BOB RIVETT AND FAMILY AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2487

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2016

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Privacy

Overview

Bob Rivett, on behalf of himself and his family, complains that action taken byThe Press and an article published by it (and on the Stuff website) were in breach of the Press Council’s Principle 2 (privacy) and in particular of the part of the principle that calls for special consideration for those suffering from trauma or grief.

The Press Council upholds the complaint.

Background

On January 3, 2016, the complainant’s daughter-in-law, Isabel Rivett, died in a tramping accident. Two days later, with the family’s consent and approval, NZ Police issued a media statement about the accident, concluding with the statement that “the victim’s family are naturally grieving so Police and Victim Support urge media to give them privacy at this time.”

Shortly after the release of the media statement, and again the following morning,Press reporters attempted unsuccessfully to contact Mr Rivett’s son via Facebook. At some point there was also contact with the Canterbury District Health Board, Ms Rivett’s employer.

On January 6, The Press published an article about the accident. The article was accompanied by a photograph of Ms Rivett, downloaded from her Facebook page. Personal information in the article was:

  • Ms Rivett’s name and age,
  • her occupation (as a doctor at Christchurch Hospital)
  • the fact that she and her partner both worked for the Canterbury District Health Board.

The Complaint

The Complaint

Mr Rivett complained that despite the Police request for privacy, reporters had attempted to contact his son.Without permission from her family,The Press then went on to publish Ms Rivett’s photograph and personal details that had not been included in the Police media release.

Mr Rivett says “we understood the need for a press release, especially to reassure anyone who had heard about the accident and was concerned that a loved one of theirs might have been involved.” He considered, however, that the Police media release contained all the information that was necessary.

The uninvited intrusion by the media caused the family enormous additional distress and the time and energy required to cope with it had a detrimental effect on their ability to cope with their loss. Mr Rivett acknowledges that their reaction came at a time of increased sensitivity, but makes the point that the protections in the Press Council Principle 2 are intended to apply at precisely such times.

The Response

The Deputy Editor of The Press, Kamala Hayman responded to Mr Rivett, saying “I am sorry your family feels we have intruded on your privacy”. She explained that a senior reporter had been asked to make contact because of the belief that it would be disrespectful to publish an article about Ms Rivett’s accident without “offering those closest to her a chance to have their say”. Many families in such a situation wanted to pay public tribute in some way.

She further explained that the privacy request in the Police media release “is a standard sentence and does not indicate to us that a family has asked not to be contacted.”She also arranged for the photograph of Ms Rivett to be removed from the Stuff website.

In a later response to the complaint, Ms Hayman expanded on her original response. In particular she acknowledged that after the first attempt to contact Mr Rivett’s son, a police officer had spoken to the reporter and told him that the contact had been unwelcome. The second attempt at contact was the result of a failure in communication and should not have been made. She apologised for the added distress these messages caused.

The Decision

There is absolutely no doubt that Mr Rivett and his family are entitled to the protection of the “trauma and grief” clause in Principle 2. They were in a particularly vulnerable situation and should have been treated with the utmost care and consideration by the media.

As regards the first attempt to contact the family, the Press Council accepts that the Police request for privacy for the family could have been more strongly worded and could specifically have asked that the media refrain from contacting them. The attempted contact was not of a particularly intrusive nature, and if it had been the only attempt, the Press Council would not have upheld the complaint in this respect.

However there should never have been a second attempt to contact Mr Rivett’s son.The Press has acknowledged its fault in this respect and says it has reminded staff of the necessity of critical information handovers. It should also review any guidance it gives to staff in this respect and any process it may have established for such handovers.

Although The Press was clearly at fault in the way it went about attempting to collect information, it is difficult to see any breach of privacy on its part in publishing the limited amount of personal information in the article. Some of the information was in the Police media release, and the remainder was obtained from the Canterbury District Health Board. If there is any question about the status of the latter information, it should be directed at the Board.

There remains the question of the photograph taken from Ms Rivett’s Facebook page. Ms Hayman has noted a 2010 Press Council determination where the Council considered the use of a photograph from a Facebook page and stated that the publication of a photograph on an open page could be taken as an implication that it is available for use for news purposes. Even then, the Council added that it would be wise to make some effort to obtain permission, particularly if the picture is of a sensitive subject.

While photographs on an open Facebook page can generally be regarded as publicly available (subject to any intellectual property issues, on which the Press Council is not competent to rule), this does not exempt a publication from its obligations under Principle 2 to give special consideration for those suffering from trauma or grief. Grief and trauma are expressed in different ways, and while some families may agree to, or even welcome, a request to publish a photograph, others would find it a cause of additional distress.

In this case, by the time of the decision to publish the photo the family had made it known that they required privacy and did not want any contact with the media.The Press had easily available contact details for a Police representative who could have acted as an intermediary. At the very least, there should have been a check to determine whether the family had objections to the publication of the photograph.

Decision

The complaint is upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.