KAY BRERETON AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2853

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Court Reporting
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Kay Brereton complains on her own behalf and on behalf of her partner, Craig Heath, about an article headedNelson man who shot at real estate agent’s drone has charges against him dismissed published by Stuff on September 27, 2019.She considers the article breached Principles 1 (accuracy fairness and balance) and 2 (Privacy) of the Media Council principles.

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

3. The article in question reported on the hearing of charges against Mr Heath after he had shot at a drone operated by a real estate agent. The court was unable to determine whether the drone was over Mr Heath’s property at the time of the shooting and the charges were dismissed. Included in the article was the name of the road on which Mr Heath’s property is situated, a description of the dwellings on the property and comment made by the judge on the speed with which Mr Heath was able to access a loaded firearm, expressing some concern about Mr Heath’s explanation. The judge’s comment included a detailed description of the location of firearms at Mr Heath’s property.

The Complaint

4. Ms Brereton complains that the level of detail in the article was such that it was easy to identify both the property that she and Mr Heath occupy and the location of firearms within the property, giving rise to concerns for their privacy and their personal safety. The publication of the detail also made it easy to identify Ms Brereton, who has a high public profile. The judgment in the case against Mr Heath was delivered orally and the information would have had only limited circulation if Stuff had not published it. There were no media present at the hearing.

5. There is also a complaint of unfairness and inaccuracy. This is largely directed at a broadcast item covering the same story and falling outside the jurisdiction of the Media Council.

6. Ms Brereton submits that she was contacted by a Stuff reporter before the article was published and that she explained the case was all about personal privacy and requested privacy for herself and Mr Heath. At the very least she would have expected advance notice of publication. It is not true to say that many local people already knew about the incident, and in any event the wide extent of Stuff’s publication about the case meant the details became known outside the community

7. Ms Brereton submitted several letters in support of her complaint.

The Response

8. Seamus Boyer, Chief News Director, responded on behalf of Stuff. He said that the details of the case came from a court judgement and “I firmly believe that article is an accurate, fair and sensitive treatment of that judgement as well as being of high public interest.”The full name and geographic location were used “so that people know where the case took place – and exactly which Craig Heath we are referring to.”He also expressed the view that as Ms Brereton and Mr Heath live in a small community, many people probably already knew of the incident.

9. In a further response, Mr Boyer emphasised that the published information came from a judicial hearing held in open court with no name suppression orders.Ms Brereton and Mr Heath had been contacted before the article had been published and had declined to comment.

The Decision

Discussion

10. Principle 1 requires publications to observe accuracy, fairness and balance in their reporting.There is no suggestion that the Stuff article contained inaccuracies or was unbalanced – and in any event Mr Heath and Ms Brereton were offered the opportunity to comment before the article was published, so could have corrected any inaccuracy or provided any necessary balancing comment. The complaint of unfairness largely relates to the publication of detailed identifying information, and this is also the foundation for the complaint of breach of privacy.

11. Generally speaking, there will be no breach of privacy if a publication is reporting open court proceedings and confines itself to information that was before the court and not subject to any sort of suppression order. In addition, the Media Council Privacy principle (Principle 2) recognises the right to publish significant matters of public record. However this does not mean that even in an exceptional case everything that is said or done in open court may properly be published without any thought to the consequences.

12. If this complaint had been solely about the publication of information from the hearing that would enable Ms Brereton’s identity to be deduced (it is noted that she was not named in the article), there would be no question of upholding this complaint.However, there is an element in this case that sets it apart from other similar cases, and that is the question of Ms Brereton’s personal safety.

13. The main issue in the case was the shooting at the drone, and this was properly reported with a necessary level of detail. However, the judge also expressed concern about firearm safety, and in doing so described in some detail Mr Heath’s arrangements for storage of his firearms and his explanation for having immediate access to a loaded firearm. Ms Brereton expresses concerns for her personal safety. However the Council has concluded that any such concern does not outweigh the importance of the role of the media in the justice system in reporting court proceedings, the fact that the judge did not see fit to suppress any information and the identifying nature of other information that was properly reported and could also have an impact on Ms Brereton’s personal safety.

14. Ms Brereton also complains that Stuff did not give her advance notice of the article. However, she had earlier been approached by a Stuff reporter and it would be reasonable to expect that such an approach would result in some publication. Media have no general obligation to advise the subjects of reports in advance of publication.

Determination

The complaint is not upheld.

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

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