KAREN MCINTYRE AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 3215
Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2022
Decision: Not Upheld
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Headlines and Captions
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of
This is a complaint about an article where it is said that it unfairly denigrated a prominent Christchurch professional person who had died (Margaret Sewell). While we can understand why the article has caused distress, the Media Council is not prepared to go so far as to find a breach of the Media Council principles, and does not uphold the complaint.
On November 29, 2021, Stuff published an article headed “Senior lawyer Margaret Sewell remembered as ‘force to be reckoned with’ after unexpected death”. It was an article that portrayed the deceased person as a prominent lawyer, well-respected and liked in her community, and a person who had achieved high status in her profession.
The second article published on 30 November 2021, presented the death in a different aspect. The headline was “Christchurch lawyer Margaret Sewell died in her spa pool after annual lawyers’ function”. Unlike the previous article which referred only to an unexpected death at home, this referred to her dying in her spa pool after having attended the annual Canterbury Criminal Bar Association dinner and having been in good spirits, leaving after midnight. It was also said that her husband fell ill after finding her in the spa pool and remains in Christchurch hospital. In general terms, it repeats the statements in praise of the deceased.
The complaint is about the second article. It asserts that the article was “malicious in its intent” and that the readers would assume that alcohol played a part in the death of Ms Sewell. It claims that the headline does nothing but create supposition and inference and that the second article was unfair to the family in grief. It has moved from focussing on the death of a highly respected person to a tabloid-style denigration of her character.
Stuff responded that there is genuine public interest when an individual dies in circumstances that could have been avoided. The aim is to alert the public to any potential risks: in this case, late-night spa pool bathing. Stuff provided examples of other previously published stories about spa pool risks. The circumstances around the spa pool and how it contributed to Margaret Sewell’s death are being examined in-depth by the coroner.
In her response, the complainant rejects the suggestion that there is any public interest in publishing the details about the spa pool. She says that this was done to create click-bait. The second article became very popular, with the readers being attracted by reference to the spa pool. Ms Sewell’s name has been denigrated for no reason, and in circumstances where the family was suffering, and Ms Sewell’s husband was in hospital. The impression is that she was drunk when she died.
There is a stark difference between the two articles. We agree with the complainant that the second article raises the possibility that a combination of a social occasion where there was liquor, and the late-night use of a spa pool, may have contributed to Ms Sewell’s death. It changes a totally positive article about Ms Sewell’s life into a commentary on the circumstances of her death as well as her achievements. Given the reference to a social occasion and a spa pool, it implies some actions on her part contributing to her demise. We can understand how this would be upsetting to family and friends, not to mention members of the public who hold her in high esteem.
However, we do not think that the follow up article, which gives a different angle on the death, breached Media Council principles. While the Media Council has upheld complaints where denigratory material was published about a deceased who was not a public figure, which was not connected to the deceased’s death, the further detail in the second article is most clearly connected to the death. If indeed the combination of socialising and a late-night spa pool can cause death in people in their 70s, this is a matter of public interest, particularly when the deceased is a well-known local figure. We fully understand the feelings that have led to the complaint, but there is a long tradition of the media fully reporting on the circumstances of deaths.
We consider that the second article was accurate, and it has not illegitimately breached the privacy of the deceased or her family, given the public interest factors mentioned. Nor does the private family grief mean that such an article is impermissible, given that public interest.
The complaint is not upheld.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Reina Vaai and Tim Watkin.