Case Number: 1018

Council Meeting: JUNE 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Queenstown Mirror

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

On December 1, 2004, the Southland Times’s Queenstown community paper the Queenstown Mirror published a story addressing a perceived local problem of night-time drunkenness.

The story was accompanied by a partially masked picture of an unnamed young man with blood streaming down his face and clothes, with the caption: “Downtown Queenstown on any given weekend, and this blood-soaked horror story is common, according to Queenstown police”.

The story began with a statement of the paper’s intent to investigate how bad the resort’s late night scene was, then referred to the photographed incident as an example of how “drunken high-jinks” could go horribly wrong. It continued to say the man in question had, after climbing a tree outside the courthouse, fallen, cracking his head on the pavement and breaking a leg. Further down, the piece said he was “incoherent” as he sat slouched, with blood pouring from his head.

The subject of the photograph has complained to the Press Council that the article, which went on to refer to people urinating in shop doorways, vomiting, smashing bottles and fighting, erred in suggesting he was party to such behaviour. The complaint is not upheld.

Through his lawyer the man says that he and his companion had had a small amount to drink, but were not drunk, and that the tree climbing had been purely high jinks. The article, coupled with the photograph, had displayed “inaccurate, distorted, unbalanced, misrepresented journalism”.

It was said because he had a high profile in Queenstown’s business scene, he was “readily identifiable”, despite the paper’s attempt at masking his identity. Further, to describe him as incoherent was a fallacy: in fact he had been unconscious for 20 to 25 minutes following the accident and had suffered reasonably serious injuries.

In response, Southland Times and Queenstown Mirror managing editor Fred Tulett stands by the reportage of local “frustration and irritation” at late-night revelry that, he says, often ties up the resources of police and other emergency services. He says police told his reporter the man was drunk and that it appeared he had climbed up on to the roof of the courthouse to reach the lower limbs of the tree. On investigation this latter allegation was not established.

He adds the police also told his reporter that the man’s friend had confirmed he was drunk. And that when his sister complained he had been wrongly identified as drunk, the paper had gone back to the police and received an assurance the article was correct. These facts are disputed by the man who, through his lawyer, says the police subsequently denied making such comments.

Mr Tulett says the photograph was graphic and intended to shock. The paper was a community newspaper and the community and the police were frustrated and threatened by late-night drunken behaviour. The Mirror – and the police – had seen the incident as an opportunity to reinforce the message.

The newspaper walks a fine line, however, in its meagre attempts at cloaking the identity of the complainant. The narrow mask inserted across his face would have done little to preclude recognition by those who know or encounter him.

The newspaper might also in future be wary of blurring the lines between a larger issue and the particulars of an individual case it uses as an example. Descriptions of some people “urinating, vomiting, smashing bottles and fighting” are, at the very least, an unfortunate juxtaposition to an individual’s accident that has only been minimally investigated.

Newspapers reporting incidents that reflect badly on individuals must take particular care to ensure accuracy and relevance. It is beyond the scope of the Press Council to test the truth of the respective claims about police comments, and therefore the truth of assertions of sobriety. Nevertheless it is possible to see the man’s stunt within the frame of the drunken behaviour the paper and the police were complaining of. At the very least, a late-night scramble up a tree can be seen as part of the silliness under concern. The fact of the climb is not in question. And a related report in the Southland Times that climbing trees is part of a drunken tradition in Queenstown has not been disputed.

It is also worth noting that all newspapers have established routines for dealing with the police. When Mr Tulett says his staff went back to the police after the first suggestion his paper had got it wrong, it fits established newspaper practice.

After the police brought no charges against the man, because he had not climbed on the roof of the courthouse, the Mirror decided not to name him. But it proceeded with the story – and photograph - because of its perception of a larger problem.

When his sister wrote a letter of complaint under the pseudonym “Disgusted”, the Mirror carried it in full. On the same day it carried an editorial reiterating its larger stance – that there was a problem of drunken incidents that the police should not have to deal with and that the graphic image had been necessary to bring the behaviour to public attention. In a later letter to his lawyers, Mr Tulett offered the complainant an interview that would have allowed him to put his side.

Like it or not, the man found himself at the centre of a worrying behaviour issue upsetting police and the local community. The Mirror set out to investigate the type of behaviour going on, witnessed an incident in a public place, photographed, and, after seeking confirming detail from the police, wrote about it. It was entitled to do so.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Jeffries (Chairman), Suzanne Carty, Aroha Puata, Ruth Buddicom, Alan Samson, Murray Williams, Denis McLean, Keith Lees, Terry Snow and John Gardner.