ORANGA TAMARIKI AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 2826

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2019

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Children and Young People
Photographs
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] On July 4, 2019 RNZ ran a story on Checkpoint and on its website about a 13-year-old girl who had “gone into hiding” from Oranga Tamariki, alleging she had been abused in state care. Police had been asked to locate her.

[2] Oranga Tamariki was quoted as saying many of the statements made were untrue, but the wellbeing of “this vulnerable girl” was their greatest concern and they did not consider sharing information about her publicly to be in her best interests.

[3] The story quoted the girl’s grandmother, who she wished to live with, and her mother, who had recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for neglect of the girl and her siblings. Both expressed concerns about alleged abuse.

[4] The story was accompanied by a video of the girl, with her face blurred, speaking of her dissatisfaction with her treatment by Oranga Tamariki.

The Complaint

[5] Oranga Tamariki complained that the article on the RNZ website breached Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 3, relating to Children and Young People.

[6] Regarding Principle 3, Oranga Tamariki said they dealt with some of the most vulnerable young people in the country and that it was important for the media to deal with these young people in a sensitive manner. They accepted there was a high degree of public interest in the organisation’s activities, but they did not believe RNZ had taken into account the vulnerability of the girl, the past abuse she had suffered at the hands of her mother and the complicated family situation.

[7] Oranga Tamariki particularly objected to the use of the video of the girl. At the age of 13 she was too young to provide consent to the video being shown. The blurring of her face was inadequate and the girl would be easily identifiable to those who knew her.

[8] Regarding Principle 1, Oranga Tamariki said the group Whanau First was involved with the family and in providing the video toRNZ. By not reporting the identity and involvement of the group, which they said had a negative opinion of Oranga Tamariki, the story was unbalanced.

[9] Oranga Tamariki also said it was often in the difficult position of being unable to defend itself, due to privacy concerns and to preserve the relationships with the families it works with. While Oranga Tamariki was unable to provide the full context around the case to the reporter, she was told off-the-record that no abuse allegations had been substantiated against the girl’s caregivers.

The Response

[10] In its response RNZ said they had carefully considered the publication of the girl’s video statement. There was an overwhelming public interest in the matter which outweighed any welfare concerns for the young girl,RNZ said.

[11] RNZ had permission from the girl, as well as both the grandmother and the advocate, whoRNZ viewed as being in loco parentis. There was public interest in terms of the health and safety of those in the care of the state and there were unanswered questions of abuse that had not been adequately responded to by Oranga Tamariki.

[12] “Clearly in this case, the girl’s welfare has been mismanaged, else there would be no allegations of abuse while in the care of OT,”RNZ said.

[13] Publishing the video allowed the audience to hear firsthand the comments of the girl and judge her authenticity.

[14] RNZ noted that the video had been temporarily removed while the complaint was under consideration. “It does not mean it will not be republished in the future.”

[15] RNZ disputed that the girl would be easily identifiable by those who knew her. But even if she could be identified it was not clear which if any facts were revealed that breached her privacy. Even if the Media Council came to the view that a private fact had been published, it was still justified in term of the over-riding public interest.

[16] Regarding Principle 1, RNZ said it was difficult to see how the story was unbalanced. Although Oranga Tamariki would not provide someone to be interviewed, the organisation did provide a statement which was included. Whether or not Whanau First was involved was irrelevant, RNZ said.

The Decision

[17] In their initial response to Oranga Tamariki, RNZ said that when Oranga Tamariki complained that it did not believe that "...the safety and well-being of the girl was appropriately considered in its decision to publish this piece", it was not clear which of the Media Council principles Oranga Tamariki thought had been breached, so this aspect of the complaint could be taken no further and was not upheld. The Media Council would remindRNZ that it is not necessary for complainants to nominate a breach of a specific Principle for a matter to be considered.

[18] Regarding the complaint under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. There is undoubtedly a high degree of public interest in the work of Oranga Tamariki and the media has an important role to play in reporting any examples or allegations of abuse in state care.

[19] In this case, Oranga Tamariki had told the reporter off-the-record that no abuse allegations had been substantiated. But to protect the privacy of the girl and the relationship with the family they did not want to publicly address the allegations. This put both RNZ and Oranga Tamariki in a difficult position. RNZ was in receipt of abuse allegations from the girl, her grandmother and mother. With only an off-the-record denial from Oranga Tamariki, it seems reasonable to run a story reporting the claims. Oranga Tamariki did provide a statement saying many of the claims were untrue and this was included in the story, providing a degree of balance.

[20] Oranga Tamariki complained that the involvement of the lobby group Whanau First was not included in the story, whileRNZ said it was irrelevant. The Media Council believes that it would have been better to include the fact that Whanau First was involved, for complete transparency, but did not see it as a serious omission.

[21] In summary, as RNZ included the statement from Oranga Tamariki, the story was not unbalanced. The omission of the involvement of Whanau First was relatively minor in terms of the whole story. Complaint under Principle 1,not upheld.

[22] Regarding the complaint under Principle 3, Children and Young Persons. The Council notes that the principle states that “editors must demonstrate an exceptional degree of public interest to override the interests of the child or young person.”

[23] While the Council agrees with RNZ that allowing viewers to hear a statement directly can help establish authenticity, in this video the girl stated that she had been physically and verbally abused by Oranga Tamariki caregivers, but did not provide any further details that would allow viewers to judge the veracity of the claims. Therefore the video did not provide enough additional information to that already available in the story to meet the exceptional degree of public interest threshold.

[24] While her face was completely blurred, it was likely those who knew her would recognise her and as the story contained personal information, including about sexual matters, it cannot have been in her best interest to be publicly identified. Once online material is published it can be difficult if not impossible to ensure it is removed from the internet, and in the future this young woman may regret its existence.

[25] The Council concurs with Oranga Tamariki that she was too young to consent to the screening of the video and as she was in state care it seems unlikely that either the grandmother or the advocate had in loco parentis status to consent on her behalf. The Council also notes that it has previously ruled that the consent of a legal guardian does not absolve media outlets from making their own decision about whether publication is in the best interests of a young person (Milly Woods against Stuff, July 2017).

[26] The Council believes RNZ should have been particularly careful to protect this vulnerable young woman who has had an exceptionally difficult upbringing andRNZ should not have shown the video. The complaint under Principle 3 is upheld.

The Council notes that RNZ took down the video while the complaint was being processed. We now direct that the video should not be reinstated and that it should be marked so that no future publication of the video can occur.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Liz Brown, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten and Christina Tay.

Tim Watkin took no part in the consideration of this complaint.