PAUL CARRUTHERS AGAINST THE PRESSPaul Carruthers complained about a report which initially appeared on the Stuff website on September 14, 2011 and was then published in The Press newspaper the following day. He cited various principles in his complaint, including accuracy, fairness and balance; privacy; comment and fact; and confidentiality. His complaint is not upheld.
The report was the result of an interview with a survivor of a head-on crash which had killed the well-known South Canterbury financier and businessman, Allan Hubbard.
The driver of the utility vehicle, which had collided with the car being driven by Mr Hubbard’s wife, Jean Hubbard, could recall little of the accident itself, but outlined some subsequent details.
For example, he and the Hubbards had ended up in the same room at Oamaru Hospital, Mrs Hubbard “had apologised to him and wished him well”, a witness who had been travelling behind the Hubbards had told him he “had nothing to worry about”, the following morning he had gone back to the site of the accident which had occurred in the middle of a straight stretch of road, and he had written to the Hubbard family.
The report on The Press section of the Stuff website was headlined “Driver tells of Hubbard smash” and noted that Allan Hubbard’s private funeral was to take place that day.
The report which appeared in The Press newspaper the following day was substantially the same report, now headlined “Crash driver talked to Hubbards at hospital”. The report appeared above an account of Mr Hubbard’s funeral service headlined “Friends, family pay last respects”.
Mr Carruthers initially complained to the editor of The Press. He claimed that the article was badly timed as it had appeared on the very day of Mr Hubbard’s funeral and would have been distressing for the Hubbard family.
He also suggested that the words of an unnamed witness had been used to imply that Jean Hubbard had been at fault.
In his view the timing of the article was “disgusting” and an example of “gutter journalism”.
In a later submission to the Press Council, he reiterated that the timing of a report implying that Jean Hubbard had caused the accident showed a “lack of human compassion” when it was published on the day of the funeral.
He argued that because the accident was still being investigated by the police, any comment about possible causes should have been completely avoided.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor rejected the complainant’s argument that several of the Press Council’s general principles had been breached in the report.
For example, as far as Principle 2 (privacy) was concerned, there had been no intrusion on Mrs Hubbard’s privacy and no private or personal information had been revealed. Further, the matter was of considerable public interest and a story was therefore justified.
Mr Carruthers had cited Principle 4 (Comment and Fact) but there had been no comment or opinion expressed by the reporter or by the newspaper within the article. The article was largely factual and any comments were the views of the survivor as he understood the events in question.
Principle 7 (confidentiality) had been cited as well but no confidential sources had been used in compiling the story.
The editor did accept that the story did not have any explanation from Mrs Hubbard to balance the account of the driver of the utility. However, Mrs Hubbard had not herself complained about the report.
Finally, the editor argued that the story was not focussed on attributing blame for the accident. The report had made it very clear that the police investigation was far from complete.
Discussion and Decision
The Press Council accepts that there is an implication in the report that Mrs Hubbard might have been to blame.
However, would it have been fair in this particular instance and at this particular time to have approached Mrs Hubbard for her account of the accident? The Council thinks not – that would indeed have been an intrusion on her grief and privacy.
Further, the report does make it clear there is still much to be discovered about the accident. For example, the interviewed survivor could remember nothing of the crash itself, and it was “stressful” not knowing what had happened. Also, that “there were still so many questions hanging over the accident” and that both a police inquiry and a coroner’s inquest would be many weeks away, emphasise that the real cause remained undetermined.
Members of the Press Council were sympathetic to the claim that the timing of the report was insensitive to the feelings of the Hubbard family (though it is worth noting that no one from the family has complained).
Yet there was considerable public interest in this matter. The affairs of South Canterbury Finance, largely created by Allan Hubbard, were under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office and it had required a massive (and controversial) government intervention to ensure investors did not sustain loss of their funds. In that environment, the sudden death of its founder would have led to much speculation and possibly ill-informed debate.
While the Press Council believes the publication on the day of Mr Hubbard’s funeral may be seen as insensitive, it is of the view that the public interest in the case allowed The Press to publish.
The various complaints are not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.