GARTH CAMERON AGAINST THE OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 3352

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2022

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories: Suicide Reports

Overview

  1. Garth Cameron alleges that the Otago Daily Times (ODT) article headed Son’s Suicide a ‘Decade in Hell published in the print edition on 22 August 2022 was not accurate, fair or balanced.  The Media Council upholds the complaint.

The Article

  1. The article after the  heading Son’s suicide a ‘decade of hell’  stated that the parents of a Dunedin student who died by suicide had spent nearly ten years desperately seeking answers.  It was triggered by an eleven day hearing in the Dunedin District Court that led to a 123 page decision released on that day of the article.  After some reference to the decision, it quotes the mother and sets out the history of the suicide from the parent’s perspective.
  2. It refers to the consultant psychiatrist Dr Richard Mullen’s description of their sone and says they were “flabbergasted”.  It refers to a 2017 report of the Health and Disability Commissioner critical of Dr Mullen and refers back to some findings in the just released decision, including that the son was probably not psychotic at the time of his death.

The Complaint

  1. The complaint concerns the tragic death of twenty year old Ross Taylor (Ross) in 2013.  The complaint is not focused on Ross’s death or its causes, but rather on the unfair treatment of a consultant psychiatrist, Richard Mullen, who was treating Ross at the time of his death.  The complaint alleges that in its treatment of Dr Mullen the article failed to comply with Media Council Standards in two respects:
    1. It was not accurate, fair or balanced. 
    2. It deliberately misled and misinformed readers by commission and omission.
  2. It is complained that the report negatively affected the reputation of Dr Mullen.  It was about a matter that involved serious controversy and disagreement and did not give a fair voice to Dr Mullen, or the judge who presided over the Coroners Act Inquiry and had given his decision.  It is said that the article was structured to inform or remind readers of an earlier ODT report published on 16 June 2017 that made negative statements about Dr Mullen.  It failed to state that the coroner found that Dr Richard Mullen was an honest and reliable witness.
  3. The Coroner’s Act decision is quoted at some length, the quotes being favourable to Dr Mullen and not containing any criticism of him.  It is noted that the Coroner’s report was critical of Mrs Taylor as an unreliable witness.  Mrs Taylor had placed considerable weight on Dr Mullen’s conduct as contributing to her son’s death.

The Response

  1. The editor of the ODT responded acknowledging that this was a particularly tragic case.  He believed that the article accurately reflected the coroner’s findings and “the grief Ross’ family has had to endure while waiting for an outcome”.  It says that these sorts of stories are difficult to cover and that there will always be omissions because of space restraints.  The ODT believes it had summarised the decision and elements of the case’s history in a fair and balanced way.  It is said:
    The focus of the story was on the grief of the parents and the lengthy trauma they have endured as the case has progressed. Regardless of the findings, their pain cannot be disputed.  They have been overtly critical of the health practitioner since their son’s death, but we chose not to focus on this side of the story …
  2. It is said that the parents’ concerns in terms about their son had been shown to be well-founded.  It is acknowledged that Dr Mullen was not criticised by the coroner, but reference is made to earlier history.  It is accepted that the coroner found Mrs Taylor was an unreliable witness, and it was said “but that does not mean she should be overlooked or that the grief she has suffered is any less profound”.

The Discussion

  1. We say at the outset that the death of Ross Taylor was tragic, and that his parents deserve unreserved admiration for the way they fought to defeat the mental health difficulties from which he suffered.
  2. The article in question was triggered by the 123-page decision given in the Dunedin District Court, by a judge carrying out an inquiry into Ross’s death under the Coroner’s Act. The story is plainly sympathetic to the parents as the headline “Son’s Suicide a ‘Decade of Hell’” indicates, and as the editor in his response appears to acknowledge.

The Article is critical of Dr Mullen

  1. Dr Mullen is not mentioned until the second page of the article. It is said:
    When consultant psychiatrist Dr Richard Mullen saw him the next day he described him as demoralised but wrote “we saw none of the subtle signs of psychosis. His mood is warm, animated and humorous. He is not suicidal”. The parents said they were “flabbergasted”.
  2. The article then goes on to discuss Ross’ death in March 2021. The way it is worded, the death was some days after a visit to Dr Mullen. Directly after recounting the discovery of Ross’ body, there was reference to an earlier 2017 finding by the Health & Disability Commissioner that contained some criticism of Dr Mullen. That adverse reference to the earlier article is the last occasion on which his name is mentioned. It is then said in the article that the coroner had stated that his function was not to find fault, and that he ruled that Ross was probably not psychotic at the time of his death. He is quoted as saying that there is no consensus that an anti-psychotic drug could have reduced the potential for an adverse outcome. Other possible reasons for the suicide are mentioned at the end of the ODT article.

Failure to refer to positive findings about Dr Mullen

  1. The Coroners Act decision is closely reasoned and at no point contains any criticism of Dr Mullen. To the contrary, it contains a number of positive statements about him:
    [83] I found Dr Mullen to be an honest and reliable witness.
    [84] His evidence, and in particular in cross examination, did not reveal inconsistencies or contradictions of any particular moment. He was willing to make concessions and entertain alternative theories.

    [86] As I have noted above, the standard of proof in matters before a coroner is the “balance of probabilities” (i.e. whether something is more likely than not). In cases where dishonesty, or other reprehensible conduct is alleged, the judicial officer will require strong evidence before such an allegation will be found proven. Such evidence was so lacking in this case that the allegations should not have been made in the first place. [footnotes deleted]
  2. The Judge then proceeded to give examples of Dr Mullen’s evidence where it was clearly correct and corroborated, and where criticism of him was plainly unjustified, (see at [89]). He goes on to state of Dr Mullen:
    His evidence was entirely consistent with the contemporaneous written record.
  3. There are other instances of this sort of positive finding in the decision, for instance at paragraph [127], and footnote [150].
  4. Importantly, and in relation to the criticisms that had been made of Dr Mullen, the Judge stated:
    [365] I conclude, having regard to the totality of the evidence that the 18 March 2013 risk assessment, and the assessment of Ross generally was adequate. That reflects the unanimous view of the experts, and in reaching my own conclusion, I place particular weight on the opinions of Prof Glue (while making due allowance for his link to Dr Mullen and the SDHB but noting the limited criticism of him as an expert by the Taylor family) and Prof Mellsop.
  5. And then of Dr Mullen and another heath professional:
    [368] Both impress as demonstrating commitment to ongoing care and advancing Ross’ best interests.
  6. These clear and considered findings indicate that Dr Mullen’s treatment of Ross was adequate and professional. They are not referred to in the ODT article. The earlier findings from 2017, which were critical, are however referred to. The article on its face mentions only matters adverse to Dr Mullen
  7. While the ODT in its response says that there are other matters referred to which could be seen as not adverse, for instance the reference in the article to Ross probably not being psychotic at the time of his death, these do not obviously strike a reader as an affirmation of Dr Mullen’s position. In its failure to recognise the fact that Dr Mullen’s performance was not in any way criticised and to give prominence to the judge’s statement that the assessment of Ross was “adequate”, and that Dr Mullen demonstrated “commitment to ongoing care and advancing Ross’ best interests”, the article was unfair.
  8. Even more obviously, it was unbalanced to not refer at all to the specific positive findings, and to leave an overall flavour of criticism.

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