THREE COMPLAINTS AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 3033
Council Meeting: APRIL 2021
Decision: Upheld with Dissent
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of
1. The three complainants complain about an item published in Stuff on March 24, 2021 under the headlineMan who died after New Brighton motorcycle crash was [name withheld]. They consider there was a breach of Media Council Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) and Principle 2 (privacy).
2. A majority of the Media Council (7:4) upholds the complaint. In view of the upholding and the subject matter of the complaint, the names of the complainants and of the subject of the news item have been withheld. See dissenting opinion below.
3. On March 24, 2021, Stuff published a news item on the death of Mr X, having previously published an account of the crash that resulted in his death. The item included a paragraph detailing Mr X’s conviction in 2010 for a sexual offence against a child but no other information about his background or history.
4. The complainants, two of whom are related to Mr X, consider the publication of the information about his conviction is unfair and is a breach of privacy. They say it is not relevant to the main theme of the story and is distressing to Mr X’s family. In particular one complainant says his part of the family did not know about the conviction.
5. Another complainant adds that “digging up the past which the family have worked through to heal, has caused unnecessary stress on top of grieving for the father, son, brother, nephew and cousins who was a caring compassionate man who worked hard to be the person he was when we lost him.”
6. Stuff’s initial response to the complaint was to say that it would be a grave disservice to Mr X’s victim if the “significant fact” of his offending was not mentioned. It said that “when someone has committed serious offences, even in their past, we will mention it if pertinent to do so and there are no legal barriers.”
7. In a more detailed response, Kamala Hayman, editor The Press – Stuff Canterbury, said that several of Mr X’s relatives were given an opportunity to comment on his life but declined to do so. Accordingly the only information available to Stuff was the record of his conviction. It is standard practice for Stuff when reporting a death to include significant and known facts about an individual and it would be misleading to omit such facts unless there were exceptional circumstances.
8. Ms Hayman says there are many examples of the practice and cites the case of Willi Huber who was a pioneer of the Mt Hutt skifield and also a former Nazi, more than 70 years before his death. While his family may have believed this part of his life should not have been reported on his death, members of the Jewish community, including a number who contacted Stuff, considered the facts too important to be forgotten or omitted from any article about him.
9. The name of Mr X’s victim was never made public and accordingly Stuff could not contact her. However it is quite possible that ignoring her trauma would be an insult to her and should not be omitted from any article about her abuser. An article that failed to acknowledge her experience would be “a breach of basic journalism ethics” and would amount to misleading by omission.
10. Ms Hayman summarises her response by saying it is not the role of an independent media to censor information about an individual following their death in order to protect the feelings of grieving family members.
11. Media Council Principle 1 requires publications to be accurate, fair and balanced in their reporting. While there is no question of accuracy in this case, there is a real question of fairness and balance. The Council has also considered the provision in its principles for special consideration for those suffering from trauma or grief, given that Stuff must have been aware that the publication would be likely to cause hurt to Mr X’s family.
12. The only personal information that Stuff published about Mr X, apart from information about the accident and its immediate aftermath was the information about his conviction more than ten years previously. The Media Council appreciates that Stuff appears to have contacted some (but clearly not all) of Mr X’s relatives for comment and/or further information and found that they did not wish to comment. The only relevant information available to Stuff was therefore the information about the conviction.
13. The Media Council accepts that a media report on a death usually includes all available significant facts about the deceased, but it does not accept that when the deceased is not a public figure, there is very little publicly available information, and publication of that information is irrelevant to the main point of the story and likely to be distressing to the family of the deceased, there is nonetheless some sort of blanket obligation to publish it.
14. Stuff cites the case of Willi Huber, but there is a substantial difference between publication of information about a connection with one of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century by someone who has since become to some extent a public figure, and about whose later life much information is publicly available, and the publication of information about even a serious crime committed considerably more than ten years previously by someone about whom there is no other public information to provide balance.
15. In addition the attitude of the Jewish community to former Nazis is well known (and was made known to Stuff at the time of its report) while the current attitude of Mr X’s victim to her abuser is not and cannot be known. Stuff submits that omitting the information about the offending could be perceived as an insult to her, but this is speculation. It could equally well re-awaken unwelcome memories of a traumatic experience from which she may or may not have been able to make some recovery. Reading it without advance warning could even cause further damage.
16. The majority of Media Council has formed the view that in the circumstances the publication of the information was unfair to the family in their state of grief. This is a marginal case determined on the individual facts, and the opinion should not be taken as generally disapproving the publication of unpalatable information about the deceased in any report of a death.
17. The Council does not find any breach of privacy. The information was in already in the public domain.
18. The complaint of unfairness is upheld by a majority of the Council.
19. At a heart-breaking time for the man’s whanau, it must have been difficult to see their relation’s past offending being reported, and we sympathise. But the media’s duty is to the public at large, not just the family of those involved. Even when that family is grieving. Sound, honest and factual reporting can often cause discomfort.
In this case Stuff did nothing to sensationalise but rather
accurately and proportionately reported known facts. It rightly gave whanau the
opportunity to comment on the deceased.
The offending was reported at the time and is public information. That offending wasn’t trivial and was considered newsworthy, so it’s legitimate for Stuff to offer it as background and clarify that the deceased and the offender were the same man.
There is always judgment involved in such reporting and no “obligation” to include previous offences, as Stuff argues. In this case media could have reasonably and responsibly chosen to publish the offending, or not. Stuff’s choice to publish in our view should not be considered unfair and is not in breach Council principles.
Members voting to uphold the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff and Christina Tay,
Those dissenting were Rosemary Barraclough, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten and Tim Watkin,