Case Number: 946

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2003

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Woman's Weekly

Ruling Categories: Privacy

Andrew Beck, a Wellington barrister, has complained to the New Zealand Press Council about an article in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly that focused on his former wife Jenny and their seven sons.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

The Woman’s Weekly is the oldest of the women’s magazines for sale in the New Zealand market. Its chief competitors are New Idea and Woman’s Day. Like those of its genre, the magazine places heavy emphasis on the personal stories of its readers as well as of celebrities – domestic and overseas.

Its journalism is therefore different from that seen in daily newspapers. Lifestyle magazines, which have substantial readerships, tend to use what might be known as “lifestyle journalism” but this different approach to what is newsworthy to such magazines does not absolve magazine journalists from acting ethically or in the best journalistic traditions of accuracy and, where possible, balance.

The article at the heart of the complaint is typical of the kind of features the Weekly publishes. It tells how Mrs Beck, whose marriage ended, nonetheless coped with raising her sons at the same time as embarking on a legal career. The feature makes several references to her former husband, Andrew.

It is these references about which Mr Beck has complained.

He told the magazine’s editor and later the Press Council that he believed that the article gratuitously publicised what he said were “salacious details about my private life”. Though he says the references are inaccurate in several respects, Mr Beck argues principally that correct or not, they should not have been published at all, or not in a way that made him identifiable.

The Weekly engaged counsel, Sheila McCabe, of Auckland to defend itself. In her correspondence with Mr Beck, Ms McCabe said that, in the editor’s view, the article was a human-interest story about the life experiences of Jenny Beck. The article’s focus, she said, was on how Mrs Beck had coped with the situation she found herself in; it was not about Mr Beck.

She also told the Press Council that by highlighting Jenny Beck’s story, a public interest would be served in showing that although an individual might suffer grief and trauma, a relatively normal life could be restored and maintained.

This complaint mirrors two similar complaints about a breach of privacy received earlier this year by the Press Council, in that case against the women’s magazine, That’s Life.

The Privacy Act does not apply to the news-gathering activities of the news media. As such, it is not applicable here.

In both That’s Life cases, the Council found that the privacy of the two complainants had been breached because the articles were intrusive but relied on an individual’s account of a situation that involved others without taking the standard precautions of checking such information with the other people involved.

It is a somewhat similar situation in which Mr Beck found himself when the article about his family and former wife were published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly last May. His sensitivity to being mentioned was understandable.

However, the council does not regard the references to Mr Beck as unduly intrusive. It decided that, given the totality of the article and that the references to Mr Beck were brief and not egregious, it would not uphold the complaint.

The Council does, however, take this opportunity to re-emphasise to editors of those magazines that rely heavily on one-person accounts of life’s challenges that their dependence on single sources of information carries risk.

It would encourage them to carefully consider who might be affected by the human-interest they feature – in other words, who might suffer collateral damage – and whether anyone else’s views might therefore need to be sought. The Council believes this is particularly important where children are involved.