PHILLIP ROBERTS AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2762

Council Meeting: MARCH 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Suicide Reports
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

Overview

Procedural

1. When this matter was first raised the editor asked it be referred to the subcommittee of the Council for a “no grounds” ruling. He did this on the basis the case was the same as Matthew Farrell v NZH (Case number 2698) and the Council had no jurisdiction over suicide reporting of deaths outside the New Zealand jurisdiction. Farrell was resolved as a “no grounds” after the story had been taken down after communication with the Mental Health Foundation. (And perhaps because it also breached theHerald’s own internal protocols as mentioned by Oskar Alley below.)

2. The subcommittee considered this case was different. Farrell was concerned with the reporting of the method of death in an outside jurisdiction which would not be permitted under the Coroner’s Act in New Zealand. This case is concerned with broader matters pertaining to the reporting of overseas suicides.

Background

3. On January 9, 2019 the New Zealand Herald published a piece apparently reproduced from overseas sources.It dealt with the death of a young man who died on December 12, 2018 in the UK. The headline is “UK man found dead after posting heart-breaking final message on Facebook”.The article follows a photograph of the man concerned, with in boldWarning: This article is about suicide and may be distressing for some readers.”It then outlines that the deceased wrote a long last message to family and friends, which he posted on Facebook.It notes that this message has since “gone viral”.

4. The story quotes the post at length, and notes that over 20,000 people had reacted to it and it has been shared about 11,500 times.It goes on to say:

Thousands of people have commented about how “heart-breaking” it is to read the post, while others shared their condolences saying “RIP” and “God Bless”.

5. The story continues that others had posted negative comments, leading family members to speak out, and there is a quote from a cousin:

I cannot believe some of the nasty evil comments I’ve been reading especially from people that didn’t know him. RIP Kieran you really were a popular guy loved by many.

6. The story closes with a quote from the West Yorkshire police relating to the matter being reported to them, the finding of the deceased, and the matter being treated as not suspicious and reported to the Coroner’s office.There then follows in heavy bold text: “Where to get help”, and continues in normal font:

If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

7. Then, in smaller bold, “or if you need to talk to someone else:”, and there then follows a list of various call centres that can be contacted for assistance.

The Complaint

8. Phillip Roberts’ complaint says the report of the suicide was “extremely inappropriate and dangerous”.He said a large part of the suicide note was published, and the cause of the suicide as the ending of a lengthy romantic relationship is speculated on.This is said to be irresponsible reporting, and the principle said to be breached was “3. Children and Young People.”

9. In his letter to the Council of February 12, the complainant expanded on the grounds he sent to theHerald, and referred to the media guidelines published by the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand which are on the Ministry of Health’s website.He maintains theHerald ignored most of the guidelines.He says the article presents a simplified reason for the suicide, being the ending of the romantic relationship, and is sensationalised by the publication of the original suicide note and photos from social media of the deceased.

10. He continues that the article does nothing to counterbalance assertions in the suicide note. These could have included:

  • Suicide is selfish
  • The wish for no-one to help the person thinking of suicide
  • People should be happy enough not to consider suicide
  • Suicide lets down other people

11. While accepting the media guidelines may not be binding, he believed it recognised best practice which theNew Zealand Herald ought to have followed. He said alternatively, even if it is not best practice, the guidelines represent a safer, more responsible and ethical way to report on suicide.

12. He referred to the Media Council’s preamble referring to maintaining the press in accordance with highest professional standards and said the story could have been published by theHerald in a different and more responsible way that would have maintained public faith in the media.

The Response

13. Mr Alley points out that the suicide in question attracted significant international media attention.This was occasioned by a lengthy post the deceased made on Facebook which apologised to his family and set out his final wishes relating to his possessions.Mr Alley said this was “a powerful and eloquent insight into his state of mind and his concern for others, while providing instructions for final arrangements.”

14. He further stated that the use of Facebook for this message, rather than a written note, also attracted media attention after Facebook declined to delete the post.One of the reasons it declined to do so was because the deceased’s family wanted it to remain online.

15, The editor referred to the comments by the Senior Coroner in the Leeds Coroners Court:

It seems that relationships, as they can, faltered and they were discussing separation. It would appear that’s what’s prompted him to take the action that he did.

16. Accordingly, he said, the article was accurate, which was confirmed by the inquest’s findings.

17. The editor also pointed out that British law does not prohibit the media from reporting the method of suicide, in contrast to the New Zealand position which has what he considers restrictive rules.Notwithstanding this, in accordance with the Herald’s internal protocols, the method of death was not included in the article.

18. The editor then goes on at some length regarding the Herald’s own protocols for suicide reporting, and points to comments by the Health Minister, David Clarke, and mental health advocate Mike King to support his view that the restricted position in New Zealand is not reducing our stubbornly-resistant, high suicide rates, particularly in those under 25.He also points out that social media is an unregulated medium, immune from New Zealand’s legal restrictions.

19. He refers to the reporting guidelines issued by the New Zealand Mental Health Foundation and points out they apply to New Zealand cases only.Notwithstanding that, he said key aspects of the guidelines are included in theHerald’s reporting protocols, namely:

    • that articles should carry a warning that the article deals with the issue of suicide;
    • that the method not be reported; and
    • publication of a full list of MHF-recommended helplines (with hyperlinks) to support agencies, at the bottom of the article.

20. He said the Herald complied with all of these aspects, and he disagrees with the complainant that the article was “dangerous”, “irresponsible” or “inappropriate”.

21. Mr Alley also stated :

I also stress that the MHF actively monitors suicide reporting in New Zealand and has no hesitation in contacting media to raise concerns about articles, or to provide feedback. This has not happened in relation to the January 9 article and I note Mr Roberts’ complaint is the only one we have received in relation to this article.

