S NICHOLLS AGAINST THE PRESS


The New Zealand Press Council has part-upheld a complaint against The Press arising from an article on the Jason Mackrell case, published on 3 June. Mr. Stephen Nicholls complained to the Council, in his capacity as a member of the public, about the treatment by the newspaper of the results of an inquiry into the care provided by Healthlink South to Jason Mackrell prior to his offending. Jason Mackrell was convicted in September 1997 of crimes against two elderly women, which included rape, sodomy, and murder of one of the women. The jury rejected his plea at trial of insanity. He is now serving sentences of life imprisonment and preventive detention. The Council upheld the complaint in part as to the headline.

Jason Mackrell had a well-established record of serious mental disturbance, and had been diagnosed as a substance abusing manic depressive. He had been under the psychiatric care of Healthlink South for many years, and a patient at Sunnyside Hospital. A case of this nature caused grave misgivings about the medical treatment Jason Mackrell had received, and whether there were failures in that treatment which might have had some link to the offending. In response to the disquiet in the region the Ministry of Health established an inquiry conducted by the District Inspector of Mental Health, assisted by a consultant psychiatrist. Terms of reference were provided to the inquiry. The ministry made the results public in June 1998. The Council notes there were some difficulties surrounding the release of the report, but they are not explored.

The report was lengthy, and in this adjudication the briefest of summary is provided. It is not the function of the Council to make any pronouncements on either the adequacy of the medical treatment, or the utility of the ministerial inquiry. It suffices to say that the findings of the report were mixed in that Healthlink South was largely cleared of failings, but there were significant reservations and criticisms on relevant aspects of Jason Mackrell's treatment.

The ministry released the results of the inquiry and an account was published in the 3 June 1998 edition of The Press on the front page. The newspaper's treatment of the results was divided between a factual account with a byline, and a headline "Mackrell report vindicates staff". Other issues, such as family and professional reactions to the report, were dealt with immediately below the factual account on the same page with the headline "Satisfaction with investigation". Members of Jason Mackrell's family and health professionals had their comments reported in both articles.

Mr. Nicholls based his complaint "… on the contentions that the headline used by The Press was factually incorrect and that the text of the article was unduly selective in its presentation of the findings and comments contained in the report. Further, …that the effect of this article was to taint the validity of a second article, which appeared directly beneath the first, concerning reaction to the report." The foregoing is but a very brief condensation of Mr. Nicholl's complaint about the treatment of the results.

There are two other points made by Mr. Nicholls, which must be confronted. Mr. Nicholls complains that the inquiry ventured outside its terms of reference and passed observations on subjects that the inquiry was not called upon to address. Some of those observations were reproduced in the newspaper report. A platform for Mr. Nicholls's complaint is that The Press should have critically examined the report in the light of the exact terms of reference set by the ministry. The Council rejects that contention because it is in reality an attack on the report itself. A further point made by the complainant was that paper’s articles were not its own summary of the report but an uncritical acceptance of a Ministry of Health's media release accompanying the ministry's release of the summary of conclusions of the report. There is no evidence to support that assertion and the Council remains focussed on the publication that appeared in The Press on 3 June 1998.

The detail of Mr. Nicholls's complaint, and the overall thrust of his argument, seems to the Council to give too little recognition to the purpose of a general daily newspaper. Such a publication accepts a report in the circumstances of its release, and does its best to reduce it to a readable and understandable document for ordinary readers. In this case the subject of the report raised complex and difficult issues within the context of an underlying tragedy. The newspaper in carrying out the task of summarising and condensing must not mislead, even inadvertently, or give a construction to the document that it cannot reasonably bear. The Council does not believe the newspaper transgressed on these grounds. In the main article on the results the newspaper did mention the report's criticisms of the provision of medical treatment, and the family's criticism of the inquiry going outside its terms of reference.

The task of the Council is to look objectively at the two articles and decide whether The Press breached its ethical duty to inform its readership, in a balanced way, the nature of the report, its findings and reactions to it. Within the confines of space and the necessity to condense a lengthy and somewhat complex report on a tragic subject The Press account was overall balanced and accurate. No complaints are made that the articles contained material factual errors or misquoted those interviewed.

One of the central points of Mr. Nicholls's complaint concerns the headline: "Mackerell report vindicates staff" alleging it was factually incorrect. The report did not vindicate all staff. A significant criticism of a psychiatrist staff member was referred to in the report and mentioned in the first article. There was criticism of other staff in the report. The word "vindicates" is too sweeping and there is an element of conflict between the headline and both articles. The complaint as to the headline is upheld.

The issue is not whether the articles could have been done differently, or better, by changing the emphasis, or quotations, or in some other way, but whether the published accounts were fair and unlikely to mislead. The essence of Mr. Nicholls's complaint is contained in his own words: "…the article was unduly selective…." (italics not in the original) and that is the moot point. Arguments based on language, choice, emphasis, selection, balance etc, could be endless, and are unlikely to reach a satisfactory solution for all. Especially is this true when the subject is tragic human behaviour. The complaint is substantially not upheld, but the particular on the headline is upheld.

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