EMMA HURLEY AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY

Case Number: 2544

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Herald On Sunday

Ruling Categories: Children and Young People
Offensive Language
Sensationalism

Overview

1. Emma Hurley complains about an article published by the Herald on Sunday and on the nzherald.co.nz website on August 14, 2016. She considers it to be over-sensationalised and extremely offensive, and says it contains content that could be damaging to a younger reader.

2. The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

3. On August 14 2016 the Herald on Sunday published a lengthy article criticising the disciplinary process for health professionals. The main focus was on health professionals who had been found guilty of sexual misconduct with patients. The writer of the article considered there were insufficient safeguards for the public against such professionals. She said they often had permanent name suppression and/or were allowed to continue to practice under conditions.

4. The article began with a graphic and detailed description of a case of serious sexual misconduct, where the offender was eventually prosecuted, found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment.

Background

The Complaint

5. Ms Hurley complains that the article is sensationalist and unnecessarily explicit. She says she found the story extremely offensive and believes that it re-victimises women who have been through a similar ordeal. The main issue for her, however, is that the article would be easily accessible to younger readers. She notes that her pre-teen daughter reads the news online every day and is concerned that such explicit material could be damaging to a young mind.

6. Ms Hurley adds that at the very least there should have been an age restriction on the article to warn readers that it contained explicit content.

7. She also says that when she talked to the journalist about the article, she did not think there was an issue and responded “Well your daughter reads about murders, doesn’t she?”

The Response

8. The Deputy Editor of the Herald on Sunday, Stuart Dye responded to Ms Hurley after some delay, for which he apologised.

9. There were three main points to the response:

  • This was a hard-hitting news article exposing a hidden pattern of sexual misconduct among health professionals.
  • There had been discussion with the victim, and neither she nor the Herald on Sundaywanted to “sugarcoat the facts”. The victim supported the Herald on Sunday approach.
  • The Herald on Sunday wanted to make it explicit that this was not a case of blurred boundaries but of misconduct of the most serious nature.

The Decision

10. As Mr Dye noted in his response to the complainant, there is nothing in the Press Council Principles that directly relates to a case of this kind. The Press Council has found on several occasions that there is no general right not to be offended. However the introduction to the Principles also states that “The following principles may be used by complainants when they wish to point the Council to the core of their complaint. However, a complainant may nominate other ethical grounds for consideration.”

11. In considering a complaint where the Principles are not directly applicable, the Council will usually consider the guidance given in the preamble to the principles. The most relevant material here consists of the function of “promoting media freedom and maintaining the press in accordance with the highest professional standards” and the requirement that “in dealing with complaints, the Council will give primary consideration to freedom of expression and the public interest”.

12. The Council accepts that many readers, including the complainant, would find the explicit description disturbing and possibly offensive. It also accepts that the article in general was a serious item on a matter of considerable public interest. The short passage about which Ms Hurley has complained appears at the very beginning of the article and appears to be designed to draw in readers by the use of language that is more explicit than is usually found in the regular media and thus has a shock factor. This is not an unusual practice and is not in itself unethical or improper.

13. Mr Dye explains that one reason for the use of explicit language was to make it clear that the article was about serious sexual misconduct and not ‘blurred boundaries” However, the fact that the health professional in the case was sentenced to eight years imprisonment is sufficient by itself to emphasis the seriousness of the offending.

14. Ms Hurley expresses particular concern about the effect of the language on her pre-teen daughter and young readers in general and it is disappointing that Mr Dye has not responded to this part of the complaint. Even so, most newspapers will contain some items that at the very least need some explanation and guidance for this age group, and it is commonly accepted that parents of pre-teen children should supervise their internet access. Neither the print nor the online article were aimed at a young audience.

15. Having taken all these factors into account, the Press Council is of the opinion that while the first two sentences of the article are distasteful and designed to shock this is a case where there is substantial public interest in the subject matter and where the language used was not so extreme as to warrant a departure from the primary considerations of public interest and of freedom of expression

Decision

The complaint is not upheld.

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

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.