ELIZABETH OVERTON AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDIntroduction
The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Elizabeth Overton against the New Zealand Herald about an article entitled “No accounting for mistakes” which appeared in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday July 17 and on nzherald.co.nz from the same day.
The article is part of the ongoing debate surrounding the reassessment of the findings of the well-known 1988 Cartwright inquiry into the treatment of cervical abnormalities at Auckland's National Women's Hospital. It reports that Auckland University supports history professor Linda Bryder’s academic freedom to express her views in the revisionist work A History of the “Unfortunate Experiment” at National Women’s Hospital “despite scientific evidence showing her [Bryder’s] central conclusion is wrong.”
The report gives voice to a chorus of critics of Bryder’s view that there was no experiment and so the conclusions of the Cartwright inquiry were wrong. Critics included academics from Otago and Auckland universities, from Deakin University in Australia and a recent Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology report supporting Cartwright’s interpretation of scientific data at the heart of the inquiry’s findings.
The article canvasses a range of other related material including: a call for Bryder to apologise to people affected, Bryder’s view that she is the subject of a smear campaign, support for academic freedom from various quarters and a list of apparent ‘Inaccuracies in Linda Bryders book”.
Elizabeth Overton complained that the article contained a mistake in the following sentence: “She [Clare Matheson] was discharged in 1979 [from National Women’s Hospital] with carcinoma present.”
She argued: “The last smear Clare Matheson had at National Women’s before leaving Auckland was on 27th September 1979. This was normal.”
Therefore it is a factual error that merits correction as it infers inadequate management at National Women’s Hospital.
Despite a lengthy response from the newspaper disagreeing with her pivotal assertion the complainant restated her case that the article contained one error of fact.
The newspaper editor said the relevant medical file had been “checked and rechecked” and it showed a repeated finding of carcinoma in situ over 12 years. The editor argued that despite the negative smears, the complainant would be aware that pathological finding over-rides the negative smear findings.
The response also included a significant degree of complex medical information which - in her second letter to the newspaper – the complainant argued was essentially anecdotal and irrelevant to her pivotal assertion.
Following the newspaper’s response, the complaint was received by the Press Council accompanied by a summary of the patient’s medical notes. The complainant noted that the smear which accompanied the patient on her discharge from National Women’s Hospital in 1979 was grade 1 – which is normal. The patient was referred back to National Women’s Hospital six years later with overt cancer.
At the core of this complaint is Elizabeth Overton’s opinion that no woman would ever be sent out of hospital with carcinoma present.
In response, the newspaper quoted the independent expert to the Cartwright inquiry and argued that a 1977 pathological finding for the patient in question should over-ride a negative smear from two years later.
Despite both parties providing significant amounts of detailed medical information in support of their view, the material did not provide a clear answer. It is beyond the expertise of the Press Council to interpret complex medical reports, pathology results and transcripts of expert testimony let alone come to conclusions about their accuracy and significance some 30 years later. The interpretation of this complex medical data causes ongoing debate even among experts.
Therefore the complaint is not upheld.
The Council would like to note, however, that given its role in supporting freedom of the press and freedom of expression, it is unwilling to support the contention of the newspaper that because the matter had been the subject of a judicial enquiry it should not be re-examined.
Healthy debate is the goal.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.