STEVE MILES AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3077

Council Meeting: JULY 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Privacy

Overview

Background

[1] Steve Miles has complained about an article that appeared on Stuff on June 17, 2021, titledMan dead after becoming trapped under car in mall car park.

[2] The article reports a tragic incident just over two hours earlier, when police were called to the Bush Inn Centre in Riccarton, Christchurch. Police had confirmed a 57 year-old mall employee had been hit by a car as he lay on the ground clearing gutters. He died at the scene.

[3] The story was illustrated by a video of Superintendent Lane Todd speaking at the scene and three photos taken from outside police cordons at the mall. The photos focus on emergency vehicles and staff, but in one a Toyota passenger vehicle is visible in the back of shot, with a police photographer crouched alongside.

The Complaint

[4] Steve Miles expressed his concern that the photos clearly showed the vehicle involved in the fatal accident and its number plate. He complains under Principle 2, Privacy, which begins:

Everyone is normally entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information, and these rights should be respected by publications.”

[5] Mr Miles argues that given someone had died and the police investigation was ongoing, that Stuff should have at least blurred out the car’s number plate. He says the “poor person who was driving this vehicle can be identified now as a result” when they must already be struggling to deal with what had happened.

[6] The complainant says that anyone upset with the driver will be able to use the registration plate to seek out the owner and is a breach of privacy.

[7] He suggests a more sensitive approach in such circumstances would be to blur out identifying details to protect “both sides of accidental incidents” and ensure journalists aren’t creating more victims as a result of their work.

The Response

[8] The Press editor Kamala Hayman responds first by offering her condolences to the family of the dead man.

[9] Hayman says the photo was an important part of reporting the accident, as it showed the gutter where the man had died and the police photographer at work. She acknowledges the licence plate is visible.

[10] Stuff’s policy, she explains, is to not manipulate images so that readers can trust that what they see is “a true representation of a real-world scene”. One possible exception is when a court-ordered suppression requires a person’s face to be obscured.

[11] In the past some media blurred or pixilated number plates because prior to 2011 it was possible to use plates to search a public record of car ownership. This is no longer the case and most people who want the name and address of a car owner must apply to Waka Kotahi and it will only release ownership information if it meets a public interest test.

[12] Hayman continues, “therefore we do not accept that the publication of a photo which includes a visible licence plate is significantly more intrusive on a vehicle owner’s privacy than the photo of the vehicle in question. The plate number reveals nothing about the vehicle owner’s identity, except to the very few who are familiar with the number plate…”

[13] Finally, she notes that if anyone was determined to find out the driver’s identity, they only had to attend his eventual public court hearing.

The Decision

[14] The licence plate in the photo is in the background of the shot and takes some effort to figure out, but is nonetheless clearly visible.

[15] The Media Council’s own online searches confirm that while the number plate can give you access to the car’s make, model and a few technical details, there is no way mere web-searching will uncover a car’s owner.

[16] Mr Miles in his final comment says that doesn’t mean they cannot discover the owner’s identity and in this he is technically correct. Waka Kotahi’s website has a list of 2227 “companies and individuals” that have successfully applied for access to the Motor Vehicle Register “to access current names and addresses”. But these seem to be banks, car dealers and the like. The website says “Waka Kotahi consults with the Ombudsman, Privacy Commissioner and Police Commissioner (our advising agencies) before deciding whether to grant an authorisation” and that authorisation is only granted “for a specific purpose”.

[17] The vast majority of readers, even if they take the effort to identify the licence plate, will not be able to use it to identify the owner without going to great lengths. This does not amount to intrusion into the driver’s privacy.

[18] The accident took place in a public place, police did nothing to conceal the car or licence plate and the photographer did nothing to intrude upon the scene.

[19] Mr Miles’ complaint is a compassionate one, but publications are free to use their discretion on such matters. While there will be times when pixilation is required for privacy reasons, it is quite proper for Hayman to prioritise a ‘don’t manipulate photographs’ principle to ensure readers can trust Stuff to provide a “true representation” of newsworthy events.

Decision

[20] On the matter of Principle 2, Privacy, the complaint is not upheld

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Sandy Gill, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

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