GRAHAM WILLAN AGAINST HAWKE'S BAY TODAY

Case Number: 2621

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2017

Verdict: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Photographs
Privacy
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

Overview

Graham Willan complained about an article published online by Hawke’s Bay Today on August 2, which covered a fatal crash that killed the driver and sole occupant of the car involved. The online article, which was accompanied by a photograph of the badly damaged vehicle, appeared within an hour of the accident, before the wife of the deceased had been informed by police of her husband’s death. The deceased’s wife had recognised the vehicle in the photograph, and called police, who confirmed her husband was the deceased driver.

The Complaint

The brother-in-law of the deceased driver, Graham Willan, complained to the Council, saying:

-The article was “disgusting and disrespectful”.

-The photos were uploaded to the paper’s website at 2.50pm. This was in advance of his sister being informed of her husband’s death.

-The photo of the wreckage with a tarpaulin over it did not hide the distinctive paint colour of the vehicle.

-When her husband did not return from work and could not be contacted, Mr Willan’s sister checked the internet and found the article and the photo of her husband’s distinctive vehicle.

-The article (recognition of the car) prompted her to call the police.

The Response

Andrew Austin, Editor, Hawke’s Bay Today responded:

-that he acknowledged the grief which led to the complaint and did not wish the Press Council complaint process to prolong that grief.

-The publication engaged fully and immediately with the complainant and continued to do so. This included a phone conversation with Mr Willan.

-Despite other news outlets running similar photos, the publication used alternative photos in subsequent coverage. This decision was part of the publication’s continued review of the published material after accidents, so the decision was made before the first complaint.

-Digital news immediacy is providing unprecedented challenges to newsrooms. There is a fine line between public interest and private grief.

-The photos were not disrespectful or insensitive.

-Although extremely regrettable, the editorial team believed at the time that it was highly improbable that the photos would lead to identification of the victim.

-No name was used in the story.

-The community has a widespread and legitimate interest in these types of stories.

-There is now a new protocol in place to deal with similar stories in the future.

The Decision

The two Press Council principles being considered here are related to Privacy (Principle 2) and Photographs / Graphics (Principle 11).

Under Principle 2, everyone is entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information, and these rights should be respected by publications. However this should not interfere with the publication of matters of public record or public interest. Also, those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration.

Press Council Principle 11 warns editors to take care in photographic and image selection and treatment, and states: “Photographs showing distressing or shocking situations should be handled with special consideration for those affected.”

The editor of Hawke’s Bay Today says the editorial team believed it was highly improbable that publication of the photograph would lead to identification of the victim. Such decisions however always carry a risk, and in this case the wrecked car was of a distinctive colour and was recognised by the deceased driver’s wife, who had been trying without success to contact her husband.

There can be no doubt that the discovery of the image, and subsequent confirmation of her husband’s death, would have been extremely distressing to the victim’s wife and loved ones. The question before the Council however, is not so much the nature of the image, but whether publishing it 39 minutes after the accident was in the public interest, given the crash occurred on a busy, well-used highway.

In this case the Council believes the publication failed to show due consideration: we believe extra caution should have been exercised in making the decision given the subject of the image and the speed with which it was uploaded to the website. Would have it been hard for the reporter to check whether police had made contact with the victim’s family? If the police had answered not yet, what impact would that have made on the decision to use that photo?

We note that the photograph in question did not appear in the print version ofHawke’s Bay Today, which was published the following day; the editor said the decision to use a photograph of the truck involved, despite other news outlets running similar images of the damaged car, was made as a result of a review of material published after accidents, even before the complaint had been received.

Immediacy of news in the digital era is a challenge and the Council is fully aware of the challenges this presents to editors, but that does not give online news outlets the right to ignore the Press Council principles. We note that the editor ofHawkes Bay Today has said there is a new protocol in place to deal with similar stories in the future. However in this case, we findHawke’s Bay Today was in breach of both Principles 2 and 11.

The complaint upheld by a majority of the Press Council with two members John Roughan and Mark Stevens dissenting.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.