COMPLAINT AGAINST NEW ZEALAND WOMAN'S WEEKLY

Case Number: 2530

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2016

Verdict: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: New Zealand Woman's Weekly

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Children and Young People
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

A complaint has been made to the Press Council by the husband of one Raquel Roderick that a story published inNew Zealand Woman’s Weekly (NZWW) on March 7, 2016 and titled “Abuse survivors share their stories; ‘You are not alone’” breached the Press Council’s Principles one (accuracy, fairness and balance), two (privacy), three (children and young people), eight (confidentiality) and nine (subterfuge).

The story reported the initiatives taken by two women, each of whom said that they had left abusive relationships, in publicizing the steps women in similar situations could take to seek help.One of the women, Ms Roderick, described the abuse she said she suffered in a relationship along with the actions she took to leave her husband and to improve her life and employment prospects. The article identified Ms Roderick’s children albeit by their first names and ages only.

The Complaint

The complainant is married to Ms Roderick although they have separated. Despite not being named in the article the complainant says he was identified as the alleged perpetrator of the abuse by the references to Ms Roderick’s marriage and to the children. The complainant denies that he ever abused Ms Roderick physically or otherwise.He says child custody issues between Ms Roderick and himself are currently being dealt with by the Family Court, these proceedings being confidential. The complainant says the article was unfair and lacked balance. He was not approached by NZWW as the story was being written, let alone given the opportunity to comment.He says that anyone reading the article who knew the couple would have concluded he was abusive toward his wife. He says this is wrong.

The complainant says too that the article compromised his privacy and breached confidentiality. He also says NZWW should not have named the children.

The complainant does not challenge NZWW’s right to publish “abused women's stories”. His complaint relates to only to those elements in the story which involve his alleged behaviour and the children. He has provided the Council with correspondence passing between his lawyer and the lawyers for NZWW.

The Response

NZWW has responded to the complaints comprehensively. NZWW makes two essential points.

First, it says it was and remains satisfied Ms Roderick was being truthful when she recounted her experiences of abuse. NZWW does not believe the complainant.

Secondly, and more importantly in the context of the Council’s principles, NZWW says “[NZWW] is a magazine which publishes material of particular interest to women. This article was an important human interest story primarily about the issue of family violence….”NZWW says that the inclusion of any comment from anyone who is claimed to have abused a woman the subject of the article would have “undermined” the story’s purpose. NZWW says that “the requirement for balance should not require equal time to be given in an article to a person who is alleged to have perpetrated abuse on the woman who is the subject of the article, especially when the alleged perpetrator of the abuse is not named in the article”. NZWW says the appropriate balance was struck by it not mentioning the complainant by name.

NZWW stresses the high level of domestic violence in New Zealand. Many victims are “afraid to speak out”. The story’s purpose was to “show there is hope after a [abusive] relationship ends… It is in the public interest that the media is able to tell stories such as Ms Roderick’s and shine a light on family violence, in order to encourage other women to seek help”. The story did not “focus” on Ms Roderick’s abuse claims.

NZWW also denies the complainant’s claim his privacy was breached (he was not named), that the article was detrimental to the children (they not being readily identifiable since their surnames were not published), that the detail in the story was obtained by subterfuge or that there has been a breach of confidentiality as it affects the complainant. NZWW says anyone able to identify the complainant from the story will “likely know” about the breakdown in his relationship with Ms Roderick. Conversely, people who do not know the complainant will be unable to identify him.

The Decision

A majority of the Press Council agrees with the complainant in relation to his complaint that NZWW beached Principle one when publishing the story.

 

The majority makes the following observations in connection with Principle one. Although the Council cannot determine whether Ms Roderick or the complainant are telling the truth as to the abuse allegations, one aspect is clear. NZWW did not seek the complainant’s response when writing the story. Nor did NZWW undertake any independent background checks as to the veracity of Ms Roderick’s account at least as far as her abuse allegations are concerned.While the Council accepts it was not necessary for NZWW to record the complainant’s version of events in any detail, Principle one required the magazine to at least try to communicate with him and, assuming he would have denied the claims, record the denial.In referring to the marriage and the children in its story NZWW had a duty to also give the complainant the opportunity to comment. By not seeking and mentioning such comment the story lacked balance.

Putting it another way the majority of the Council does not agree with NZWW when it says that the story’s message overrode the requirement that the opposing voice be at least noted. Nor does the Council accept that the article’s important thrust (notably that women experiencing violent relationships have options) would have been watered down simply because the complainant’s denials were mentioned.

 

The majority of the Council does not agree either that NZWW could avoid Principle one by avoiding naming the complainant. It is clear he is recognisable in his community. NZWW could not assume, as NZWW’s lawyer has argued, that the few people who knew the couple were already aware of the issues between them. Some or possibly all of those people may not have been so aware.

Three members of the Council disagree with the majority in connection with Principle one. These members agree with NZWW when it says the public interest overrode the requirement for balancing comment from the complainant to be published. They also note that the article (as opposed to NZWW’s comment on the complaint) does not endorse Ms Roderick’s account of the abuse.

The Council, unanimously, sees no basis for the magazine identifying the couple’s children. Principle three is clear. In cases involving young children “editors must demonstrate an exceptional degree of public interest to override the interests of the child or young person”. This is not one of the cases the Principle refers to. The purpose of this article could have been served just as well without the children having been identified.

Insofar as the complainant’s other complaints are concerned, the Council, unanimously, does not accept there has been a breach of privacy, a breach of confidentiality or that that New Zealand Woman’s Weekly obtained the story by subterfuge.

The Council upholds the complaints in relation to Principles one and three but not in relation to Principles two, eight and nine.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.