GARY HAYMAN AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTGary Hayman complained about an article published in The Dominion Post on September 16 and headed “Teen died after school bus crash”. The story was a report of a Palmerston North Coroners Court hearing, an inquest into the death of 16-year-old Rachael Hayman after her car was in collision with a school bus. Mr Hayman’s complaint to the Press Council cited the sections of the Statement of Principles relating to accuracy, privacy, children and young people, comment and fact and subterfuge.
A 10-member meeting of the Press Council, in the absence of one member, divided equally between those for upholding and those for not upholding the complaint. The Chairman exercised his casting vote to not uphold the complaint.
He did this on the basis that a complaint should not be upheld unless a majority of the Council on the determinative vote decides to uphold.
On the day of the inquest in September, or the day after (accounts vary between the Hayman family and friends and the newspaper), the reporter contacted Mrs Hayman for a comment on the reference during the inquest to the use of a cellphone. Mr Hayman says in his complaint to the Press Council that Mrs Hayman made it clear she did not wish to comment and he himself made the same comment to the reporter.
There was a flurry of phone calls between the Haymans and the Dominion Post reporter, with the deputy chief reporter, to the Press Council after the exchanges became heated and to the editor. The Haymans essentially wanted nothing or very little of the inquest reported, and no comments from the family.
The newspaper had decided that there was topical public interest in the issue of cellphone use while driving, especially if this may have been a factor in the accident in question. It wanted to follow up the court hearing with further comment.
Subsequently, the newspaper article appeared. It reported that at the inquest, Senior Constable Les Maddaford told the court it was possible the deceased was using her cellphone. In his finding, coroner Graham Hubbard said there was no clear evidence that Miss Hayman was using a cellphone and therefore he could not make a finding on that. He ruled that Miss Hayman died of multiple injuries as a result of a car accident. The article concluded by quoting Mrs Hayman stressing that her daughter was not using her cellphone.
Two days after the article appeared, Mr Hayman wrote a formal letter of complaint to the editor. In that, he says the family was appalled that the reporter would contact Mrs Hayman for comment for an article about teenagers and cellphones, using their daughter’s inquest as an example. He says that Mrs Hayman was extremely clear that she did not want to comment, explains her highly distressed state and his own impassioned plea to the reporter to show some compassion and respect for a grieving mother.
In his letter of complaint, he explains the number of calls made to explain the family’s position and tells the editor he found him defensive, although the editor assured him the article would be fair and report the facts. Mr Hayman writes of inaccuracies in the article relating to the date life support was turned off, the use of seconds not minutes the for time of the text message and believes the newspaper crossed the line of common decency in its reporting.
In his complaint to the Press Council Mr Hayman reiterated his specific and general concerns, claiming their right to privacy had been breached, that there was no care or consideration in the article which had put additional emotional stress on the family.
The newspaper response
The newspaper’s response to Mr Hayman’s complaint to the editor was full and detailed. The deputy chief reporter most closely involved in this case said that after discussion with the reporter it was agreed to do more research on the case, including a further interview with the police officer involved and to approach the girl’s family. The newspaper believed they were not at court that day and the following day the reporter contacted Mrs Hayman.
The newspaper says Mrs Hayman discussed the fact there was no evidence to support the cellphone suggestion which was the comment used in the final article. The newspaper says in its defence that it was only later Mrs Hayman said she did not wish to be quoted.
Each side cites examples of rather extreme statements and behaviour by the other party, and these are best considered as reactions and, if challenged, perceptions formed in the heat of the moment.
The deputy chief reporter says the newspaper is mindful of Press Council guidelines on intruding on people’s grief. His first comment to Mrs Hayman was to offer condolences for her daughter’s death, and acknowledge that inquests revive unpleasant memories for families. He explained that he had assigned the reporter to seek comment.
He said approaches to families at inquests were commonplace in Coroners Court reporting and there was generally a high level of co-operation with families in this situation. Many saw the inquest as the closing of a chapter, are willing to discuss their loved one or provide a photograph, or pay tribute to the deceased.
He acknowledges Mrs Hayman was clearly distressed during their conversation and although considerably experienced in reporting Coroners Court, he had never experienced such an extreme reaction to an intention to publish. He regretted that the Haymans found this matter deeply upsetting and it was not the newspaper’s intention to add to their grief.
The discussions about reporting an inquest had the newspaper explaining to the Haymans the right to report open court hearings, a position confirmed by the coroner to the Haymans who wrote to him with their concerns.
To the Press Council the editor said his staff had acted in accordance with the special consideration for those suffering from trauma or grief. While Mr Hayman was correct that his family’s grief over the fatal crash had no public interest, the article did not canvas that grief. However, the issues surrounding Miss Hayman’s crash were considered relevant by the police and presented to the inquest.
