JOHN HAY AGAINST TIMARU HERALD
The Press Council has found The Timaru Herald in breach of privacy when a reporter gained access to a house without identifying herself and without the consent of the home-owner.
The complaint arises from the circumstances in which, on July 15, 2008, a reporter for The Timaru Herald entered the home of Mrs H. C. Veitch. The reporter was seeking comment from Mrs Veitch, the grandmother of the broadcaster Tony Veitch who was then the subject of intense media interest. The reporter entered in the company of two visitors paying a brief call on Mrs Veitch and did not identify herself as a journalist until after the visitors had gone. Mrs Veitch declined to comment on her grandson’s affairs and the reporter left.
The following day Mr Hay, who is not connected to the Veitch family, saw the editor of the newspaper to complain about what he saw as an unwarranted invasion of privacy. The editor said that he would write to Mrs Veitch and did so. Mr Hay was not satisfied with the response by letter alone, or with its wording, and has pursued the matter with the Press Council.
Mr Hay complained to the Council on July 18 and a similar complaint on the grounds of invasion of privacy was received from Rob Veitch, Mrs Veitch’s son, on July 31. These are third party complaints but the Council has been sanctioned to hear them by Mrs Veitch in a letter dated August 5 in which she said she was “traumatised and physically shaken” by the incident.
In a letter to the Press Council of August 14 the editor of The Timaru Herald said that the Tony Veitch story was of huge public interest. On July 15, having been made aware that Tony Veitch’s grandmother lived in the town, the reporter contacted the chief reporter and was instructed to call on her to seek comment. The editor said the reporter had parked her car, which was clearly marked as a Herald vehicle, outside the two houses in which Veitch family members lived.
She knocked on the back door and receiving no reply went to the front where she encountered two women in the drive. The visitors took the reporter with them as they went to the back door, knocked, called out and entered. After a short while they left. The reporter stayed and identified herself and expressed sympathy for the difficult time the family was experiencing. Mrs Veitch said she had nothing to add to the story and the reporter left after giving Mrs Veitch a hug.
The editor said that the following day he received a visit from Mr Hay and he then consulted the reporter. As a result of this he sent a hand written letter to Mrs Veitch in which he apologised for any distress caused.
The editor said the Veitch story was dominating the news and possible family comment was of public interest. It was normal journalistic practice to go “cold calling” seeking quotes. The reporter was not in any way covert and at the first reasonable opportunity identified herself. She immediately accepted Mrs Veitch’s decision not to comment and offered comfort, which was accepted.
Mr Hay responded to the Council on August 29. He said the Herald car was not parked outside the houses but further up the street and said that Mrs Veitch was upset at the reporter’s version of events and he enclosed a statement from Mrs Veitch, made before a Justice of the Peace. In this Mrs Veitch said the reporter entered her home uninvited and made no move to introduce herself until after Mrs Veitch’s relations left. Mrs Veitch had assumed she was a caregiver she had been expecting to call. She was distressed to learn she was a reporter, the meeting was not as friendly as the editor suggested and she was thankful to see the reporter leave “even if it took a hug.”
In a final submission to the council, dated September 12, the editor insisted there was no deception. Mrs Veitch’s visitors motioned the reporter to follow them in. She did not want to interrupt them and as soon as they were leaving she identified herself. Her recollection of the meeting differed from Mrs Veitch and she felt they left on good terms.
The editor said the only reason the reporter entered the house was because she was beckoned in by the visitors. He accepted Mrs Veitch had been upset which was why he had apologised by letter as soon as possible.
Although there are differences in some of the detail and in interpretations of the events it is clear that the reporter did gain entry to Mrs Veitch’s home without identifying herself. It is a matter of speculation as to how events would have proceeded without the co-incidence of the arrival of the visitors but there is no evidence of any positive intent to deceive. It is also agreed that the reporter made no attempts to press Mrs Veitch once it had been made clear she did not wish to comment.
Nevertheless a lady of advanced years, with only the most peripheral connection with a news story, was placed in a position in which she had to deal with a journalist being in her own home. A suggestion made by the editor that they could not have known that Mrs Veitch was elderly is undone by simple arithmetic.
There are circumstances in which public interest might make it legitimate for a reporter to place themselves in a position in which a prospective interview subject is obliged to deal with them. It is difficult to see that there is any such pressing public interest in this case. When told by the reporter that Mrs Veitch lived in the area the newspaper should have considered more carefully the appropriate nature of any approach it expected the reporter to make.
The editor’s apology, although brief, was prompt and clearly recognised the distress caused.
The complaint is upheld. No material was published as a result of this encounter and the circumstances were not easy for the reporter. But the obligation in this case was compelling for the reporter to clearly establish who she was before entering Mrs Veitch’s home and breaching her privacy.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.