MELODY LEGGE, ROXANE FISHER AND CHRIS FISHER AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 2807

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Photographs
Privacy
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] On May 25, 2019, the Sunday Star-Times published an article titled ‘After 50 years, a father’s unmarked grave finally gets a headstone’. The article also ran online on Stuff.

[2] The article tells the story of Tofiga Vaeluaga who died in a car crash in 1968. It outlines why, for the next 50 years, he lay in an unmarked grave due to cultural and family shame about an affair he’d been having with a married woman. The article was published in the same week his daughter unveiled a headstone finally marking her father’s resting place.

The Complaint

[3] The complaint made by Melody Legge, Roxane and Christopher Fisher does not take issue with this article, but with the historical newspaper article attached to it, titled ‘Instant death for two in car smash’.This article was first published on 6 December 1968. It relates to a car crash in which Mr Vaeluaga and the three complainants’ mother, Mrs Joyce Margaret Fisher, was killed.

[4] The complainants say the reprinting of this historical news item has caused their family significant emotional stress. They say it was the first time they had read the story or seen the accompanying photograph of the crash. They are upset they were not contacted prior to publication and feel their privacy has been breached.

[5] The complainants also question the relevance of including the historical news item. They argue the current article focuses on the reasons Mr Vaeluaga’s grave was left unmarked for so long, not on the particulars about how he died. They question why the crash that killed him and their mother had to be referenced at all. They also complain the story was inaccurate and lacked fairness and balance because it did not offer their side of the story.

[6] Melody Legge, Roxane and Christopher Fisher argue Media Council Principles 1, 2 and 11 have been breached (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Privacy; Photographs and Graphics).

The Response

[7] Sunday Star-Times editor Tracy Watkins responded to the complaint. She acknowledged seeing the historical news item about their mother’s death after 50 years must have been painful for the three complainants. However she argues the accident and accompanying article are a matter of public record, and does not accept the use of the article was in any way gratuitous. She defends the use of the article further by saying it was in context and highly relevant to the story. Ms Watkins does not believe its inclusion was a breach of the Fisher family’s privacy.

[8] In regards to the photograph of the car crash included with the article, Ms Watkins accepts it would have been shocking for the family if never seen before.However she does not consider it breaches media guidelines as it does not depict any of the victims and was part of the historic record. It is also her opinion that the passage of time would have lessened its impact, although accepts this is not how the complainants would see it.

[9] In regards to Fairness and Balance, Ms Watkins says the passage of time, and the focus of the article on Mr Vaeluaga’s life and death, were the reasons comment from the Fisher siblings was not sought. She does offer them the opportunity to change that, either in a Letter to the Editor or an Op-ed to run in the Sunday Star-Times. The Fisher family declined this offer.

The Decision

Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

[10] The complainants argue the inclusion of the historical news item was gratuitous fluff designed to build sympathy with the reader for Mr Vaeluaga. They do not see it as relevant to the focus of the current article and believe they should have been contacted in advance of it running to provide their side of the story.

[11] While the Media Council can understand and sympathize with the family’s position, it does see the inclusion of the historical news item as relevant to the current story. The older article is referenced in the first lines of the newer one, and is part of the long-running story’s public record. The current article focused solely on Mr Vaeluaga and his daughter’s journey to have his life recognized. It did not not delve into the nature of his death, but the fact police did not know who he was when he died – calling him simply ‘an islander’ – does add to the narrative about him lying unidentified in an unmarked grave for the next 50 years.

[12] The Media Council does not feel comment was needed from the Fisher family, as Mrs Fisher is not mentioned in the current article. Therefore including quotes from her children would have raised more questions. The council also notes the family has been given the chance to tell their story in the Sunday Star-Times but do not wish to do so, which was entirely their right.

Not Upheld

Principle 2 – Privacy

[13] The complainants were young children when their mother died and their father shielded them from the full horror of her death by not showing them news items and photographs from the time. For this reason, the reprinting of the historical article was all the more shocking as they were seeing it for the first time. The complainants feel disrespected and that their privacy has been breached.

[14] The Media Council appreciates that seeing the article and photograph depicting the crash must have come as a shock. It is not something anyone would be prepared for. But the article and photograph are part of the public record and were relevant to the current story. It was also a fair assumption for the Sunday Star-Times/Stuff to make that the passage of time would have lessened its impact, especially not knowing the photograph had never been seen by the Fisher children.

Not Upheld

Principle 11 – Photographs and Graphics

[15] The complainants question the public interest in reprinting the photograph of the crash and also question why their family was not given special consideration. The photograph was printed alongside the historic news article and has been reprinted as a true account. It adds to the narrative of Mr Vaeluaga’s story – he was unknown in his death and his grave remained that way for 50 years. And while the Media Council accepts the image would be distressing and shocking to the Fisher children, it also takes into account the fact the Sunday Star-Times/Stuff was not to know they had never seen the photograph before. Had they been aware, Council would expect some special consideration to have been given.

Not Upheld

The Media Council expresses its sympathy to the Fisher family and accepts the family would have found it most painful to be reminded of their mother’s shocking death.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Tracy Watkins took no part in the consideration of this complaint.