ESTA HOEKSEMA AGAINST MANAWATU STANDARD

Case Number: 2584

Council Meeting: JUNE 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Manawatu Evening Standard

Ruling Categories: Court Reporting
Privacy

Overview

1. Esta Hoeksema takes issue with an article that appeared in the Manawatu Standard on May 4, 2017. The story was repeated on stuff.co.nz on the same day.

2. The complainant alleges that the report of a coronial inquest breaches the Press Council’s principle of privacy, and in particular the final portion of the principle stating that those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration.

The Article

3. The report relates to the death of a Feilding woman in a house fire. The report gives the deceased background in the community and adds she was the mother of a well-known local musician. It goes on to report on the Coroner’s findings.

4. The report states that the coroner concluded that the deceased died as a result of the effects of the fire, and that fire was caused by unattended cooking. It continued that the Coroner also concluded that it is likely the deceased attempted to put out the fire before attempting to escape. He notes the presence of burnt clothing in the kitchen to support this finding. He further noted that the deceased had mobility problems, and that when she attempted to escape this possibly impeded her, as both she and her dog were found close to the back door. The toxicology report, while confirming that smoke inhalation was the cause of death, also noted that the deceased’s blood alcohol level was 160 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood. The coroner contrasted that with the legal driving limit in New Zealand of 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. He found it was possible that the amount of alcohol caused her to exercise less care than usual in preparing her meal, and/or to dose off in the lounge while it was cooking. He also found it was probable that the alcohol “impeded or slowed her already compromised movement, and contributed to her inability to escape the fire”.

5. He found that it was a “reasonably natural reaction” to attempt to extinguish the fire, but concluded “sadly, it may have also been a fatal one, in that, had she simply focused on escaping from the house, rather than stopping initially in an attempt to put out the fire, she may have been able to do so”.

6. The complainant is the partner of the deceased’s son.

The Complaint

7. As noted above, the complainant maintains that the report breached her partner’s rights of privacy and ignored the final paragraph of the principle dealing with privacy, set out above.

8. While she accepted the coroner’s finding was a public document, she considered there was no reason for theManawatu Standard or stuff.co.nz to publish it, as there was no public interest in it. Further, she complained that the graphic details mentioned in the story were unnecessary, and suggested that they were designed simply to sell newspapers.

The Response

9. In reply, the chief news director (Matthew Dallas) stressed that the coroner’s findings was a public document, and disagreed that the report in any way breached the deceased’s son’s privacy. He also denied the suggestion regarding the motivation.

10. He said fatal house fires hold a strong public interest in New Zealand, while describing these as rare and tragic events. He also added that the deceased was well-known in the Feilding community and wider Manawatu for her work as a school guidance counsellor, and as the mother of the well-known musician son.

11. It is unnecessary to cover the other lengthy matters he sets out.

The Decision

12. Kathryn Hansen, a 69-year-old, died as the result of a fire at her residence, 2 Fitzroy Street, Feilding, on the evening of 24 August 2016. It is unclear when the coroner’s hearing was conducted, but his reasons were dated 20 March 2017, but apparently were not released by the Ministry of Justice until 4 May 2017, the date of the report complained of.

13. The coronial findings are clearly a public document. While a coroner has power to suppress certain parts of his findings, in this case no such suppression order was made.

14..We also do not accept the editor’s description of fatal house fires as rare. While other forms of accidental death are more frequent, fatal house fires are a matter of concern in New Zealand. Indeed, the New Zealand Fire Service regularly has dramatic advertisements dealing with fires caused by a number of accidental causes, particularly from unattended cooking.

15. While the Council sympathises with the feelings of the complainant and the sensitivity of her partner, we are more than satisfied that there is no breach of the privacy principle. We note that the principle states:

Nevertheless the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest.

16. The coronial findings were a matter of public record. We also are more than satisfied that the publication of those findings is a matter of significant public interest.

17. It is very much in the public interest that the cause of house fires, particularly fatal house fires, are reported by the news media. It is a salutary warning to readers of the dangers of, in this case, unattended cooking. The report also highlights that, while attempting to put out a blaze is a natural reaction, the more appropriate course is to try and effect an escape from the house. Finally, it is of significant public interest that the coroner found that the level of alcohol consumed was a probable contributing cause impeding escape.

18. We are conscious of the need to give special consideration for those suffering from trauma or grief, paying careful attention to their sensibilities. We consider in this case the publication goes as far as possible in this regard, given its public interest obligation to properly, and in depth, report on the coroner’s finding with a view to warning the general public of the causes of fatal house fires and the dangers inherent in them. It is a critical educational role that the media ought to carry out.

19. We reiterate the finding is a public document. It appears no request was made to suppress any part of the finding and the Coroner saw no cause to make any such order of his own volition. We do not consider it is for the publication, or the Council, to effectively censor a public document.

20. While we sympathise with the complainant, and her partner, the Council is satisfied that the report is a fairly standard one of a coronial finding.

21. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, and Tim Watkin.

Mark Stevens stood down to maintain the public member majority.