ROBIN HARRISON AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2759

Council Meeting: MARCH 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Politicians
Privacy
Taste Lack of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] Robin Harrison has complained about a front-page NZ Herald story titled ‘The MP and the text inquiry’, published in print and online on January 25. The article was written by David Fisher.

[2] The article covers former National MP Jami-Lee Ross’s affair with a fellow MP, which was revealed as part of his exit from National last year and widely reported mental health struggles.

[3] At the time media reported he had been sent a text that included the words “You deserve to die”. While journalists knew the text had allegedly been sent by Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie they had not named her. This article was the first time she was named as the source of the text.

[4] Dowie’s identity was revealed as part of the news that police had started an investigation into the text.

The Complaint

[5] Mrs Harrison says she was appalled and disgusted by the article, as it was “nothing more than gutter sniping” and “beneath us at all levels of society”.

[6] She argues it was unnecessary for the Herald to identify Dowie as the texter, use “a large photo” of her and publish such personal information without Dowie’s permission. She also asks whether it was appropriate a male reporter wrote the article.

[7] The article denied the MP a fair hearing and the chance of name suppression while police were still investigating an alleged but unproven crime and Dowie “now faces a kangaroo court”.

[8] The complainant agrees the public has a right to information, “but not at the expense of destroying a woman’s name and perhaps political career”. She believes this information does not reach the threshold of the Council’s principles.

[9] Harrison complains that the Herald has breached Principle 2, Privacy andPrinciple 6, Headlines and Captions. She also suggests the story must be a breach of the Privacy Act.

The Response

[10] Herald Senior Newsroom Editor David Rowe replies that the decision to name Dowie was not made lightly, but in the public’s interest.

[11] The paper withheld Dowie’s name for three months, but once it had confirmed police were investigating it “felt the threshold for public interest had been crossed and we were duty-bound to publish”.

[12] Any instance where a “sitting, tax-payer funded MP” was being investigated by police was worthy of coverage, especially given it concerned the breach of a law she voted for, Rowe says. The text could be in breach of the Harmful Digital Communications Act, a law Dowie supported.

[13] Rowe quotes Principle 2, which in part reads “The right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest”. He says the story reports the facts without any judgment of Dowie.

[14] Regarding Principle 6, he argues the headline The MP and the text inquiry accurately and fairly conveys the content of the story. The photo was a National Party image and other media also published her name after theHerald did. The reporter’s gender, he says, is irrelevant.

The Decision

[15] Harrison’s complaint under Principle 6 is straight-forward. The headlines used clearly and accurately describe the stories reported. They are about an MP’s text and her naming was prompted by a police enquiry into a text he allegedly sent. The photo was prominent, but no more so than many used on a newspaper’s front-page. It was a photo approved by Dowie to be used by media.The complaint under Principle 6 is not upheld.

[16] The nub of the complaint is around the MP’s privacy, under Principle 2. The Council notes at the outset that it does not deal with defamation claims, so the question of whether Dowie’s reputation has been destroyed is a matter for the courts, should the MP wish to take action.

[17] Further, journalists in their news gathering role are not subject to the Privacy Act, as the law explicitly excludes news media.

[18] Ross and/or his allies had disclosed Dowie’s name to journalists in October 2018, but none had chosen to name her at the time. TheHerald chose to name her in these articles as they were reporting police had initiated an investigation into her text.

[19] A member of parliament has unusual and significant powers – that is, to represent the public and make laws that influence the lives of millions. As such, they are rightly open to greater public scrutiny than other citizens. MPs put themselves forward knowing the scrutiny they will face. While in New Zealand an MP’s private life is traditionally treated as private by journalists, there are exceptions. Most commonly they involve where their private life is interfering with or related to their public duties, where a crime has or may have been committed or where their private behaviour is at odds with their public positions on policy.

[20] In this case, the story of Dowie’s text reaches all these thresholds. First, her affair with a fellow MP was reported as part of coverage of Ross’s mental health issues and his defection from National amidst accusations of dishonesty and corruption against his leader. Second, a criminal complaint has been made with police involving an act that may have put someone’s life at risk. Third, Dowie voted for the Harmful Digital Communications Act, they very act under which police could prosecute her. For those reasons, this story is clearly in the public’s interest.

[21] For voters to be able to engage critically and with thorough knowledge in a democracy, media must be able to report on an MP’s integrity, when they are facing criminal charges and if their private behaviour is at odds with their publicly expressed views. That in this case these issues involve a sexual relationship is irrelevant; the principle would apply to any criminal investigations, hypocrisy or matters of integrity.

[22] It’s worth noting that it had already been reported that the alleged texter was an MP, so to report the investigation without naming her would have brought other MPs under suspicion.

[23] Harrison is concerned the newspaper did not seek permission from Dowie to identify her in the story, discuss her marital status or use her photograph. If politicians had the power to give or withhold permission on stories about them, we would not have a free press. As for her marital status and photograph, both are on the public record.

[24] She also complains that the reportage degrades and damages Dowie. But Dowie has not challenged the accuracy of the events reported. So if those events are degrading and damaging, then that is the responsibility of the parties involved, not the reporting media.

[25] The complaint under Principle 2 is not upheld.


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 and Tim Watkin.

Tracy Watkins took no part in the consideration of this complaint.