A complaint against the Nelson Mail by Peter Smith that it had breached his privacy by publishing a photo of his house at Walter’s Bluff, and giving the street number, has not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council.

Mr Smith complained that he was in the photograph, and that the photograph and identification of the property were published without his permission and despite a request to the newspaper opposing that course.

The front page story in the Nelson Mail on 21 November 1998, was headed “New subsidence on Walter’s Bluff may spark policy review.” The newspaper reported a fresh problem had hit the Nelson City Council’s controversial subdivision. The newspaper understood that the problem included serious subsidence at the property, which it identified by street and number. It reported there were delicate negotiations with various parties, there was talk of legal action and the parties remained tight lipped.

The mayor was quoted as being a critic of the Council’s involvement in subdivisions and predicted a long, hard review in the New Year over the councils’s involvement. The council’s point of view was also quoted – it was aware of the issue, the matter was complex, and it respected the privacy of the parties. The newspaper had already reported difficulties with the investment of ratepayers’ money in the Walter’s Bluff development.

At the centre was Mr Smith and the property in question. He asked that the newspaper not identify the property in the story which was being developed. However, while neither Mr Smith nor the family name was associated with the story, the exact address was printed.

On advice from the Press Council, Mr Smith complained to the editor. Correspondence and some civilised discussion between the parties followed. The editor sent Mr Smith a copy of the newspaper’s reporting policies as a background how the decision to publish was reached. Mr Smith accepted both the public concern about the subdivision and the Nelson Mail’s responsibility “for bringing this to the public’s attention.” But he asked how his family’s property and their private investment in it could be seen as a public concern.

The Press Council said it was a classic case of the messenger being blamed for the contents of an unhappy message. Unfortunately Mr Smith cannot separate his patch of land from the general fabric of the subdivision. They are interwoven. Mr Smith has not accused the newspaper of inaccuracy in its reporting and may have wanted the Nelson Mail to wait until delicate negotiations were concluded. However the public interest and the public money at stake could not wait on what might have been protracted private negotiations. The newspaper’s duty is to its readers, and the wider public interest prevailed over Mr Smith’s preference for privacy.

In part of his justification for the approach the newspaper had taken, its editor said it had a responsibility to publish full, fair and factual information of issues of public concern to dispel rumour and speculation. It is certainly true that any newspaper gives greater credence to its stories if there are particular and specific references to clearly identified evidence, rather than generalities.

Mr Smith approved of an editorial in the newspaper published on 8 January which spoke about the problems of the Walter’s Bluff subdivision without individual details, but that is appropriate for an opinion piece. The sharp focus of a news story, like the lens of a camera, brings into view the facts and details which best serve the newspaper’s function.

The complaint is not upheld.


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