Jenny Ross of Hastings complained about the publication in The New Zealand Herald of 28 January 2002 of a photograph of the dead body of a Christchurch man.

Ms Ross contended that the photograph infringed the Press Council’s Statement of Principles in that it was an invasion of the dead man’s privacy (Principle 3) and showed no regard for considerations of grief (Principle 11). She suggested, moreover, that the decision to publish demonstrated a want of sympathy for the especially lonely circumstances of an immigrant with no family in this country. The Herald, she believed had not published photographs of victims of violence before. In a further letter she complained that insufficient care had been taken to ensure that the victim was not identifiable.

The Editor-in-Chief of The Herald responded by suggesting that – practically speaking- the privacy of a dead person cannot be breached and in the absence of known relatives of the man in New Zealand there could not be an intrusion on grief. He would, however, not cite these grounds in defense of publication of the photograph. The decision to publish had arisen from the circumstances of the story – a lone immigrant had been set upon by six assailants and left to die in a city park. “The photograph showed, without subjecting the reader to explicit detail, how his battle had ended.” The newspaper took the view that “the public accepts publication of photographs of dead people so long as facial features are hidden and there are no injuries shown. In other words the content of the photo does not shock.”

Ms Ross noted that it was possible to make out the facial features of the victim from the photograph and she reiterated her contention that the newspaper would not have published such a photograph of a person with “family or friends to protect them in death” and asked “are refugees to be fair game?”

Although most readers probably would not have noticed, the facial features (and thus the racial characteristics) of the dead man could be discerned in the photograph. It is no doubt less likely that such a photo would offend readers if the victim was a solitary immigrant with no relations in the country. But on the other hand that very fact underscored the pathos of the story. The photograph very starkly showed a lonely man having come to a lonely end, in a park where his body had lain for several hours before being discovered. The photograph seen in this light was highly relevant to a very sad story. The story – and photograph – were important for that very reason. The Council considered that the editor had demonstrated that he was well aware of the sensitivities associated with the use of photographs in circumstances of this kind and that no precedent had been set. There were sound journalistic reasons for supporting the story with the photograph. The Council’s own Principles had not been infringed – given the unusual considerations at issue.

The complaint was not upheld.


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