ROBYN MITCHELL AGAINST BAY OF PLENTY TIMESThe Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Ms Robyn Mitchell, who is described as next of kin of a man named Noel Johnson, now deceased, but is also the mother of the three boys mentioned hereafter. The complaint concerns two articles published in the Bay of Plenty Times, first on 20 July 2002, followed by another on 27 July 2002. Both these articles were concerned with the manner in which the deceased met his death by fire in a housebus which he occupied as his home.
Some of the particular circumstances surrounding the death can not be established with certainty, but the central ones are not in dispute and are independently verified.
The deceased was aged 42 years and separated with 3 boys aged from seven to 12. It seems at about 1am of the morning of 20 July 2002 he reached his bus. He was known in the small district of Whakamarama as a heavy drinker and it was reported when delivered by friends to his bus he was heavily intoxicated. The bus apparently caught fire at around 5.30am and burned fiercely with the deceased unable to escape. The bus had two exit doors one of which was locked by a metal pin in a makeshift external lock. There was a rear safety hatch exit towards which the deceased was apparently moving in an attempt to escape when he was overcome by smoke fumes. His body was found in that vicinity.
The bus had no electricity supply connected to it and candles were used for lighting. Exactly how the fire was ignited is uncertain but the candles and effects of alcohol were prime suspect causes.
The first article published on the day of the fire, 20 July 2002 was weighted to the known facts and reasonable inferences. A photograph of the burned-out bus accompanied this article. The fire service assistant regional commander, Keith Fraser was quoted as saying at the scene of the fire:
“… the mix of alcohol and candles were to blame in this and in many fires, especially where men were involved.
We’ve never said this before but it needs to come out in the open. We’ve got to highlight this problem”
The article then went on to mention other details of the deceased and the fire, and finished off with an account of somewhat similar deaths in the region.
The second article, a week later by a different by-lined reporter was more lurid in description of the surrounding circumstances. Photographs of the ravaged interior of the bus and one of the outside also accompanied this article. It was that article that the complaint centres on. The details of the complaint are about two issues, namely: 1. The language used was a highly emotive, fictional account of what may or may not have been Mr. Johnson’s last moments without any foundation whatsoever; 2. The journalist gained access to the property without any authority from the owner. These issues will be returned to later.
As is usual in an event such as has been described there are generated several official reports and they have been made available to the Press Council. The Council was supplied with the pathologist’s report of the autopsy carried out on the body of the deceased the same day as the fire; the ESR’s forensic toxicology report on alcohol blood and urine levels, and carbon monoxide saturation all prepared from samples taken by the pathologist at the autopsy; and a Fire Investigation Report compiled by Fire Engineer Alistair Henderson. The second article contained quite extensive quotes from Fire Engineer Henderson and Dr. Ian Beer the pathologist who had carried out the autopsy on the day of death. The accuracy of those facts reported is not disputed.
The pathologist’s report was that in his opinion the cause of death was smoke inhalation and incineration. The ESR forensic toxicologist’s report gave the analyses of blood alcohol at 230 milligrams per 100 millilitres and urine at 356 milligrams per 100 millilitres. Carbon monoxide in the blood was 75% saturated. The Fire Service Report was thorough and covered most known events surrounding the death by fire, but need not be detailed here. Generally nothing in the Fire Service report contradicts the article but rather supports it.
It is not unusual for the reading of the concentrations of alcohol in the urine to be significantly higher than that found in the blood. Having said that the reading of 230 millilitres in the blood demonstrates a very high concentration of alcohol in the body of the deceased indicating that he, when alive, was heavily intoxicated as he was described by friends who drove him home, and by others.
When all this material is assembled the Coroner conducts the inquest, which in this case took place on 4 April 2003. Counsel states the Coroner found the cause of death to be the result of smoke inhalation and no other finding was recorded and nothing adverse with regards to Mr. Johnson. Counsel also advised there was no record available of the inquest. It is in the discretion of the Coroner whether he chooses to make any other remarks and apparently on this occasion he did not, and that really is a neutral fact.
The essence of the complaint is that the second article was emotive without an established fact basis at the time of publication. The secondary complaint was that the reporters did not have the permission of the owner to go onto the property to examine and obtain photographs of the burned-out bus. The complainant here seems to rest her case not as the owner of the property, but on the simple allegation there was no formal permission given. The Council has not been supplied with any details about ownership but there has been no complaint from the landowner of breach of rights. The complainant simply has not made out this ground. Furthermore in an incident of such notoriety as this one the niceties of ownership of land at the time does not loom large, particularly where no points can be made as to any untoward conduct, or damage.
Returning to the central complaint which is most concerned with the article published a week after the event. Some of the statements made in the article that cooking oil had probably been the cause of the ignition, and the exact route of the deceased once he became alarmed and escape was vital are not capable of firm establishment. However, having said that said they are not advanced in the article other than as possible scenarios on the evidence available then.
The emotive language complained about is contained in these examples:
“So it was with Noel Johnson, who spent his last few seconds in hazy, disoriented terror, dying just millimetres from safety. The 42 year-old’s body was found lying with his feet toward the back door, where his alcohol-soaked brain and scorched airways finally succumbed to the effects of toxic soot and smoke….
As we leave behind the burned out bus with the half-consumed bottle of beer sitting on a nearby railing and bourbon and coke cans lying in the grass, the birds lapse into eerie silence”
The complainant denies that the items were those of the deceased, but that minor matter must be left there. The article hypothesised that the deceased faced with fire may have panicked throwing the blazing pan into the sink and turning on the tap with disastrous consequences. There was no evidence of that, or that he had tried to escape through the front door of the bus.
Counsel on behalf of his client says “ There is absolutely no foundation for these inferences and comments [deceased was an extremely heavy drinker and through intoxication caused his own death and that the last moments of his life would have been acutely painful] and accordingly my client wishes that part of the article to be retracted.” For reasons set out below the Council does not accept this submission.
In answer to the allegations made by the complainant the newspaper answers that it did not set out to upset Mr Johnson’s family but to tell readers, with expert opinion, what happened in the bus that morning. The editor conceded that while at times the language may have been colourful in places the facts were accurate. Furthermore he said the tone of both articles was prompted to a large extent by the Fire Service who was determined to highlight the damage caused by the lethal mix of alcohol and fire. In short the newspaper defended its articles as being in the public interest.
What is at issue for the Press Council to decide is whether the two separate articles constituted a breach of journalistic standards in the way the newspaper handled a significant event such as a death by fire in the district. That there would be high public interest in the event is beyond question.
The Council finds that the article of 27 July 2002 was responsibly written and where there was speculation (the Fire Service report also contained speculation) it was reasonable given the totality of the circumstances. The articles overall were in the public interest highlighting a now well identified social problem of men living alone, drinking heavily and occupying inferior to dangerous premises. The editor admits that the language had some colour, but that is style and for the editor.
The Council is aware this was a tragedy for the deceased and his family and sympathises with them, but the newspaper was not at fault.
The complaint is not upheld.