SMART WHANAU AGAINST THE SOUTHLAND TIMESSouthland Community Law on behalf of Linda Smart and whanau complain that an article headed “Man found dead in prison cell” published in The Southland Times on July 19, 2014 breaches several Press Council principles including Principle one (Accuracy, fairness and balance) two (privacy) six (headlines and captions) seven (discrimination and diversity) eight (confidentiality) and nine (subterfuge). Complaint is also made in relation to a piece published in The Southland Times’ subsidiary publication Newslink published on 17 July 2014.
The complaint has been made outside the Council’s period for the lodging of complaints. The Council has the discretion to receive late complaints where the circumstances warrant it. This is one of the rare occasions where the Council exercises this discretion. The Council accepts the deceased’s family have been grieving hence the late referral.
The complaints are not upheld.
The Southland Times story covered the death of a Mataura man, Rowan Edwards, in his cell at Invercargill Prison on 15 July 2014. The death was possibly suicide. Mr Edwards was facing a “raft” of serious charges at the time he died. The piece quoted comments by the manager of Invercargill Prison and referred to the fact that the death was being investigated by police and by the coroner. The report mentioned Mr Edwards’ family had requested privacy. The Newslink piece referred to the fact that an unnamed Mataura man was facing serious charges at the Invercargill District Court. The Newslink piece mentioned the charges. The charges were similar to those referred to in the The Southland Times story.
Southland Community Law Centre on behalf of Mr Edwards’ family complains that The Southland Times piece was published following the unsolicited and unwelcome approaches to them by The Southland Times reporter. The reporting according to the family was “incredibly insensitive” and also “reprehensible”. The piece breached the family’s privacy at a time when they were grieving. The complainants referred to the approach the reporter made to the funeral director handling the arrangements and said the reporter breached promises he gave that person as to the timing of the story. The complainants say that the Newslink piece was equally inappropriate given that Mr Edwards had already died when this segment went to print.
While acknowledging the Newslink report did not name the accused the complainants say that the reference to the accused’s home town was sufficient to link him to the deceased.
The Southland Times responds by saying that its reporter did his job in a “sensible and thorough manner”. The reporter had given the family the opportunity to speak about the deceased, an opportunity they declined. The newspaper says that the fact that Mr Edwards died in his cell was public knowledge and the publicity given to the death was in the public interest.
The newspaper disputed the family’s account as to the manner in which the reporter approached both the funeral director and them. The newspaper says that the reporter’s behavior was respectful. No promise was given as to when the story would be published.
The newspaper says the Newslink report was prepared independently of The Southland Times piece. The information contained in the Newslink story was obtained before Mr Edwards’ died, the charge list having been obtained from a regular weekly police briefing. The Newslink article was sent to print before Mr Edwards’ death had become known.
While the newspaper acknowledges Mr Edwards death has been distressing for his family the fact that Mr Edwards died in prison and the fact that investigations are underway are of public interest. The newspaper says that the media has a responsibility to hold those in authority “to account” if there is a lapse in procedures designed to look after those held in custody.
The Press Council does not agree that any of its principles have been breached in this case. The reports were factual and balanced. While The Southland Times piece referred to Mr Edwards as having two children no privacy issues arise. The complainants acknowledge that as soon as they told the reporter he was not welcome he departed. The headline to the article is, in the Council’s view, measured. No issues of discrimination or diversity arise and nor is there any question of breach of confidentiality. And finally, despite there being a dispute as to the actions of the reporter in his discussions with the funeral director (a dispute which the Council is in no position determine) there is no suggestion the reporter acted by subterfuge, misrepresentation or with dishonest means.
There is undoubtedly a public interest in the reporting of deaths in custody and any investigation that follows.
While The Press Council has every sympathy for Mr Edwards’ family in this tragic case it cannot uphold the complaints.
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.