Shelley Holdsworth complained to the Press Council about an article and accompanying photograph published in the Hawke’s Bay Today on 19 April 2010. The complaint is upheld.

The article headlined “Home fire highlights need for vigilance” was about a house fire caused by an unattended pot left on a hot stove.
Most of the information in the article was provided by the local fire service, and named the street where the fire occurred.
The fire service wanted to warn other householders about the danger of unattended stoves, and the need for functional smoke alarms.
The article stated that the homeowner was alone in the house at the time, that the smoke alarms were not working, and that a neighbour was alerted to the fire by screaming and shouting.
The photograph, captioned “PREVENTABLE: The fire damaged property in Hastings” showed part of the damaged back section of the house and damaged contents strewn outside.

The Complaint
Complaining on behalf of her mother who was the householder, Ms Holdsworth raised the following issues:
Without permission, the photographer climbed over a 5ft. locked gate at the rear of the house to take the published photograph. This occurred even though the family had been refused admission to the property to take their own photographs (presumably by the Fire Service).
Publication of the street where the fire occurred made the property readily identifiable and as the house was not secure after the fire, the family had to move quickly to empty the house of its contents.
As well as the complainant’s mother being in the house, there were also two children.
It was the working smoke alarms that alerted the adult occupant to the fire. She got the children out of the house safely, and by shutting the door to the front of the house prevented the fire spreading further.
Ms Holdsworth noted that complaints to the newspaper about the inaccuracies in the article, and the “trespass” by the photographer got her nowhere; the newspaper said the information was provided by the fire service and they had the “right” to publish it, including the street address. They had also been discourteous in their dealings with her.

The Newspaper’s Response
In responding to the complaint the editor dealt firstly with the issue of the alleged trespassing on private property. The photographer had found the gate unlocked, got no response from knocking on the door, and then re-shot the fire scene, obtaining the picture which was published.
Ms Holdworth’s unhappiness about the manner in which her verbal complaint had been dealt with was rebutted. The chief reporter, with whom Ms Holdsworth had spoken, said he was not rude to her. However, the editor acknowledged that the chief reporter had not followed up the complaint, nor did the newspaper later acknowledge and address the points raised in her written complaint.
Naming the street in which a fire occurred is usual.

Discussion and Decision
Despite the information being provided by the Fire Service, the story as published was inaccurate. The newspaper had a duty to check the facts, particularly as publication of such a story can add to a family’s distress at such a time. Although the story stated only one person (an adult) was in the house at the time of the fire, two children were also there. The smoke alarms did work, and they warned the occupants of the fire.
The Press Council is not in a position to rule on whether or not the gate to the back of the property was locked or unlocked. Although publication of the damage to house and contents, and publication of the street address caused distress to the homeowner, taking a photo of a damaged house, and naming the street, is a common practice with newspapers.
The complaint is upheld on the grounds of failure to correct inaccuracies in the article. A correction published quickly at the time of the original complaint would probably have satisfied Ms Holdsworth.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.


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