FAMILY AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTThe Press Council has not upheld a complaint against The Dominion Post in regard to a front-page news report on 31 December 2002 headed “Elderly couple in plastic bag death”. The wife, aged 78, had been found dead with a plastic bag over her head, and her husband, aged 89, unconscious beside her with medication close by. Both had been terminally ill.
The essence of the complaint, made on behalf of the family by a barrister, was that in naming the couple the newspaper frustrated a suppression order made later on that same day by a district court judge, and caused “enormous distress” to the couple¹s children and other family members. The newspaper was “out of line”.
Counsel argued, both in written submissions and in person before the Press Council, that The Dominion Post must have known that criminal charges were likely, and should have realised that in these tragic circumstances a name suppression order would be sought if criminal proceedings were commenced. Police had refused to say whether or not the husband would be charged. The names had not been released to the media by the police, and on 30 December an officer had advised the barrister in writing that “name suppression is supported.”
In his response to the complaint the editor said that newspaper staff had spent much time on the night debating details for the article before publication. The article had been cleared by the newspaper’s legal adviser. The couple were members of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. “Euthanasia is a matter of intense debate around the world....Inevitably this incident will become part of that debate.” The editor said the events described in the article, and the statements and views of neighbours, were treated with much sensitivity considering it was a shocking incident of itself. There was no hint of sensationalism . “The effects of their actions on the family [of the couple] are all too apparent and they had our sympathy from the outset.”
The editor said that the newspaper had a right to print the story because undoubtedly it was a matter of intense public interest. He stressed that the names were part of the story, not the whole story. “The Dominion Post acted responsibly throughout. The couple’s names were important.” In the absence of a suppression order, and with the uncertainty about possible charges, the newspaper was entitled to print the names. Name suppression was accorded to very few accused.
In a further submission counsel for the complainants argued that “the newsworthiness of the story would not have been significantly diminished had the names not been included. The ‘intense public interest’ focuses on the issue of euthanasia and related debate, it need not focus on the identities of the unfortunate people involved.” He said that The Dominion Post caused enormous distress to the husband and his family and unwittingly thrust them into the public limelight.
As indicated in the above summary of the submissions, much attention has focussed on the action of the newspaper in publishing the names when a police investigation that might lead to a prosecution was proceeding.
In the Council’s view this complaint requires it to weigh the competing values of freedom of speech and the right to privacy. In the Preamble to its Statement of Principles the Press Council affirms the “there is no more important principle than freedom of expression.” Principle 3 affirms the right to privacy, with the proviso that “the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of matters of public record, or obvious significant public interest.” Principle 3 also states that “those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration.”
The Press Council thinks that the newspaper was fully justified in giving such front- page prominence to this highly topical story of a couple who had committed themselves to acting on their belief in euthanasia. The Council considers that The Dominion Post exercised appropriate consideration in presenting the story, and was not obliged to hold back from giving full details of the incident until the issue of possible name suppression had been resolved. It could not reasonably have been expected to weaken or blunt its story on that particular day because of what might occur later. The ordinary expectation is that people at the centre of important news stories will be identified.
The Press Council believes that strong reasons would have been required for setting aside the rights of the newspaper and its readers. Newspaper reports of striking events often result in embarrassment and discomfort for those involved. There has to be something more injurious than that to justify overriding the expectation that news events will be fully reported. The newspaper had clearly considered the situation of the family and was sympathetic to it. The identifying information it published was freely available. There was no assertive intrusion into the family’s privacy, and nothing sensational about the report. The Press Council appreciates that the complainants were distressed by the publicity that followed this tragic incident, but thinks that The Dominion Post properly exercised its freedom to inform its readers of a significant event relating to a major current debate in New Zealand society.
The complaint is not upheld.
Ms S Carty took no part in the consideration of this complaint.