Case Number: 988

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Mountain Scene

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

This is a complaint of a person whose identity has been disclosed to the Press Council but whose anonymity is preserved for reasons that will become clear. The complaint was lodged on his behalf by his lawyer, about a front-page article published in Mountain Scene, a Queenstown weekly newspaper on 24 June 2004. The principal subject of the article concerned supposed deficiencies by the Southland District Health Board over its handling of the complainant on the weekend of 19/20 June 2004.

The complaint is not upheld.

The facts, which the Council has had to ascertain from the article, the written complaint, and the response of the newspaper, have been more than usually difficult to establish with confidence. This state of affairs has been contributed to by the fact that two central players namely the SDHB and the Police have had no direct input into this complaint. Although the SDHB is the main target of criticism in the article it has chosen not to be a complainant.

A first and primary fact in this complaint is that at no point in the article was the identity of the complainant specifically stated. Whether there was sufficient material published enabling the public to identify him is a matter of dispute and will be dealt with hereafter.

One further preliminary observation is called for and it is that the range of issues broadened markedly as the exchanges over the complaint continued. The responsibility for this was largely that of the newspaper. Nevertheless the Council must exercise control by allowing only the briefest references to the broader picture as contained in the responses of the newspaper. The newspaper has been conducting an ongoing campaign against the SDHB over its treatment of mentally disturbed persons and in particular its alleged failure to provide the Wakatipu district with its full share of the amenities due.

The following is an account of the facts as ascertained from the papers. The complainant presented at Invercargill Kew Hospital on Saturday 19 June 2004 with a leg injury apparently sustained while he was hunting. The extent of the injury was not explained but it can be deduced it was of reasonable severity as the medical staff wished him to remain in Kew hospital for two or more days to receive antibiotic treatment. This did not occur, as apparently he became difficult to manage through being mentally disturbed and levelling trenchant criticisms at the staff. Police were called at Kew and their notes describe his behaviour as “very paranoid”.

The response of the medical staff at Kew was to decide the patient should be transferred to the Frankton Lakes District Hospital, which is a satellite hospital under the jurisdiction of the SDHB. A reason may have been because he was regarded as a Wakatipu patient, but it is unclear. The LDH has markedly inferior services available and one gathers particularly in relation to mentally disturbed persons. At some stage the Police at Invercargill took the precaution of removing the bolt from the rifle he had in his vehicle.

Following the decision to send the patient to LDH some further puzzling decisions were then made. First it was arranged for the patient to drive himself to LDH and even more curious the Police returned his rifle bolt to the patient before he left. The Council simply records those facts without further comment.

On Saturday afternoon he duly drove himself to Queenstown LDH and was admitted into the hospital. The staff at Kew rang LDH to warn them that a disturbed person was on his way and also to tell them about the rifle in his possession. It was not until later that it was established that the bolt had been returned to him before he left for Queenstown

The behaviour of the patient deteriorated and he became aggressive and paranoiac. He apparently threatened staff and the Queenstown Police needed to be called and they removed him from the hospital. On Monday afternoon he was escorted by two police officers to Dunedin for further psychiatric assessment

Exactly how this whole episode was resolved finally is not recorded in the article under question. There are a few further facts that need to be mentioned. The article stated that the newspaper had information that the patient was a drug user but again no details. Further there was balancing comment that the Police had said that there was no bullet and that the rifle had never been used in any way by the patient at Queenstown. This appeared in the article notwithstanding the use made in the piece about the gun, as mentioned hereafter.

It emerged in the response of the newspaper that they had obtained information from persons identified in the article as “local health sources”. The newspaper has not identified them but strongly maintained they were reliable sources whose information the newspaper trusted. The facts as detailed above were not in serious dispute even by the complainant. It is agreed that the newspaper had not contacted the complainant at all in the few days that elapsed between the incident and publication on the Thursday. An attempt was made to get verification from hospital staff but no one was prepared to talk to the newspaper.

The essence of the complaint centres on the identification of the patient notwithstanding that his name was not used in the article. If it is accepted that he could be identified then the content of the article was primarily a breach of his privacy and damaged his reputation. As already stated there is no particular complaint about factual errors although not all that were stated in the article are accepted as true by the complainant. This applies to the allegation of drug use and one supposes to the more serious accusations of aggressive behaviour and threats. There is a denial he used physical abuse as stated in the article but threats may constitute physical abuse.

The complainant argues firmly that there was sufficient material in the article to identify him and he says his friends apparently had no trouble and communicated that fact to him. The newspaper in its defence said they deliberately avoided information that would identify the person mentioned in the article and even if a few of his friends were able to name him the vast majority of the 30,000 readers of the newspaper would not have been able to identify the person. This is plainly a decision on fact that cannot be confidently resolved by the Council. It seems reasonable to the Council that many of his friends in a relatively smallish community would have known who the person was but who can say for them that information came exclusively from the article. The Council is satisfied that the newspaper did not wantonly provide facts that would lead inevitably to his identification and did not, consistent with truth to the facts of the total incident, provide unnecessary personal information. On balance the identity issue is decided in the newspaper’s favour.

There is also complaint about confusion of fact and opinion and that the article lacked balance and fairness. Support for these allegations is not available in view of the dearth of factual evidence of the severity of the patient’s conduct.

That takes us to the content of the article. The complaint is that the individual had sufficient personal details supplied so as to embarrass him before those known to him and that his privacy was invaded. The complainant states that the headline “LDH GUN DRAMA” placed particular emphasis on this aspect when in fact the actual gun had played little part in the incident. The gun had been promoted in the article by use of hypothetical and exaggerated possibilities, none of which had a material factual base. However the use of the headline was an editorial choice and was not entirely inappropriate.

The complaint is not about the central part of the feature article that was that the SDHB failed in its duty to protect the public from possible harm by a mentally disturbed person having access to a rifle and being obliged to travel unaccompanied from one hospital to another in view of the known mental condition of the patient.

Complaint is also made that in a separate piece on page 2 best described as an editorial signed by the publisher the patient was said to have a “screw loose”.
Whilst less than ideal use of language it does not cross the boundary of contravening, by placing gratuitous emphasis on mental disability, Council’s Principle 8 on “Discrimination”

Having said that and stepping back and viewing the article as a whole the object for criticism was not the patient but the SDHB for the way it handled him. Overall the article was mostly factually correct and quite clearly in the public interest particularly
with the background of the tragic Burton case still fresh in the immediate community’s memory. There were indeed some inexplicable decisions made in regard to treatment by those in authority and there may be mitigating circumstances of which the Council is unaware. Nevertheless the newspaper was performing a well understood journalistic mission of questioning, probing, and bringing to light failures on the part of bureaucracies operating in such an important area as public mental health. It is difficult to achieve successful outcomes on such ambitious projects without in some way attracting peripheral damage, which occurred in this case.

The complaint is not upheld.