The editor says his staff acted with composure and professionalism in the face of some unfortunate remarks by the Haymans and some animosity, mindful that the Haymans were grieving for their daughter. He reinforces the attempts made by the newspaper to explain the right to report inquests although in his view the couple remained adamant that no article should be prepared or published.
In facing squarely the dilemma confronting the press when it has to balance freedom of expression and public interest with such competing principles as privacy and consideration for those suffering trauma or grief, the Press Council has to consider the wide picture in which these predicaments sit.
Promoting freedom of speech and freedom of the press, while maintaining the New Zealand press in accordance with the highest professional standards are principal objects of the Press Council. But a judgment giving respective weight to these two principal objects often needs to be made.
The Press Council could declare it unethical, a breach of privacy or a breach of the principle governing consideration for those suffering trauma and grief, each time the press were to seek comment from a grieving family or friends of a deceased person. But whether before or after an official inquest or inquiry has delivered a legal finding, it would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. The press needs to have the freedom to enlarge stories where they deem it necessary.
The Press Council could claim to uphold the highest standards of professional and ethical behaviour by supporting, over freedom of expression, greater attention to the grief and trauma of suffering persons and their right of privacy, by requiring the press to refrain from approaching anyone who is connected with a death or deceased person. But the press is allowed to report Coroners Court and the inquiry into a sudden death. Restraining the press from making any enquiries after such a death would not be in the public interest or the interest of freedom of expression. But controlled, ethical behaviour could be the expected norm in cases of great distress, where the public interest is not affected.
In this case, the published report of the inquest which the newspaper was entitled to cover is neutral. It is often the sad fact that personal tragedies play out in public and newspapers inevitably report on public occurrences such as court hearings. As far as accuracy or distinction between fact and comment go, there is no breach.
Whether a time was expressed in seconds or minutes, weightier matters are being read into what seems to be a matter of newspaper style. The report of an exact date that life support was switched off is an accurate record of what the police said in court and, as can happen, turns out to be not exact from the hands of the police. The Press Council does not find fault in the newspaper report of the court hearing, as the coroner confirmed to the newspaper.
The accuracy of the reported comment from Mrs Hayman is also not disputed, but the appropriateness of the newspaper running commentary from a private citizen who is distressed and who said they did not want to comment may be.
The newspaper advances a public interest argument in favour of getting comment from the police officer involved and from the family about cellphone use. But no commentary appears from the police, there is no discussion, no use of Land Transport statistics about accidents resulting from “distraction by telecommunication devices" as quoted to Mr Hayman by the editor. Beyond the plain court report, a short comment from Mrs Hayman hardly qualifies as the follow-up story the newspaper suggested it needed to trouble the family for.
Mr Hayman particularly in his last communication with the Council stressed that he had been firm in his view that neither he nor Mrs Hayman wanted to comment to the newspaper or be published. The newspaper disputes that this was stated before the interview with the journalist took place, and it was the view of the Haymans only in subsequent correspondence.
The Press Council cannot adjudicate on disputed facts and cannot make a finding on this issue. If the Council had been able to determine that the wish for “no comment” was made right at the beginning of the interview the complaint would have been upheld.
It was clear from the family’s reaction before the article appeared that they were deeply distressed. It may be that there was confusion between what the newspaper thought the Haymans were trying to suppress and what Haymans thought the newspaper wanted to do, between the Haymans not wanting the inquest reported at all and simply the out-of-court comment from Mrs Hayman. The newspaper was entitled to report court, but it could have easily left the family alone, after receiving so many indications of their trauma.
The newspaper says it did not want to add to the family’s suffering and offered condolences. The balm of such reassurances scarcely dulls the sting of death which penetrates deep with the loss of a loved one. Seven months after the accident, it is very clear from the Hayman family comments that they remained extremely upset by the “tragic accident in which we lost a very precious daughter.”
It’s a fine line between the professional necessity that sees a tough line taken by the press despite emotional objections, and an understanding of when pushing the boundary is a practice that does not meet the highest professional standards supported by the Press Council. There is a principle under the heading of privacy which clearly takes account of suffering from grief and trauma, and those emotions were plainly present in this case.
But the newspaper did its job correctly under difficult circumstances, and the Press Council in not upholding the complaint acknowledges this.
Five members would have upheld the complaint because they judge that the newspaper breached a Press Council principle. This states that those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration, and when approached or enquiries are being undertaken, careful attention is to be given to their sensibilities. Before the article was published, they believe the newspaper chose to ignore the very clear and vigorous signals from the Haymans that their distress would not countenance any comment appearing in the press. The court report could have gone ahead without the need to afflict the family with any further grief.
Press Council members who voted to not uphold this complaint were Barry Paterson, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Clive Lind, and Alan Samson.
Press Council members who voted to uphold this complaint were Ruth Buddicom, Keith Lees, Denis McLean, Lynn Scott and Terry Snow.
The complaint was not upheld on the casting vote of Chairman Barry Paterson.