GERALD ROONEY AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2839

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Confidentiality
Photographs
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1) The Press/Stuff.co.nz published a story on May 3, 2019 headlined Emaciated mental health patient found living in squalor.

2) A follow-up story was published on May 31, 2019, headlined Emaciated mental health patient wants to live with brother in Christchurch again

3) The stories reported that a Christchurch mental health patient under Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) psychiatric services supervision, was referred to hospital in an emaciated state. The patient was visited at least monthly by a CDHB case worker. Family members were quoted as saying "She reeked of faeces and urine ... in her room was a pile of clothes that also stank of faeces and urine." The May 31 story further reported that after receiving medical care, the patient wished to return to the home she had been living in, with her brother. The complainant has asked that the brother not be named in this decision. The brother is referred to as W in this decision. W had been released from prison and was subject to an Extended Supervision Order (ESO), the stories said. The May 31 story also states “The woman's other siblings are frustrated she insists on living with W, who they believe has not provided the necessary care”. In the same story, it is stated“He (W) blamed the health system for his sister's poor health.”

4) Neither story names the mental health patient. This decision refers to her as B. The Media Council has not referred to some material in the complaint, which gives more detail about the parties than the article, to preserve their privacy. If that detail were included it would worsen the disclosures that are complained about.

At some point in the weeks following publication of the articles the patient was diagnosed as suffering from an advanced cancer. She died on June 27, 2019.

The Complaint

5 ) Gerald Rooney alleges Media Council principles of Accuracy, Fairness and Balance (Principle 1), Privacy (Principle 2), Comment and Fact (Principle 4), Confidentiality (Principle 8) and Photographs and Graphics (Principle 11) have been breached.

6) Mr Rooney has been a friend of B and W for 7 years and visited them two or three times a month. He says he had access to the toilet and bathroom of the premises, and frequently sat in the lounge, which was adjacent to B’s bedroom.

7) Re Accuracy, Fairness and Balance – Mr Rooney says the squalor reference in the story is unfair. He never saw signs of squalor when he visited and says anyone reading references to B’s room re “reeked of” and “The pile of clothes” would blame W.

8 )He says W’s lack of co-operation with a Stuff reporter should have been a red flag to his condition. Mr Rooney also alleges untruths printed as facts and says none of the siblings quoted in the story had visited B.

9 ) Re Privacy and Confidentiality – Mr Rooney says W should not have been named in both articles and through that naming B could be identified. W’s residential suburb should not have been identified, because of the “damage and anxiety it would cause to residents”.

10) Re Photos and Graphics – Mr Rooney says the use of the photo of B was inexcusable and readers would assume the weight loss was “huge and recent”. Mr Rooney also says he and W were aware of B’s weight loss and “I should have done more”.

The Response

11) For Stuff, Kamala Hayman says the use of the word squalor was justified and fell within the Merrian-Webster dictionary definition which says “marked by filthiness and degradation from neglect or poverty”.

It was possible the standards Mr Rooney observed were not always maintained, and that conditions could have deteriorated during a period when B lived alone.

12) The reference to the scale of B’s weight loss was accurate. The family told Stuff that B weighed 44kg when she was admitted to hospital. Ms Hayman has submitted photos that she says shows B in an emaciated condition, and B when she is healthy.

13) Re Fairness and Balance – Ms Hayman says Mr Rooney’s allegation that Stuff believed B’s siblings “without any checking” is not true. As well as speaking with two siblings, Stuff sought supporting documentation and photographs, and spoke to the CDHB and the Dept of Corrections.

14) Stuff also spoke to W, who answered some questions before he ended the interview, and told the reporter to talk to his lawyer. W was “hostile and evasive”, Ms Hayman says.

The story was not rushed – it was published after five days of “intense inquiry”

15) Re Privacy – Ms Hayman says Stuff chose not to identify B as she was a vulnerable person. She was not named in the story and photos of her were edited to not identify her.

