SUZANNE PIERCE AGAINST TARANAKI DAILY NEWSBackground
On 9 May 2014 the Taranaki Daily News carried an article based on a decision in the High Court, a decision which was publicly available. Justice Goddard had considered the legal standing of a note to his lawyer, written by an elderly man, Garth Hughes, a few hours before his death. The judge found that because of the impact of the man’s deteriorating health on his ability to think rationally, his note could not be accepted as a legal amendment to his will.
The broader background was that Mr Hughes, having lived a very independent life, had at 88, to his distress, reached the point where a move to full-time care seemed unavoidable. His elderly sister came over from Melbourne to help him make the move and while he welcomed her arrival the stress of the situation was clearly difficult for them both. While arrangements were being finalized for the move to a rest home Mr Hughes took his own life.
The complainant, Suzanne Pierce accepted that the legal ruling was one of public and legal interest but she claimed that the article infringed Press Council principles relating to accuracy, privacy, and corrections. She and her husband had been neighbours of Mr Hughes, and had given the court their view of his health and his circumstances in the last weeks of his life. She claimed that these views as set out in the judge’s ruling, had not been reported accurately in the article. A specific instance was the article’s use of the word ‘fought’, which was not in the judgment, rather than ‘argued’, used to describe the relations between Mr Hughes and his sister during her final visit. Further, the complainant argued, the naming in the article of the people involved was unnecessary and caused distress. Finally, she suggested that the paper should have contacted her and her husband, having named them in the article, to give them the opportunity to comment prior to publication.
The Taranaki Daily News Response
In response the editor acknowledged the complainant’s concerns and the distress the article could have caused both her and others. He appeared to concede her point on the word ‘fought’, and removed it from the online copy, but overall gave his view that the article was ‘a fair report of an 11-page document’. He made it clear that where a judge releases a public decision ‘his [the editor’s] staff are expected to include the names in copy’. He agreed that had his staff talked to the complainant they could have gained further information but did not concede that they should have done so.
The Council recognises that this case relates to circumstances in life which, while often unavoidable, are far from happy and although the article on Judge Goddard’s decision came fourteen months after Mr Hughes’ death it would, inevitably, have caused distress to a number of people. But that, in itself, would not justify failing to report a case which clearly involves matters of public interest. In considering the complaint relating to accuracy the Council, on balance, accepts the editor’s view that the article is a fair report of a longer document, the specific complaints were very few, and it does not uphold the complaint in this respect. Nor does it agree, since the report was essentially a report of a court case, that it was incumbent on the paper to interview anyone mentioned in the article.
The issue of privacy is less straightforward. A judge’s ruling, such as this one, would always have been a public document in the strict sense while being relatively inaccessible to the public but, with the advent of the web making it readily available on-line, it is, in a sense, much more public. To have used initials in the story, rather than printing the names, as suggested by the complainant, could simply send readers to the on-line report. So the practical difficulties in the way of preserving privacy would be considerable. Nor was the story disrespectful to those mentioned; the complainant and her husband are shown in a very good light. The reporting of suicide, within certain limits, is less of an issue than it once was. One’s reaction to reading of Mr Hughes’ death is sadness and sympathy, not a feeling that its cause should be concealed. While understanding the plea for privacy, the Council greatly doubts the practical possibility of achieving it in this case, and even had this not been so is not satisfied that a clear case for privacy could be sustained.
Press Council Decision
The Council does not uphold the complaint.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Chris Darlow, Tim Beaglehole, Peter Fa’afiu. Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.