Case Number: 909

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2003

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Timaru Herald

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of

Michael Hundleby, then General Counsel for the Canterbury District Health Board, laid a formal complaint on 21 October 2002 about a two column, front-page article in The Timaru Herald on 15 August 2002. In the story a local man, Ted Matthews, complained about his treatment by the Health "system", with comment from his wife. The article carried a banner headline, Our Health System Did This, Fingers Rot in Long Wait for Amputation, with an adjacent large and gruesome photograph showing Mr Matthews holding out his maimed left hand with two unattached, black fingers lying alongside.

The story - both as reported directly from Mr Matthews and in the newspaper's introduction - conveys the impression that he had been left for 20 months on the waiting list for surgery to have his fingers amputated. Meanwhile two fingers had dropped off. He claims elsewhere that he actually had to cut one off himself. Mr Matthews did not blame the medical staff at Christchurch Hospital. Instead, "It’s bloody terrible the system we have now. We've really gone downhill in New Zealand in health. I'm speaking out because if we don't, no-one will realise how bad the system is".

The story also presents, without qualification or further enquiry, Mr Matthews' view that he was the victim of a medical error. His complaint, however, was "not about what had gone wrong, but the ongoing pain…his life had been on hold for so long and there was no certainty when it would end."

After it was finally decided that it was time to amputate the remains of his fingers he expected to wait three weeks at the most and "then I got a letter saying they hope to get me in in six months, but there's no guarantee and I just want to know how many more six months there'll be."

The complaint from the Canterbury District Health Board specified:
- First, that The Timaru Herald had failed to meet necessary standards of accuracy, fairness and balance. (NZ Press Council Principle 1) There was no medical error; medical staff at all times acted properly. Mr Matthews had numerous interactions with health services in Christchurch and Timaru. He and his wife had been fully informed about the reasons for waiting for amputation; they had accepted that course. His GP was fully advised and able to prescribe necessary pain-killers. The health system, far from letting Mr Matthews down, had gone to considerable - and expensive - lengths to help him.
- Second The Timaru Herald had introduced its own version of events (as opposed to relying exclusively on Mr. Mathews' account) in the first three paragraphs of the story - which blurred the distinction between fact and opinion. (Principle 6)
- Third The headline "Our Health System Did This" was at variance with the text in that it reads as a statement of fact, whereas the contention of the newspaper is that the article is Mr Matthews' story. If the headline represented the view of Mr Matthews it should have said so. ( breach of Principle 10)
- Fourth The Timaru Herald took and printed Mr Matthews' version that the letter advising that he would be booked for surgery said "they hope to get me in in six months, but there's no guarantee.". In fact the letter said, " this means we are confident you will be offered your procedure inside six months. Only extraordinary circumstances would prevent this." The Canterbury District Health Board said the newspaper's version was an error and should have been corrected. (Principle 2)

The Timaru Herald response centred on the contention that the article represented Mr Matthews' own story and that it was fair and balanced in that light. There was no clash between opinion and fact because the article was entirely based on Mr Matthews' opinions. The headline likewise reflected story on that interpretation.
The editor had wished to help a local man resolve his medical problems in the hope that publicity would get him up the waiting list for his operation. On that rationale he had decided to publish at once, without waiting for comment from Canterbury Hospital.

In a subsequent editorial The Timaru Herald claimed that its intervention has achieved the desired result: Mr Matthews has had his surgery.

The Press Council viewed the story as an expression of no confidence in the Health system, which, when the facts were in, proved to be completely unjustified. The accusations made by Mr Matthews were serious and likely to raise alarm and despondency about Health services in New Zealand.

The Herald, nevertheless, went to press without waiting to secure comment from the Hospital. The desire of the editor to do well by a local man might have been admirable but by failing to investigate Mr Matthews' claims the newspaper conveyed an impression that a deserving patient had been left languishing on hospital waiting lists for an operation, when this was not so. What is more the story suggested, without any basis of verified fact, that Mr Matthews had been neglected and that the Health system had failed to provide adequate care. The opposite was the case.

The Press Council has made it clear (Annual Report 2001: Balance in News Reporting) that in normal circumstances it is unacceptable, where serious accusations are made, not to provide an opportunity for the opposing side to express its viewpoint. Despite the seriousness of the charges levelled by Mr Matthews the story contained no comment from the Canterbury District Health Board, the South Canterbury District Health Board or Mr Matthews' own GP. By any measure these were part of the "system" which Mr Matthews claimed had let him down. There is normally no valid distinction to be made - as claimed by The Timaru Herald and Mr Matthews - between individual caregivers and the institutions for which they work.

The Timaru Herald noted that their reporter had tried and failed to make contact with the media spokesperson at Canterbury Hospital at 4.12pm before going to press. The Hospital admits that the person she was directed to was no longer employed and that this was an error on their part. Even so, it was not responsible of the newspaper, in dealing with a matter of this sensitivity, to rely on one telephone call late in the afternoon, as an attempt to get at the other side of a story. The need to publish at once was not obvious. Again the Press Council's views have been expressed in the 2001 Annual Report: "Deadlines or token attempts at making contact are not a sufficient reason for failing to provide balance". Where issues of public policy are involved, freedom of expression and the need to ensure open debate should be taken into account.

The Timaru Herald received the Canterbury District Hospital Board's press release (also dated 15 August) the next day, which would have made it clear the facts of the case did not square with the account given by Mr Matthews. The Editor said that they had been unable to get anybody to answer further questions. Yet another newspaper (The Press) was able to go into the story and publish a full and balanced account on 24 August.

Mr Matthews was evidently driven to approach his local newspaper because he had interpreted a letter from the Canterbury Hospital, saying that he had been listed for surgery, as meaning that the Board "hoped" he would be treated within six months but there was no certainty. It is wise in such circumstances for reporters to study actual texts of critical documents. Failure to make the necessary distinctions in this case caused the newspaper to publish information which was materially incorrect - which warranted correction in terms of the Press Council's Principle 2.

The story and headline failed on all counts to meet necessary criteria for objectivity, fairness and balance or to separate opinion from fact. This was especially unfortunate when the issues involved touched on policy matters of serious public concern . The newspaper could have taken steps to redress the impression conveyed by its coverage of this story or, at the very least, to have published a correction.

The Press Council upholds the complaint.