A complaint against the Otago Daily Times by an Auckland surgeon has been rejected by the New Zealand Press Council.

Mr P.G.Alley, a surgeon at the North Shore Hospital, had served in September 1994 on a board of enquiry into the conduct of a Dunedin surgeon. Some time later he was rung by a person who left a contact number. Shortly after, when he was still in the operating theatre, he was rung by a reporter from the Otago Daily Times, who also left a number. Mr Alley noted the numbers were identical. He phoned the first caller who explained his wife was a patient of the Dunedin surgeon and that he was therefore anxious to know when the report of the enquiry was due. Mr Alley asked about the co-incidence of numbers; the caller confirmed he was the husband of a patient and that he worked in the same office as the ODT reporter. Mr Alley terminated the conversation.

Mr Alley complained that the caller was deceitful and had failed to practise in a professional manner. He assumed that the two calls were connected and that the first caller was using his close association with a patient to extort from him a story for the newspaper. He asked for a published apology.

The editor of the newspaper, in a letter of 21 November 1994 to Mr Alley, explained the caller was an editorial writer, not a reporter, his wife was indeed a patient of the Dunedin surgeon and that he had telephoned in a purely private capacity, as he was entitled to do. He said that Mr Alley had leapt to a quite incorrect conclusion and he believed it was Mr Alley who should apologise.

Mr Alley did not accept this explanation. Replying to the Press Council on 28 November, he raised three points which he thought the editor had failed to explain: the coincidence of the phone calls; the fact that the first caller had invited him to call back collect to the Times' telephone number, surprising if the call was a private one; and the failure of the caller to declare his conflict of interest.

The editor repeated to the Press Council his claim that the first caller had phoned in a private capacity, saying that his office was not even aware of the call. To Mr Alley's points, he said the closeness of the two calls was purely coincidental; he denied that the caller had asked Mr Alley to call him back on a collect-call basis, a suggestion made in fact by the reporter; he believed the first caller had indicated he was the husband of a patient and also worked at the Times: no deception was involved. The caller was seeking private information, not attempting to obtain an interview for his newspaper. The editor refused to apologise and repeated his opinion that on the alley Mr Alley owed apologies both to the caller and the Otago Daily Times.

Members of the Press Council could understand how Mr Alley, noting the closeness of the calls and the identity of the phone numbers, had jumped to a conclusion that the caller was using his wife's situation as an unprofessional means of coercing an interview from the surgeon. However the facts as explained by the editor revealed that the closeness of the calls was purely coincidental that the first caller was calling in a private capacity and that the reporter's call was quite unrelated to his. Council members regretted that Mr Alley had not accepted this explanation. They did not consider the first caller had acted unprofessionally in any way. The complaint was therefore dismissed.


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