MALCOLM SCOTT AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDBackground
On April 16, 2014 the NZ Herald published a front page article (also published online) on a decision by the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal (HPDT) where Dr Rose Streat was found guilty of professional misconduct. Dr Streat was an Auckland doctor training to be an anaesthetist. Based the Tribunal’s findings, the article catalogued Dr Streat’s struggles with alcohol, her employer’s responses over the years, and stated the reasons the Tribunal had found her guilty and therefore censured and suspended her from practice.
Dr Malcolm Scott, a GP from Tauranga, laid a complaint with the NZ Herald citing a number of elements which taken in totality he regarded as possibly having a detrimental effect on Dr Streat. His complaint included:
- Article is not newsworthy let alone justifies its position on the front page
- Dr Streat has a greater right over privacy over the public’s right to know of her drink driving conviction
- Dr Streat is not an individual who holds public office and so does not justify the level of public attention
- There was no miscarriage of justice or threat to public safety from Dr Streat
- Article is simply tabloid journalism without any public value
- The possible negative impact the article might have on other doctors who might be struggling with the same addiction
In one of his emails to the Press Council, he reaffirms that his argument (therefore complaint) is that public’s need or right to know the individual’s name in this case is outweighed by the individual’s right to privacy and by the potential damage the article might cause to that individual and those around her.
The NZ Herald Response
Cathy O’Sullivan, Head of News, responded for the NZ Herald. The Herald explained that its journalists regularly attend Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal hearings. Findings can be found on the HPDT’s website. Health practitioners care for the most vulnerable and Herald readers are keenly interested in outcomes of such hearings.
In the case of Dr Streat, Ms O’Sullivan argued that the Herald reported on the Tribunal’s findings, steps taken by her employer to manage her alcohol struggles, her name was not supressed, and given health practitioners are held to a high standard, the finding of professional misconduct was an important story. In summary, the Herald reported on the matter (the Tribunals findings) in a “responsible manner.” The public interest was served by the publication of the story.
Dr Scott was not satisfied with the response and brought the matter to the Press Council citing breaches of principles related to privacy and confidentiality.
The Council acknowledges that anyone’s struggle with alcohol is a delicate situation. Even more so if one’s profession has high standards of conduct and the person is an important member of our society like our health professionals.
Dr Scott’s argument contains a number of threads. However, it centres on whether the individual’s right to privacy outweighed the public’s right to know. This statement and Dr Scott’s opening remarks of his complaint (“As I read the article, I was looking for information regarding patients’ lives put at risk…”) acknowledges that the media do have a responsibility to report on matters which are of public interest. Dr Scott believes that because no harm was done to a patient or that no ‘cover up’ had taken place during the disciplinary procedures, notwithstanding the publication of the decision and her name on the HPDT’s website, Dr Streat was entitled to her right to privacy through non-publication of those findings in the media.
The Privacy Principle is not absolute. The right should not interfere with publication of “significant matters of public record or public interest.”
The Tribunal’s findings were clear. Following a number of attempts by relevant authorities to support her through her struggles, Dr Streat failed the standards she agreed to uphold when she became a health practitioner. The public’s right to know does not only arise when something has occurred but can also act as a preventative measure raising awareness so no harm is caused. At the same time, the Herald exercised particular care with the situation through an accurate reporting of the Tribunal’s findings.
The publication of the story highlighted how the profession whom New Zealanders rely on in vulnerable situations is able to deal with its members in a disciplined and yet compassionate way. The article catalogued all safeguards and measures, put in place previously by Dr Streat’s employers, and highlights what measures the Tribunal has put in place to continuously protect public/patient safety when she does return to practice. As a former Chairman of the New Zealand national committee said to the Herald “safety is paramount.”
Dr Scott makes a point about other health practitioners with similar issues becoming at risk of their struggles being published. The Tribunal’s process showcases how the industry will deal with such discrepancies and misconduct. The reporting of that alone should remind health practitioners of the high standards expected of them and also reaffirm that its disciplinary system continues to provide measures and safeguards that is respectful to the professional and yet provides confidence for the public. The story was a matter of significant public interest and so the privacy principle is not breached.
The Tribunal’s findings are a matter of public record so the confidentiality principle is not breached.
The Council does not uphold the complaint.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.