DIANA CLARK AGAINST THE NELSON EVENING MAIL

Case Number: 568

Council Meeting: MARCH 1995

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Nelson Mail

The New Zealand Press Council has upheld a complaint against the Nelson Evening Mail for a front-page story published on 19 October last year dealing with the circumstances, and consequences, of the death of an infant after a brain haemorrhage in Nelson Hospital the previous month. The article stated the local coroner had initiated a police investigation into the death, after professionals became concerned that the parents might not have been informed about a substance which could prevent haemorrhagic disease.

It cited the suspected failure of a general practitioner and midwife, who had attended the birth, to offer a routine injection of the substance.

A relative of the dead child subsequently complained to the Council that the newspaper had acted insensitively and unethically and had caused untold misery to the family by proceeding to publish matters of supposition before the results of a post-mortem examination were available and an inquest had been held.

The editor of the Evening Mail denied that the paper had been insensitive or unethical and told the Council that the newspaper had carried the report -- which had not named the child or family -- as a matter of evaluated public interest. Its concern, he said, had been that similiar deaths might occur unless the public were promptly made aware of the circumstances, and some health professionals shared such solicitude.

Members of the Press Council were unanimous only in describing the case as difficult, delicate and complex. After carefully reviewing submissions, some members of the Council considered that the Evening Mail had proceeded diligently and unexceptionably. A distinct majority, however, felt that -- on balance -- identifiable public-interest considerations had been insufficient in this particular case of competing concerns, to outweigh the personal distress occasioned to the family and to justify the intrusion into its private grief.

Accordingly the Council ruled in favour of the complainant. Its decision:
*Accepted that, although not named in the report, the family had been reasonably and easily identificable as quite well-known in a small community and by reason of a death notice, earlier published as a paid advertisement;
*Detected no breach of any ethical code in a reporter's reliance on such a death notice in tracing the parents;
*Dismissed suggestions that the newspaper's action had breached statutory provisions of the Official Information Act and the Privacy Act;
*Observed that there was no necessary obligation to withhold publication pending either the result of the post-mortem examination (still not yet officially known) or police advice to the family of their investigation (which the Evening Mail had, nevertheless, striven through the coroner to expedite and facilitate) and further observed that such were matters for professional discretion;
*Agreed that the facts of the cause of death were not established but held that it was, nevertheless, incontrovertible that responsible authorities suspected a particular potential contributory cause and had acted on such suspicion so that, on that ground, the Evening Mail's report had been accurate;
*Noted that much evidence, including come carried by the newspaper in its initial report, suggested the repetition of the suspected but still-undemonstrated procedural failure were rather slight.

Dealing with an associated and subsidiary complaint, the Council found no ground for reproach in the fact that a consequently published letter to the editor of the Evening Mail, protesting about the October 19 report, had been accorded a heading "Birth inquiry" rather than "Death inquiry."