HON BILL ENGLISH AGAINST THE SOUTHLAND TIMES
The Press Council has upheld a complaint lodged by the Hon Bill English against The Southland Times.
The Southland Times ran a front page lead story on 26 September 2007, under the headline ‘English may sue GayNZ on article’, reporting on a piece from the GayNZ website about provocative remarks which had appeared on a Bebo site in the name of Mr English’s 14 year old son. Mr English was said to be seeking legal advice about what he described as unsubstantiated and potentially damaging claims about the supposed views of his teenage son.
Mr English based his complaint against The Southland Times on Press Council principles relating to privacy and the obligation on editors to ‘have particular care and consideration for reporting on or about children and young people’. He contended that The Southland Times had no grounds for “selecting my son for special treatment”. Other media ran stories, including the GayNZ allegations, but had taken care not to name the boy. Even GayNZ had been careful not to identify his son directly.
Only The Southland Times had identified him by name and had published “selected comments.” from his site - which had made the consequences of naming the boy the more damaging. The paper had also allowed an employee of Fairfax, the group which owns The Southland Times, to offer “harsh personal criticism of my 14 year old son.” No balancing comments from others less closely associated with the newspaper, or the website, had been offered. His son had been unable to “defend himself against a front-page attack on his character”.
The boy was entitled to privacy. In no way could he be seen as a public figure or as any kind of prop to his (Mr English’s) political activities. Mr English maintained moreover that he had not, in his political career, campaigned on family values as claimed by The Southland Times
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor asserted that there was no doubt as to whether the reported comments had actually appeared on the Bebo website in the name of Mr English’s son, although there was a question about whether they – or some of them – had been pasted from other sites.
Bebo is one of the most popular profile and chat sites and comments made on it could be visited by millions of viewers. Individual profiles on the site could be masked to be readable to only selected viewers. This had not been done in this case. The comments were accordingly open to viewing by the public at large.
The editor contended that there would be considerable public interest given that Mr English was a national public figure, deputy leader of the National Party and was known to have “a strong focus on family values and good parenting”. His justification for this claim was to quote from a column in the newspaper written by Mr English: “I am totally responsible for my children’s physical and moral welfare…in fact too many parents now lack confidence in their ability to give children direction.”
He had decided to publish detail of what was on the website to allow readers to make an informed judgment because of Mr English’s public profile in the newspaper’s circulation area. He did not accept that a distinction could be made between Mr English’s public status and that of his son because of Mr English’s ‘strong Christian beliefs and public statements on family responsibilities’
The reporter had asked Mr English to comment on the apparent contrast between the importance he had placed on family values and the material which had appeared on his son’s website. Mr English had declined comment
One other newspaper had, in fact named the boy in its coverage of this incident (but without details from the website).
The Southland Times has essentially justified publication of this article on the fact of Mr English’s local and national prominence and on what the newspaper believes to have been his public advocacy of “family values”.
The Press Council finds it unacceptable that a regional newspaper should justify naming and – in effect – shaming a 14 year-old on the grounds that his father is a local representative in Parliament and a national figure and on the basis of assertions as to the father’s political position on morality issues.
This is the more so since the newspaper seems to have had little heed for the requirement to proceed with care in reporting on the activities of a young person, who, in this case may simply have done something very immature.
The boy, after all, is a minor. As Mr English points out, he would have been entitled to name suppression, even if he had committed a crime – up to the age of 17. Mr English had also made the point that he had no obligation to comment, when asked to do so by the reporter, since he had never brought his family into the public arena.
The newspaper had a point in respect of the principle of privacy. The Bebo website is public and users who put out comment and other information on it should understand that. If they do so in their own name they must anticipate the consequences, including a reaction from groups who take exception to remarks made.
There is, however, a linkage between the twin grounds on which this complaint is based – privacy and the need for care and consideration in reporting on young people. This is because a child’s privacy is one of the factors which needs to be taken into consideration when reporting on or about children.
The need to protect a young person from being harmed by the glare of publicity necessarily means that matters that can be published about an adult should be treated with greater circumspection and sensitivity in the case of a child.
There is now considerable debate about the extent to which celebrities and those identified with them are entitled to the protection of privacy. But the Press Council does not see that Mr English’s privacy is a factor in this matter.
The Press Council accepts nevertheless that a public figure has the same right as every other citizen to expect his or her young children to be protected, unless there is a demonstrable justification for drawing the young person into the limelight.
The Council upholds Mr English’s complaint.
Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Aroha Beck, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.