SARAH WEBB AGAINST THE BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

Case Number: 3248

Council Meeting: March 2022

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Bay of Plenty Times

Ruling Categories: Privacy

Overview

1. Ms Webb complains about an item published by the Bay of Plenty Times on January 3, 2022. She is of the view that it breached Media Council Principle 2 Privacy.

2. On January 3, 2022, the Bay of Plenty Times published an article on road safety. The main focus of the article was an interview with the son of an older couple who had died in a road accident some 15 years previously.   He spoke about the effect of their death on him and also about dangerous driving generally. The article continued with a message from Bay of Plenty police and concluded with a section headed “By the numbers.” This final section included a list of those who had died on Western Bay roads in 2021 with their names and ages, along with the place, date and type of accident. Ms Webb’s brother was among those listed.

The Complaint

3. Ms Webb and her family were horrified to read the article and see her brother’s name on the list, having had no warning about the publication. No consent to publication had been sought or given.  She writes “Have you no thought for all of the families and friends who are grieving the loss? Can you imagine the pain of having your first Christmas without your loved one being there?” She says there was no reason to specifically name those who had lost their lives and the publication had caused turmoil and emotional distress to her family.

The Response

4. Scott Inglis, Regional Editor, responded to Ms Webb’s complaint. He expressed regret for the family’s grief and for any distress caused by the story. He explained that the aim of the article was to explore and raise awareness of the region’s road toll, and that by focusing on real people and including names, he believed there was a much stronger message than there would have been using statistics and general police messaging.

5. He noted that the names of those who had died were released by the Police and were a matter of public record. In addition, there had been a published death notice for Mr Webb. Accordingly, while again expressing sympathy, he considered that there had been no breach of privacy.

The Decision

6. The Privacy Act does not apply to the media in New Zealand. Instead, media accept the Media Council’s privacy principle which recognises the right to privacy but also recognises that this right should not interfere with the publication of significant matters of public record or public interest.   It also provides that those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration. Neither the Privacy Act nor the Media Council principles recognise any privacy rights pertaining to people who are no longer living.

7. It is therefore clear that there is no breach of privacy in this case.  Even if the publication could be seen as a breach of the privacy of the grieving family, the Media Council accepts that there is a strong public interest in preventing deaths on the roads and in road safety in general. It agrees that the road safety message is stronger if victims are seen as people rather than as statistics.

8. The only remaining issue is whether the Bay of Plenty Times gave adequate special consideration to Mr Webb’s family. There is no doubt that they, and the families of the other people named on the list, were likely to be suffering from grief and trauma and it is particularly unfortunate that Christmas is a key time for road safety messages. However, the publication consisted only of minimal information that was already publicly available. While recognising the genuine pain for Mr Webb’s family, the Media Council takes the view that it should be seen as one of the inevitable everyday events that reawaken grief after the loss of a loved one. In this context, keeping the information to a minimum was sufficient consideration.
 
Decision: The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon. Raynor Asher (chair) Hank Schouten, Tim Watkins, Jonathan MacKenzie, Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff, Liz Brown, Katrina Bennett, Reine Vaai and Alison Thom.

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