There have been previous occasions when the MHF has contacted us with the concerns about articles and this has led to a discussion about interpretation of the guidelines. The key point is that the dialogue is ongoing and that the guidelines continue to evolve.

22. Mr Alley also notes a comment from our predecessor the Press Council in 2001:

Blaming the messenger for causing or worsening the problem, whose basic causes must be sought elsewhere, fails to recognise the important and cleansing nature of a blaze of publicity being focused on the darker side of New Zealand life.

The Complainant's Further Response

23. Mr Roberts maintains that the editor’s response raises new material and was the first he had received.He says he was ignored by theNew Zealand Herald when he attempted to engage with it at the early stage of this.

24. He disagrees that the reporting of the senior Coroner’s finding is accurate because the senior Coroner said the ending of the relationship is what “prompted the action taken”.He refers again to the MHF guidelines that repeatedly advise not to simplify the causes of suicide, as they are usually complex.He further says that, while it may be accurate to say the ending of the relationship prompted the suicide, it does not mean it must be the sole cause and/or simplifies the cause of the suicide, and accordingly contravenes the guidelines.

25. He does not accept that he has interpreted the MHF guidelines rigidly, and says theHerald has disregarded these at every turn.

26. He refers to the editor’s reference to the comments by the Minister of Health and Mike King, and says he supports the sentiment, “It’s good to talk”.But he said it is erroneous for the editor to suggest he was attempting to silence legitimate and helpful reporting.He said any discussion on suicide is only useful to society if it does not perpetuate existing taboos or sensationalise issues, or in some other way makes a helpful contribution.He reiterates that poor reporting of discussions of suicide can be actively detrimental to a vulnerable community.

27. He said the quote from the Media Council from a 2001 decision was 18 years out of date, and the article was not newsworthy as Mr Lister was not someone of prominence.He said theHerald could have reported this in a different manner that would have maintained public faith.

The Decision

28. The reporting of suicide is an emotive issue with protagonists taken strong positions. Such discussion is important in a free society that guarantees the freedom of the media. It does appear to us that Mr Roberts tends to be at the restrictive end of the reporting spectrum.

29. As noted by the complainant and the publication, the report dealt with an overseas suicide and is not bound by either the New Zealand Coroner’s Act or the Mental Health Guidelines.

30. We also note that this was a matter that “went viral” on social media following the Facebook post.We note it was not taken down by Facebook, at the request of the family. However, we also note any final decision to publish rests with the editor. That means it had been in the public domain for some time before the Herald’s story. It had clearly been viewed by thousands and was readily accessible.

31. We also note that the complaint relies on our principle of Children and Young People.We do not consider that Mr Lister fell within this category, being aged 20, in a relationship (albeit faltering), and in work.We will, however, consider the matter more generally because the way the New Zealand media reports overseas suicides has an element of public interest.

32. We consider that Mr Roberts interprets the MHF guidelines much too rigidly.We also note the only relevant legal restriction is the reporting of the method of suicide, which theHerald, in line with its own protocols, elected to omit from the story notwithstanding that it was widely reported overseas. Neither the Coroner’s Act, nor the guidelines, prevent the publication of the content of a suicide note.

33. We consider the story to be one of public interest, albeit harrowing.It is a long and emotional post, as one might expect.

34. We see little to be gained in the somewhat semantic debate as to whether or not it was a suicide note.Clearly it expressed Mr Lister’s state of mind and the reasons, as he perceived them, for ending his life.Nor do we think the story in theHerald oversimplified matters.Clearly, the senior Coroner that dealt with the matter considered the ending of the relationship central to Mr Lister’s decision to end his life.While we readily accept that it is wrong to over-simplify what are often complex circumstances, we do not believe the Herald story did that.

35. We also note that the challenging series called ‘Break the Silence’ published in theHerald in 2017 sparked discussions which were very much in the public interest.It is equally clear that any reporting restrictions seem to have had little impact on the current suicide rates, especially in those under 25, in New Zealand. Despite a tremendous amount of work by government and non-government agencies the issues, sadly, appear stubbornly resistant. As a society we need to be very aware of this and confront it.

36. We think it of some significance that the Herald has ongoing discussions about suicide reporting with the MHF, and the MHF did not raise any questions into this particular report. It is important that such discussion continues.

37. We consider that even though not obliged to as this was a suicide outside the jurisdiction, theHerald has complied with the MHF guidelines by clearly carrying a warning at the beginning of the article that it dealt with the issue of suicide, that it did not report the method of death, and although this is now common knowledge overseas, it still has not done so.Further, there is the publication of a full list of MHF-recommended helplines with hyperlinks at the bottom of the article. We trust this policy will continue when reporting overseas suicides.

38. We see no breaches of any of the Media Council’s principles, and the complaint is not upheld. We do not see the story as “extremely inappropriate and dangerous” as the complainant alleges. Nor was it “irresponsible” as he again alleges.

39. In relation to the Press Council statement in 2001 this Council concurs in it. It continues to apply notwithstanding the dramatic changes in the way news is gathered and disseminated over the last 18 years.

40. We would add, however, that it is unfortunate the Herald did not engage with Mr Roberts after the initial response on 10 January 2019.We understand that in this digital age, newsrooms receive thousands of complaints a week. But notwithstanding, this was one that warranted a response from the newspaper before it reached the stage of a complaint to the Media Council. While appreciating the publication’s difficulty, Council members believed that the Herald could have done better. Some members noted this was not the first complaint that involved an unsatisfactory response from the Herald. We trust where appropriate, discussion is entered into. However, given Mr Roberts views of the matter any discussion could well have been fruitless.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.