Mrs Margaret McGowan of Christchurch made a formal complaint to the Editor of The Press on 7 May 2003 about the paper’s coverage of a traffic accident in which her son, a pedestrian, had been tragically killed.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

The report in question appeared on page two on 23 April under a photograph of the accident scene where Mrs McGowan’s son was killed the previous day. One other fatal accident involving a pedestrian during or just after the Easter holiday weekend was cited. The emphasis of the report, however, was on police and road safety officers’ concerns about accidents involving pedestrians and not on the circumstances of these two tragic deaths. It was disturbing, the experts were reported as saying, that both people killed in road accidents in the Christchurch area during the Easter period had been pedestrians. The report quoted several opinions about what needed to be done. The headline below the photograph was ‘Pedestrian toll still high’. Mrs McGowan’s son was not named. The specific reference to his accident said, ‘A 22-year-old man was killed when struck by two trucks at the intersection of Carmen Road and Waterloo Road in Hornby just after the official holiday period ended at 7.30am yesterday’.

Mrs McGowan complained about the photograph, about aspects of the report itself, and about the manner in which the newspaper had responded to her complaint.

The Press Council’s Statement of Principles emphasises the need for editors to exercise special care in the handling of photographs to do with situations of grief or shock. Mrs McGowan had registered her distress at seeing a photograph of her son lying under a tarpaulin in the middle of the road. The editor of The Press responded that the photographer had arrived late on the scene and that by then the body had been removed. While he was there the tarpaulin was lifted and there was no body beneath. The Press Council examined the photograph in question with particular care and was even supplied by The Press with a colour version which brought out the detail with greater clarity than the black and white picture as published. There is a tarpaulin on the road but there is no sign that it covers a body. The editor assured the Council that had there been any such indication the photograph would not have been published. He expressed his regret that it had caused distress but defended it on grounds of relevance to the report. The Press Council agrees.

When Mrs McGowan’s letter of 7 May was received the editor, recognising the depth and sad character of her concerns, concluded that personal contact was the more sensitive course. He accordingly asked his chief reporter, a woman, to speak to Mrs McGowan. The chief reporter had a proven record of sensitivity and tact in such situations. Mrs McGowan nevertheless was plainly upset by the chief reporter’s call and suggested that the absence of previous complaints about her style suggested only that persons in situations similar to her own would not have the energy to complain.

The Press Council is obviously in no position to judge what transpired in a telephone conversation and thus the substance of that aspect of Mrs McGowan’s complaint. It accepts, nevertheless, that the editor acted with the best of intentions and out of concern for Mrs McGowan’s situation. The Council notes that he has expressed his regret that she was not happy with the approach he decided to adopt. The Press Council does not uphold this part of her complaint.

It is unfortunate that by responding to Mrs McGowan over the telephone The Press in effect sidestepped the Press Council’s complaints process. When Mrs McGowan took her complaint to the Press Council on 29 June it was on the basis of not having had a reply to her letter to the editor of 7 May. The focus of her concerns had moreover shifted to the attitudes of the chief reporter over the telephone. She was left feeling doubly aggrieved. There were further delays when the editor went on leave and papers were mislaid at The Press; in the upshot the editor did not reply to Mrs McGowan’s letter of 29 June until 28 August. Mrs McGowan responded on 7 September and the editor offered his final comments on 19 September. Failure to provide a written response to Mrs McGowan’s original letter set off a train of events which led to her concerns not being formally addressed in reasonable time. The Press Council asks that editors take particular care to ensure that complaints, especially of a sensitive kind, are fully worked through and as promptly as practicable.

The report of 23 April aimed to cover broader issues to do with pedestrian safety rather than the circumstances of the two unfortunate accidents. In this sense it was well-balanced and a useful contribution to the debate about road safety.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.


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