Case Number: 2604

Council Meeting: JULY 2017

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage


The Otago Mental Health Support Trust has complained about a story in the Otago Daily Times describing a charity fundraising experience being set up in the old Dunedin Prison. The report said the prison would be transformed into a “military-style asylum” and, “thrill-seekers would make their way to the psychiatric ward, past the cells crammed with clowns (as) masked patients await the visit”. The Trust complains that the story adds to the stigma of mental illness, creates a false impression of psychiatric wards and ought to have been balanced with expert comment on the harm this sort of portrayal can do.

The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint

Grant Cooper, Team Manager, believes the story breaches the Press Council’s principles of accuracy, fairness and balance, and discrimination and diversity. It was inaccurate, he suggests, to portray people who access mental health wards as scary, violent and dangerous. The event was promoting this myth when, to be fair, people with experience of mental illness were more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.

He was dismayed that the newspaper would promote stigma and discrimination by placing gratuitous emphasis on mental disability. The article came across as an advertisement without balancing criticism of the event. The paper ought to have considered what this kind of promotion is like for somebody who has been in a psychiatric ward. It could discourage people from seeking help from mental health services, possibly suicidal people.

The Response

Though he rejected all the grounds of complaint, Barry Stewart, Editor of the Otago Daily Times, had given Mr Cooper a written apology for any upset caused by the story. It was not the paper’s intention to offend anyone with mental illness or working in that field. Its intention was to highlight the redevelopment of the former prison and its use for a “horror event”, as the organisers described it. The event was for a worthy cause, Heart Kids Otago, which he felt deserved coverage.

The story was an accurate description of the charity event and the editor believes that, in that context, the report did not require a range of views. The complainant’s concerns would be better taken up with the organisers. It was their decision to use a psychiatric ward scenario. The story did not reflect the newspaper’s view of mental illness, which it took extremely seriously. The paper had published many stories about the work of mental health organisations in its community, and provided helpline numbers when relevant. It had published stories that “disconfirmed” stereotypes associated with mental illness or called for more funding, support or understanding of the issues.

The Discussion

Like the editor, the Press Council believes the Trust is directing its complaint in the wrong direction. If this “house of horrors” type of entertainment is perpetuating a stigma for mental illness and undermining confidence in psychiatric services, then it is for organisations such as the Trust to take this up directly with the business providing it, or publicly. It is an issue that would interest the news media. Indeed, it is surprising theOtago Daily Times did not do a follow up story reporting the trust’s concerns.

But the complaint is limited to the published story, as it must be to come within the Council’s jurisdiction. The Trust believes the story unbalanced because it included no criticism of the event from a mental health professional. The Council does not think it reasonable to expect the newspaper to have anticipated these criticisms before its report was published. It had no reason to think anyone would have taken its story as a serious portrayal of mental illness or modern psychiatric treatment.

The story carried no claim to be an accurate fair and balanced account of these subjects and the Council does not believe a complaint on those grounds can be upheld.

The complainant has also invoked the discrimination and diversity principle under which media are obliged to ensure references to mental disability are not gratuitous. The fundraiser was playing on historical accounts of the “Bedlam” era of institutional custody. The story did no more than reflect the subject and character of the event. References to psychiatric patients and an “asylum” were not gratuitous in this context.

These sorts of entertainment make no claim to be anything but nonsense. If they are considered harmful today, it is for the mental health profession to say so, not the Press Council. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.


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