EAMON KING AGAINST THE STAR

Case Number: 2472

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Star

Ruling Categories: Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Photographs
Privacy

Overview

Eamon King complains that a photograph published in The Star newspaper on 16 September 2015 breached the Press Council’s Principles 2 (privacy), 9 (subterfuge) and 11 (photographs and graphics).

The story related to a fire in a house at Opawa, Christchurch.The property is owned by the complainant and his wife.As part of the story the newspaper published two photographs, the first being an image of the house taken from the street and the second being a shot of a bedroom in the house which had been extensively damaged by the fire.

The complaint is not upheld.

Background

The Star’s story covered the fire which had broken out during the day.The complainant’s wife was at home asleep at the time.The house was fitted with a smoke alarm.The alarm woke the complainant’s wife. She narrowly escaped the blaze with the family dog.The story reported a senior fire officer as describing the woman as being “very lucky”.The incident demonstrated the need for houses to be fitted with smoke alarms.

The Complaint

The complainant says that the story breached the Council’s principles referred to above through publication of the image of the damaged bedroom. The complainant acknowledged that no objection could be taken over the photograph of the damaged house taken from the street.

The complainant says the photograph of the house interior:

    1. “was obtained illegally by way of trespassing by the photographer”; and
    2. showed the main bedroom (which is subject to a reasonable expectation of privacy)”.

The Response


The Star responds by denying that the story breaches the parties’ right to privacy or that the photographer somehow acted wrongly by entering the property.The newspaper says the property was entered with the permission of the fire officer in charge at the scene, the officer allowing the photograph of the interior to be taken.The newspaper says that it believes its staff acted responsibly.The newspaper points to the story’s thrust, namely, its emphasis on the importance of smoke alarms together with the complainant’s wife’s responsible actions immediately she woke.The newspaper points to the fact that there had been a number of house fires which have included “deaths and near misses” in Christchurch in recent times.

The Decision

The Press Council finds that there has been no breach of the principles relating to subterfuge and photographs in this case.The photographer did not enter the property surreptitiously or without indicating who he was.The photograph taken of the bedroom was not manipulated or published out of context.

The photographer entered the property with the authorization of the officer in charge of the scene. The officer derives his authority from the Fire Services Act 1975 and the Council is of the opinion that the photographer’s actions were entirely legitimate, at the time.

However, in publishing the photograph the newspaper must take the Press Council Principles into account.

The question as to whether the principle relating to privacy has been breached is finely balanced. The relevant principle provides that “everyone is normally entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information”.There is a qualifier.The principle further provides that “nevertheless, the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest”.

The complainant has, at first glance, made out a breach of the privacy principle.The photograph showed the interior of a bedroom albeit badly damaged.

Against this however is the question of public interest.It would appear in this case that had a smoke alarm not been installed the outcome could have been tragic.It was appropriate for the newspaper to draw its readers’ attention to the risk of residential fires and the need for precautionary devices to be installed.The Council notes that the photograph of the interior was not revealing as to any items of a personal nature.Rather the image graphically illustrated the damage fire can quickly cause.The room was so gutted as to, in the Council’s view, make it virtually indistinguishable from any other fire damaged interior.On this basis the Council takes the view that in this instance the public interest overrode the complainant’s right to privacy.

The complaint is not upheld.

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