PADDY HUGHES AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 3075

Council Meeting: JULY 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories:

Overview

1. Paddy Hughes has complained about a story published in the New Zealand Heraldand on its website on June 12, 2021.

2. The story - Auckland childbirth tragedy: Mum, baby die - grieving husband begs for investigation- is a harrowing account of the death of a mother and baby as told to a reporter by the husband and father Charitha Meepegama.

3. Mr Meepegama and his late wife Nilakshani Silva were looking forward to the delivery of their baby, but the child’s mother fell ill the night before they expected the child to be born. Mr Meepegama called an ambulance when he noticed his wife’s laboured breathing. He also called the midwife, who did not respond.

4. Sadly, Ms Silva died soon after an emergency C-section was performed in the ambulance after her heart stopped. The baby, Eliana, died four days later after Mr Meepegama made the agonising decision to switch off life support.

5. The story is an account of the tragedy’s aftermath.It relies heavily on an interview with Mr Meepegama in which he plaintively seeks answers about the circumstances leading to the death of his wife and baby.

The Complaint

6. Ms Hughes says that the story failed to meet New Zealand Media Council Principles 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, 4: Comment and Fact and 6: Headlines and Captions.

7. Specifically she says it was inaccurate to state that Ms Silvia died in childbirth because a doctor had told her husband that she died of a blood clot.

8. The reporter had “failed by omission” to provide context by not including information which may have assisted readers in understanding “how prevalent or otherwise such a tragedy may be”.

9. A lack of “wider commentary” led to the conclusion that the reporter’s purpose in writing the story was “shock value” “rather than genuine news reporting” or “perhaps a lack of time to do proper research before deadline”.

10. Ms Hughes suggested a range of different source material which the reporter could have accessed and various other lines of inquiry such as “the risk of blood clots causing death in pregnancy”. Mr Meepegama was “pleading for an investigation into their sudden deaths” but Ms Hughes said there would be a Coroner's hearing and an investigation by the DHB both of which would suffice. She said the reporter should have gone into more depth to explain these processes to “reassure the reader and wider public that there is a system of checks and balances when such tragedies occur”.

11. Turning to headlines, the complainant says the subheading Grieving man wants answers after wife and baby die is not “explicitly answered” in the article “despite the fact that the DHB have said they are having an investigation and that there will be a Coroner’s case”.

12. Mr Meepegama’s opinion that he was “really worried about the state of the New Zealand health system” did not accurately reflect what the article covered “and is therefore not balanced”. “It is an opinion which is not supported by the facts as reported within the article itself”.

13. Ms Hughes also complained that the reference in the story to Ms Silva asking for a caesarean some time before she was due -and subsequently being denied because there was no medical reason to perform one - inferred that if she had been granted her wish she would not have needed an emergency C-section in the ambulance.

The Response

14. For the Weekend Herald, editor Stuart Dye said the article accurately reported Mr Meepegama’s “grief at the loss of his wife and child and that he is seeking answers to what happened”.

15. Mr Meepegama did not understand what caused his wife’s death and has had little contact, if any, with the midwife, ambulance and DHB. Mr Dye said Mr Meepegama deserved answers “from all those organisations”.

16. Regarding Ms Hughes’ complaint that it was inaccurate to state that Ms Silva died during childbirth, Mr Dye said she died soon after ambulance officers performed a C-section.

17. The article “accurately stated” that the couple asked their midwife for a C-section and were told it was not an option because it was reserved for complications. “Mr Meepergama is entirely within his rights to question that decision.”

18. Mr Dye believed the article was balanced because representatives from St John’s and the DHB were quoted in the story and the midwife was contacted but did not want to comment.

19. Agreeing that Ms Hughes identified some “valid resources” “that might help give a wider context” Mr Dye said the piece was a news story about the couple “and not an in-depth feature on the topic of maternal mortality”.

“This is a topic we frequently report on in-depth and we will continue to do so.”

Mr Dye said the newspaper would continue to report on the investigations into the deaths.

The Decision

20. The question about accuracy is essentially a semantic one. On the one hand Ms Hughes argues that Ms Silva did not die “during childbirth” as the story states. She says it is clear from the story that she died as a result of a blood clot because that’s what Mr Meepegama was told by doctors, as reported in the story.

21. Essentially she is saying that Ms Silva’s emergency C-section was performed because she fell gravely ill and that resulted in medics performing the C-section which she failed to recover from. Following Ms Hughes’ logic, Ms Silva did not die “during childbirth” but as a result of an underlying condition that called for an emergency procedure during which a child was born/delivered.

22. The events that led up to the eventual delivery of the baby were extraordinary and sparked by a crisis outside of the scheduled and expected delivery of the child. But it is not inaccurate to say that Ms Silva died “during childbirth”. It is a fact that a child was delivered - albeit unexpectedly - and the mother died very soon afterwards. To maintain that the story is inaccurate is pedantic and does not reflect the thrust of the story.

23. The Council acknowledges that Ms Hughes’ own definition of dying in childbirth is confined to a medical register or lexicon but the Council also believes that readers would not be misinformed by the term as it was used in the context of the story. The article clearly laid out the sequence of events that led to the tragedy, a medical event, the emergency delivery of a baby and the death of the mother and therefore it is not necessarily inaccurate to describe Ms Silva’s demise as occurring “during childbirth”.

24. The complainant believes that the story is not balanced and failed to provide adequate context about the events in question, including background on key issues such as infant mortality during childbirth. The Council does not agree. The story does quote a medical representative from the DHB and a St John’s spokesperson. The midwife, whom theHerald did not name, chose not to comment. The Council believes the story was adequately balanced. However, the Council agrees with Ms Hughes that readers would have been better served if the story had explored some of the issues surrounding infant deaths during childbirth, but it rejects her claims that the story was written for “shock value” and would undermine confidence in the public health system. The story was a sensitive account of one man’s terrible ordeal as he helplessly watched his world implode.

25. The story itself relied heavily on Mr Meepegama’s tragic experience therefore it was a news story that embodied a lot of emotion. In that context it is not inaccurate or unbalanced for Mr Meepegama to be quoted airing concerns about the health system or seeking answers to the tragedy. Readers are left in no doubt that an investigation is underway and most would understand why he would be seeking answers beyond what he had already been told. The Council notes that Mr Dye said that the article was a news story about the family, not an in-depth feature “on the topic of maternal mortality”. The Council also notes that Mr Dye said the various investigations into the case will be followed up by theWeekend Herald. The Co uncil believes this should give readers a wider view and go some way to addressing Ms Hughes’ concerns about the story’s impact on readers.

26. The Council rejects Ms Hughes’ view that Mr Meepegama’s quotes about his concerns for the NZ health system are unbalanced and don’t accurately reflect what the story covers. In the context of a grieving husband and father, his views, as quoted in the story, are easy to understand.


27. Ms Hughes’ complains that a sub heading Grieving man wants answers after wife and baby die is not “explicitly answered” in the article despite the fact that the DHB said an investigation was underway. Again, the Council believes that the heading accurately conveys the thrust of the story. Mr Meepegama does want answers.

Decision

The Council can find no breach of principles therefore the complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Sandy Gill, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

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