SANDRA KING AGAINST HAWKE'S BAY TODAYBackground
Hawke’s Bay Today on December 11, 2014 carried a story on the death in a quad bike accident, which had taken place the previous day, of a Dannevirke farm worker. A brief report with prominent headlines and a photograph of the victim with his name was given on page 1, a fuller story on page 3.
Sandra King, in making the complaint at the request of Nikki Christian, the wife of Rob Christian the accident victim, laid particular stress on the paper’s publication of victim’s name before the Police had officially released it. The effect of this, she claimed, had been to give insufficient time for relatives and friends overseas to be contacted and told of the tragedy. In addition the paper had published a photograph of the victim (which they had on file) and a map showing where the accident had occurred, ‘without express permission from the family or Police’. Before making the complaint Ms King had rung the editor of the paper but she felt he was unsympathetic and lacking compassion. The Council principles she cited were Privacy, Confidentiality, and Photographs and Graphics.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor did not share Ms King’s view of their telephone conversation, writing that he had apologised if the paper ‘had upset the family’ and he believed that he had expressed compassion for them. He went on to address the Council Principles invoked by Ms King. He believed that the paper had respected the family’s privacy and had not approached them for comment. The decision to publish the deceased’s name was made in the belief that that the ‘immediate family’ had been informed and that in a district where such news quickly becomes widely known by word of mouth nearly 24 hours was a reasonable gap between the death and the report. The Principle of Confidentiality was not, he believed, relevant to this case. On the Principle relating to Photographs and Graphics he wrote that the photograph used was a ‘neutral image of the deceased’. The editor went on to express his belief that Mrs King was ‘mistaken in believing that newspapers need the permission of police or family to publish names or images of people killed in accidents and that that misunderstanding may be at the heart of her complaint’.
The Council shares the editor’s view that it is important that newspapers have the right to decide when they will publish names of people killed in traumatic situations. This was explicitly stated in 2012 (Case number 2249 Julie and Peter Keast against The Southland Times) where the Council stated: ‘people suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration. Newspapers have agreed they should give special consideration to people in this situation. The duty of care does not mean that media must never publish a deceased’s name until the police release it, though editors should be mindful that Police might not have been able to notify all of the deceased’s immediate family.’ In deciding not to uphold that complaint the Council expressed the view that the interval of around 22 hours between the accident and the publication of the name ‘seemed sufficient to satisfy the special consideration required’.
But in confirming the view the Council expressed in the case referred to above it is also mindful that circumstances can differ; that the appropriate time to publish the name of a person killed, almost invariably with great distress and trauma for the family, must be considered in the circumstances of the particular case. One guiding principle – that the immediate family of the deceased has been notified of the death – while very important uses a term, ‘immediate family’, which is open to varying interpretation. In the case being considered the editor, at the time he took the decision to publish, had the clear understanding that the ‘immediate family’ had been told.
Council is deeply sympathetic with the Christian family in the tragedy which they faced. However it believes that the editor of Hawkes Bay Today took the decision to publish the name after a careful consideration of the particular circumstances and with due regard for the Press Council’s Principle relating to Privacy.
The Council finds no breach of the Confidentiality Principle.
The newspaper was not required to obtain permission from either the police or the family before publishing the file photograph.
The complaint is not upheld
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Chris Darlow, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.