MARY DAVIS AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Case Number: 668
Council Meeting: OCTOBER 1997
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: New Zealand Herald
The Press Council has not upheld a complaint that the New Zealand Herald had acted unethically in order to establish the identity and other details of a person responsible for a death notice lodged with its classified advertising division.
The complaint before the Council was precipitated by the discovery of the body of David Nimmo at his home on Sunday 24 August and the commencement of a homicide investigation. On the morning of Monday 25 August, Ms Mary Davis, a type-setter at the Waitomo News in Te Kuiti, sent a death notice to the New Zealand Herald from the office of the Waitomo News. Within hours, she was twice contacted at her home by Herald reporters asking questions about Mr Nimmo. A report on his death had already appeared in the paper and another appeared next day.
These events led Ms Davis to complain to the editor of the Herald that she had been traced through the notice sent from the Waitomo News . She believed that this could only have been brought about through information from the Herald’s classified advertising division. Thus the confidentiality on which she had relied, had been breached.
Following a reply from the editor which she felt dealt with an issue unrelated to her complaint, Ms Davis approached the Press Council and in subsequent exchanges, both sides set out their positions in detail.
Ms Davis gave an account of her dealings with the Herald’s reporters and said their activities were the result of unethical conduct involving the passage of information about her from one department of the paper to another. The classified department had given the reporter all the information it had, she said and if her name, address and other details had been known would have given those too. In the end that information had been provided to the Herald by someone at the Waitomo News, but that was a separate issue. She was convinced that the Herald had breached advertising confidentiality and had acted unethically. Although she was critical of aspects of the reporters’ behaviour towards her, her complaint related essentially to the manner in which they had tracked her down through use of the advertisement.
The editor of the New Zealand Herald asserted that the paper’s classified department did not provide information leading directly to the identification of Ms Davis. He accepted his reporter’s assurances that all she had asked of the classified department was whether there was a death notice for Mr Nimmo. She was told that while such a notice existed, no other information could be provided and, as an aside, that the notice was a referral from the Waitomo News. It was not true as Ms Davis claimed, that the classified department would have provided further information had they possessed it. The Herald’s staff were under instructions not to seek billing details and the classified staff not to provide them. There had been no unauthorised conduct. To find Ms Davis, the reporter had applied normal news gathering techniques with sources outside the Herald.
Members of the Press Council did not feel that there had been any unethical conduct on the part of the Herald’s reporters and other staff in making contact with Ms Davis. The Waitomo News had been the agency whereby the death notice had been conveyed to the Herald and knowledge of the fact did not itself reveal information about Ms Davis. The steps whereby details about her had been obtained within the Waitomo News were in accord with standard journalistic practice.
The Press Council took note that in this and another recent complaint, references had been made to the practice whereby newspapers draw on death notices and other notices for news purposes. The Council thought it would be beneficial for the practice to be more widely known and for members of the public to understand that in lodging a classified notice in a newspaper they expose its contents to wider forms of use within the newspaper. This circumstance does not affect the confidentiality governing the identity of those lodging such a notice.