“We considered carefully whether naming B’s siblings would identify her to the general reader. However, as she has a different surname to all her siblings we deemed her identity would not be revealed, other than to those who already knew the family and the circumstances,” Ms Hayman says.

16) Ms Hayman says Mr Rooney objected to mention of W’s situation and noted the story does not detail any specifics of W’s situation. It was, however, necessary to say he was subject to an Extended Supervision Order (ESO), to explain why Corrections staff regularly visited W’s home.

17) Ms Hayman says the story challenges authorities as to how B came to be in the state she was in, given her home was regularly visited by taxpayer-funded case workers. The story was in the public interest and was not reckless or sensationalised.

18)“It is hoped that as a result of our coverage the care in the community of other mental health patients is better managed,” Ms Hayman says.

The Decision

19) Re Accuracy, Fairness and Balance – the Media Council’s view is that the reference to squalor is a fair description. It is a fair observation by Stuff that the condition of B’s health and living conditions could have deteriorated, without Mr Rooney knowing.

20) Mr Rooney’s observations re W’s lack of co-operation and his situation do not alter the fact that Stuff carried out its journalistic obligations in contacting W and reporting his comments to provide balance.

21) Mr Rooney alleges untruths printed as facts but he is not specific. He also says none of the siblings quoted in the story had visited B. However, this did not prevent those siblings from expressing their concerns to Stuff.

The complaint that Stuff has breached the Accuracy, Fairness and Balance principle is not upheld.

22) Re Privacy and Confidentiality – Mr Rooney says W and B should not have been identified and nor should W’s situation have been disclosed.

There is no court order for suppression of W’s name that the Media Council is aware of. It therefore becomes a discretionary decision for Stuff as to a) the relevance of naming W and b) revealing his past. The Media Council considers that in this instance, Stuff was justified in naming W. We note that contrary to Mr Rooney’s allegation, Stuff did not report all the details about W. He is identified as being subject to an Extended Supervision Order (ESO). ESOs are used to monitor a variety of offenders, according to the Department of Corrections. That was a key part of the story.

23) Ms Hayman states Stuff made a decision not to identify B. However, she also acknowledges that Stuff “deemed her identity would not be revealed, other than to those who already knew the family and their circumstances”. As is the case with W, B’s name is not suppressed. The Media Council considers Stuff have taken due discretionary care around B’s identity.

The complaint that Stuff has breached the Privacy and Confidentiality principle is not upheld.

24) Re Photos and Graphics – Mr Rooney says the photo of B (which does not identify her) and the reference to her losing 45kg in the story means readers would assume the weight loss was “huge and recent”. The Media Council sees the publication of the photo and weight loss reference as relevant to the story.

The complaint that Stuff has breached the principle of Photos and Graphics is not upheld.

General Comment

25) The Media Council notes that in the correspondence between Mr Rooney and Stuff, a June 13 email from Mr Rooney states that W had given him permission to tell Stuff that B lived alone for three weeks, after W was moved from his home by “probation”.

It appears Stuff was not aware of this before publishing the two stories that are the subject of this complaint.

Given the allegation in the May 31 story that W failed to care properly for B, it is a pertinent fact.

However, based on the information in this complaint, Stuff cannot be criticised for not publishing something W, whom they had contacted for comment, had not divulged.

It also appears no one was aware, at the time the articles were published, that B had advanced bladder cancer. She passed away on June 27. This appears to explain in part why her condition had deteriorated so badly.

Summary

The complaints are not upheld. This was a complex situation on which to report and we do not find that Stuff has breached Media Council Principles on the information that was available at the time.

However, there are material facts that have now been revealed and put a different light on events.

We propose Stuff place an annotation on the May 3 and May 31 articles along the lines of:

After the publication of this story, the mental health patient that this article focuses on passed away, from advanced bladder cancer. Her cancer was undiagnosed at the time this story was written. It also became known that the patient had lived alone for three weeks, before she went into care.

The Media Council would like to extend its condolences to B’s family and friends.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.