HEIKE AND RUDI HOFER AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2398

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage
Behaviour of Journalists

Heike and Rudi Hofer (the complainants) complained about an article published in the New Zealand Herald on July 5, 2014.

The complainants alleged that the article breached Principles 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance) and 4 (Comment and Fact) of the New Zealand Press Council Statement of Principles.

The complaint was not upheld.

Background
The article was headlined “Tanning clinics warming to rule changes” was about how tanning clinics (clinics) were reacting to new rules being implemented by Auckland City Council (council) that included banning under-18s and unlicensed operators, mandatory staff supervisions and new hygiene benchmarks for tanning clinics.

The reporter and a 15yr old girl (with the consent of the girl’s parents) went to five randomly selected tanning clinics to test how clinics were responding to the new rules.

The article outlined the varied responses received at each clinic. It noted that one had not checked her age and appeared to accept the girl as a client, two said she could return under certain provisos despite her age, one recommended self-tanning products as an alternative and the last told her to not return until she was 18.

The article included comments from a council representative noting that there were no exceptions to the under-18 rule for tanning clinics and the fact that the new regulations also included new rules for tattoo parlours, nail salons, hair removal and body piercing clinics.

The clinics visited by the reporter and the young girl included The Sunworld Tanning Studio in Takapuna which is owned by the complainants and the article noted that a copy of the new rules was visible on the clinic’s desk.

Complaint
The complainants alleged that the article was inaccurate and misleading and the information regarding their clinic, incorrect.

They stated that both the reporter and the young girl completed and signed the legal forms provided to clinics by the council to state they were over the age of 18.

They further stated that their clinic also used a second form where clients must put their date of birth (the young girl put her correct date of birth on this form) and their staff member did pick up the fact that the young girl was under age from that information; but before the employee could complete her procedure of advice to the pair, the reporter and girl left the clinic. Despite this, the article still reported that their clinic had not checked the age of the young girl.

They said that the reporter allowed the girl to sign a false statement and was “complicit in this act of deceit and furthermore this deceit was the basis for the reporter’s story”.

The complainants provided copies of both forms signed by the young girl.

In a further submission commenting on the newspaper’s response to their complaint, the complainants stated that it is a contradiction to say that their employee didn’t check the young girl’s age when her correct date of birth was entered on the second form.

They also state that at no time did one of the complainants say “Unfortunately at the beginning she [the staff member] overlooked it”. They stated that what was actually said was that the staff member had no chance to come to the point of checking the clients’ cards, a fixed part of their introductory procedure, as the reporter and the young girl left the salon before this could occur.

They further stated that was hard to see how their employee could be criticised for giving detailed advice on tanning on sunbeds when at least one of the persons was clearly over 18yrs old.

The editor had stated that in a telephone interview with the reporter, one complainant had stated that “Unfortunately at the beginning she [the staff member] overlooked it” in relation to the age check but the complainants denied this had occurred and maintained that the reporter’s notes recording the telephone conversation were incorrect.

The Newspaper’s Response
In reply to the complaint, the associate editor said the newspaper believed the article was fair, accurate and not misleading. The newspaper had decided to see how quickly clinic operators were responding to the new rules and had visited five clinics in different parts of Auckland to test this. The article was about whether operators made the appropriate checks around the age of users, not whether they received sunbed sessions. Each of the clinics was given the opportunity to provide comment for the article.

The article noted that the complainants’ clinic “clearly explained all the risks and rules around sunbeds, but did not check [the young girl’s] age before running her through a tanning schedule and prices”.

He went on to state that given the fact that despite the young girl signing the form to say she was over 18, she did put her correct date of birth on the Client Card and this discrepancy should have been noticed by the clinic employee.

He felt that the most important aspect of the complaint was whether the complainants’ clinic had ample time to raise the fact that the young girl was under 18 as she declared on her Client Card and the newspaper believes this was the case. The complainants acknowledge that their staff member did discuss deals on the services offered and he was unsure why this would happen before making sure the person could use the sunbed.

The complainants have also been offered the opportunity to provide additional clarification around their understanding of events which could be added to the online version of the story and this offer still stands.

There is no dispute that the young girl did provide her correct date of birth on the Client Card and the newspaper believes that there is no dispute that this was overlooked by the clinic.

He also pointed out that the article noted that the staff member did explain the rules and risks and that the clinic did have a copy of the new rules displayed.

The editor stated that in a telephone interview with the reporter, one complainant had stated that “Unfortunately at the beginning she [the staff member] overlooked it” in relation to the age check but now denied this had occurred.
Discussion and Decision
The article was clear about the subject content and why the investigative reporting was undertaken. To enable the reporter to test whether the age restriction was being adhered to, a young girl who was thought to look under age accompanied the reporter to each clinic.
From information contained in the article it was clear that four of the five clinics visited asked the young girl’s age before progressing any further and when finding that she was underage did not go any further although one suggested that she could come back if she had a note from her doctor and another that she could return with a guardian. Another declined tanning beds but gave recommendations for self-tanning products and the fourth told her she couldn’t use their services until she was 18.

The complainants’ clinic, while displaying the new rules, did get the young girl to complete the forms (including a declaration that she was over the age of 18) and also commenced a “procedure of advice” and to discuss “deals offered by the clinic” and appears to have done this without further checking the age of the young girl as is noted in the article.

Regardless of the disputes about the accuracy of comments made by one of the complainants to the newspaper, their clinic did begin what they call “a process of advice” which included completion of forms and discussion of “deals” before checking the age of the young girl which is in contrast to the other four clinics visited.

Given these factors, it is hard to see where the article is inaccurate or misleading.

The new rules regarding under 18’s are very clear and it could be reasonable to assume that an age check of both prospective clients would be undertaken prior to any assessment or service being offered despite one prospective client clearly being of age.

While the Press Council did not find the article breached Principle’s 1 and 4, it did note that the standard of journalistic practice fell below an acceptable level. While the article noted that an initial age check was not immediately carried out by the complainants’ business in contrast to the other four visited, it would have been better had the reporter allowed the staff member to complete the advice procedure to ascertain if an age check was in fact undertaken following that process.

The complaint is not upheld.