy business, as well as warnings about the use of sleep consultants.
Ms Greene alleges the article only showed one side of the story and the information presented depicted the type of sleep training, advocated by Emma Purdue and her Baby Sleep Consultant business, as normal when it had been shown to be harmful to babies.
She further complained the stories did not represent the many parents who rejected the technique and would never recommend it.
Her complaint also asserted there was no registration or training required to teach the method and this was not given sufficient weight. She said Emma Purdue had no expertise other than that of any other mother, but the emphasis of the story was on her business rather than her credentials and that it "advertised" her services with young babies and was a "puff piece".
The Response from the Newspaper
Herald on Sunday editor Miriyana Alexander responded saying the genesis of the article was the growing baby sleep consultancy sector and its unregulated nature. She said the focus was not on the techniques used or their rights and wrongs.
She rejected the claim the article was dangerous or one-sided, pointing to the inclusion of views from Parents Centre (which warned members to be wary of sleep consultants), an academic with specialist knowledge of sleep disorders, Professor Barry Taylor, Plunket and two mothers.
Ms Alexander said nothing in the article referred to the method as "normal".
She said the lack of registration in the sector was mentioned and there was criticism of that. She also rejected the claim the article was an advertisement for the techniques, noting the only contact details in it were for Plunket's 0800 number.
Discussion and Decision
Ms Greene clearly has strong objections to the techniques used by Ms Purdue and believes sincerely that it is harmful to children.
However it seems to the Council a complaint under Principle 3 is misdirected and cannot be upheld. That principle should not be applied to matters where all children or a category of children are affected but rather its thrust is to deal with situations where individual children and young people are depicted and to protect the interests of the child or young person - and often that will include issues of privacy. Ms Greene makes no case against the article in that regard - rather it is a call not to use a sleep technique that could harm children generally.
In relation to Principle 1 the article included a range of views both supportive and critical of various sleep techniques. Balance can't be measured by word count or column inches devoted to the various viewpoints, although Ms Greene implies that in her final response.
The articles canvassed a range of opinions and experiences and demonstrated an exemplary approach to seeking balance. In an area where there is controversy and disagreement it gives a fair voice to the opposition view.
They may not draw the conclusion Ms Greene would wish, or come down on her side of the debate, but that is not the same as being unbalanced. Indeed the only follow up included was the Plunket Hotline.
It was overtly stated that in the view of some experts the techniques tried to fix perceived problems that are normal sleep patterns. The warnings from opponents that the technique may be damaging to children were given prominence.
The Council does not accept completely the editor's argument the articles did not focus on the techniques. She is correct that the was a heavy emphasis on the growing "business" of sleep consultancy but some methods and their success were described at length through individual experiences, both good and bad. Also, as Ms Alexander points out, there was a sidebar on the techniques though that did not pass judgement on them.
However the Council believes that the coverage of the techniques was not unbalanced or one sided.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.