HILARY BUTLER AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2511

Council Meeting: JUNE 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists
Comment and Fact

Overview

  1. Hilary Butler primarily complains that three articles published by the New Zealand Herald were in breach of Principle 1 of the Press Council principles (accuracy, fairness and balance).She also mentions Principle 4 (comment and fact) and Principle 5 (columns, blogs opinion and letters).
  2. The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

  1. On May 2, 2016, the New Zealand Herald published an article by Polly Gillespie in which Ms Gillespie described her older sister, Jeanette, and her death from influenza in 2000.The article concluded with a message to readers about the importance of immunisation against influenza.
  2. The article attracted a great deal of feedback, and on May 4, the New Zealand Herald published a further article by Ms Gillespie about that feedback, though excluding the comments posted on the New Zealand Herald website.
  3. Both articles were linked to an article published on 1 May 2014, in which Ms Gillespie mentioned her sister’s death.
  4. On May 9, 2016, Ms Butler complained to the New Zealand Herald about both articles. As a result of the complaint, some amendments were made to the article of May 2.

The Complaint

7. Ms Butler complains that the articles in question were inaccurate. She accepts that they were opinion pieces, but refers to Principle 4 of the Press Council Principles, which states that material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate, and Principle 5, which also mentions the requirement for a foundation of fact.

8. The inaccuracies identified by Ms Butler are

  • Jeanette Gillespie’s age at death was wrongly stated as 38 when in fact she was 41
  • Her death certificate records death from staphylococcus aureus, pneumonia, renal failure and coagulopathy. There is no mention of influenza.
  • The symptoms described in the article are those of sepsis caused by staphylococcus aureus, and not symptoms of influenza.
  • In general, the evidence demonstrates that Jeanette Gillespie did not die of influenza or of complications caused by influenza.
  • Jeanette Gillespie did not die on a Saturday.She died on 4 October 2000, which was a Wednesday.
  • She did not have fine arts degrees.
  • It was stated that Jeanette Gillespie told her sister that she did not need a flu vaccination because she was fit and healthy. At the time she was in Waikato Hospital, her state of health would have been such that she could not have held a rational conversation.

9. Ms Butler has also provided evidence such as instructions to medical personnel about the contents of a death certificate and about the low prevalence of influenza in 2000 as giving further weight to her view that Jeanette Gillespie did not die of influenza.

10. In general, Ms Butler says that Polly Gillespie wrote a highly charged and emotional piece, vilifying those who oppose vaccination and aimed at persuading readers to “queue up for a flu shot”, and that the piece was based on a number of verifiably false claims along with others that are implausible.

The Response

11. The initial response of the New Zealand Herald was to correct two statements that it agreed were inaccurate and to make one further amendment to the article.It agreed that Jeanette Gillespie’s age was wrongly recorded, as was the day of the week on which she died. It also amended the article to say that Jeanette Gillespie died of complications from influenza rather than from influenza.

12. In a further response, it was said that other alleged inaccuracies were considered immaterial or not conclusively shown to be inaccuracies. On the main point of the complaint theNew Zealand Herald says “Polly Gillespie advised she was informed by multiple professionals at the time of her sister’s death that influenza had led to her death. The causes of death listed on the death certificate are widely recognised as complications from influenza. A Google search into the link returns multiple and authoritative entries on links between the two. Certainly, it is Polly’s absolute belief, based on the professional advice she was given at the time, that her sister died after contracting influenza, and suffering fatal complications.”

The Decision

13. To the extent that the complaint is about the article published on May 1, 2014, the Press Council is unable to consider it. Complaints must be lodged within one calendar month of the publication of the material complained about.

14. There is no doubt that both the articles of May 2016 were opinion pieces, expressing Ms Gillespie’s personal opinion about her sister’s life and death and about her own resultant convictions about the importance of immunisation against influenza. Ms Gillespie is a regular columnist, both pieces are marked “Polly Gillespie’s opinion”, and the style and tone is very different from a news article.

15. There is no requirement for opinion pieces to be fair or balanced, and it is common for such pieces to express controversial views with no counterbalancing argument and sometimes with an incomplete factual background. It is, however, a requirement that the material facts underlying an expression of opinion should be accurate.

16. In the view of the Press Council, many of the inaccuracies of which Ms Butler complains are immaterial.These include the errors about Jeanette Gillespie’s age at the date of her death, and the day of the week on which she died, also the precise nature of her academic qualifications. However, the main point of the complaint is a claim that the evidence shows that Jeanette Gillespie did not die of influenza, or of complications following influenza, and that it was therefore unethical and wrong of Polly Gillespie to state that she did die from influenza and to base her appeal for immunisation on her sister’s death.

17. The evidence supplied by Ms Butler makes it clear that that influenza was not the immediate cause of Jeanette Gillespie’s death. It was wrong, and unnecessarily alarmist, to describe the horrific manner of her death and to ascribe it to influenza. However, the New Zealand Herald corrected this assertion (in response to Ms Butler’s complaint) to state that Jeanette Gillespie died from complications following influenza. The evidence in this respect is much less clear.

18. The Press Council is not an investigative body.It has no power to call for documentation, interview witnesses or otherwise seek evidence.Its determinations are made on the basis of the submissions made by the parties to the complaint, sometimes supplemented by information that is publicly available.

19. The relevant evidence submitted by Ms Butler includes the death certificate, official guidelines on the completion of death certificates, and figures for influenza rates in 2000.

20. It is clear from these that at the time Jeanette Gillespie was admitted to hospital she was already suffering from the conditions listed on the death certificate. It is known that those conditions may be complications resulting from influenza (and other causes) and it is likely that Jeanette Gillespie was unwell for a period before her admission to hospital. As the death certificate does not give any underlying condition or antecedent cause for the conditions, it is not possible to say that there was no background of influenza.Nor does the fact that influenza was at a low level in 2000 mean that there were no cases of influenza.

21. On the other hand, Polly Gillespie clearly has a genuine belief that her sister died as a result of complications from influenza and says that she was advised at the time, by several medical professionals, that that was the case.

22. One further point raised by Ms Butler concerns the conversation about immunisation that Polly Gillespie is said to have had with her sister. Ms Butler says that Jeanette Gillespie’s condition in hospital as described by her sister would have precluded any chance of rational conversation. However, Ms Gillespie does not say that the conversation took place in the hospital and it could well have been at an earlier date.

23. The Press Council finds that while there was inaccuracy in the material