HINEMOA ELDER AGAINST THE DOMINION POST AND STUFF

Case Number: 2458

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Columnists
Comment and Fact
Photographs
Privacy
Social Media
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

The complainant, Dr Hinemoa Elder, complains that an article published in print byThe Dominion Post and online by stuff.co.nz was unfair, insensitive, inaccurate and in breach of several of the Press Council principles.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

On August 20, 2015 The Dominion Post published an article by Rosemary McLeod, who is a regular columnist for that publication. The article also appeared on the Stuff website.

The article followed on from news reports of the trial of Michael Murray for the murder of Connor Morris, the partner of Millie Elder-Holmes, who is the complainant’s daughter and who was present at the fight in which Mr Morris died.

The article was headed “Millie Elder-Holmes deserves to be out of the spotlight now” and was accompanied by a photograph of Ms Elder-Holmes with the father of Mr Morris. It is written in an informal and forthright style, expressing the view that that there has been too much publicity about Ms Elder-Holmes, that her life is unexceptional (examples are given), and that it is time she moved on.

The Complaint

Dr Elder immediately complained to the editor of The Dominion Post, summarising her view of the article as “determined in its superficiality, distressing, hurtful and derogatory. Its intention seemed to be to present a caricature, a parody of my daughter, which perpetuates the very spotlight that the title supposedly rejects.” She likens it to cyber-bullying and says it is bullying of a type that is seriously corrosive to a person’s mental well-being.

She refers specifically to the author’s patronising, belittling and disdainful tone, to her mention of Ms Elder-Holmes’ tattoos, and to her sarcastic comments that Ms Elder-Holmes should “get an education, get a job and have a contented life”. She says it is widely known that Ms Elder-Holmes was successfully studying nursing at the time of the murder and that that she is now struggling to resume her studies as well as running her blog. She is of the view that the accompanying photograph “supports the negative caricature of [her daughter] in the article.”

Dr Elder asked for the story to be removed from the internet and for a written apology from the author.

Commenting on Ms Courtney’s response, Dr Elder says the reference to Ms Elder-Holmes’ published views as justification for the article amounts to victim blaming and confirms her view that the article is not about the “hazards of growing up in the glare of publicity” but is a specific attack on Ms Elder-Holmes.


The Response

Bernadette Courtney, editor in chief Central Region, responded to the complaint, saying that the complainant had not provided detail in support of her complaints of breaches of specific principles, nor had she identified factual inaccuracies but rather had disagreed with the opinions expressed by Ms McLeod.

The article was clearly an opinion and was identified as such. Opinion pieces do not need to be balanced, nor do the opinions need to be acceptable to all readers. Ms Elder-Holmes publicly expressed her own opinion in response to the article and that opinion was reported by Stuff. She was offered a separate opportunity to comment on the opinion but declined to accept it.

Ms Courtney also notes that in June Ms Elder-Holmes gave an extensive interview to theNew Zealand Herald’s Canvas magazine in which, among other things, she discussed her relationship with fame and the media. It would be an undesirable precedent if Ms Elder-Holmes were to be able to give her views of the media and her changing relationship in forthright terms while others who wish to comment on the same issue were denied the opportunity.

Ms Courtney does not agree with the complainant’s view that the photograph of Ms Elder-Holmes showed an angry facial expression. She sees it as an appropriately serious picture for the subject matter of the piece.

The Decision

The article in question was an opinion piece written by an established columnist and was very clearly an expression of opinion. It was not a news report and accordingly is not required to meet the standards of accuracy, fairness and balance required of news reports. By its very nature, opinion is often unbalanced and can be unfair in the minds of others. The Press Council’s principle 5 recognises that while there must be a foundation of fact – that is, opinion must not be based on untruths or inaccuracies – balance is not essential. The remaining principles apply to opinion pieces in the same way as they apply to news reports.

The Press Council has considered this complaint under Principles 1, 4 and 5 and has concluded that while the opinion expressed by Ms McLeod was unkind and may well have been felt as insensitive and hurtful it was nonetheless a legitimate and not entirely unsympathetic expression of opinion about a person who had been very much in the public eye in recent weeks.

The Press Council has also considered the application of Principle 2 (privacy), especially in view of its requirement that those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration. It recognises that Ms Elder-Holmes is undoubtedly suffering from trauma or grief and is accordingly in a vulnerable position. However the special consideration is called for in the context of privacy of person, space and personal information, and it is difficult to find any breach of such privacy in this case.There does not appear to be any information in Ms McLeod’s article that is not already publicly known. There has been a great deal of publicity about Ms Elder-Holmes and she herself has commented publicly on the matters that form the background to the article and on her reaction to them and to the consequent publicity.

Finally, the requirement of principle 11 concerning photographs is that editors should take care in their selection and treatment, avoid misleading manipulation and give special consideration to photographs showing distressing or shocking situations. In the view of the Press Council, the photograph of Ms Elder-Holmes shows a serious young woman, as is appropriate for the subject matter of the article, and there is no breach of Principle 11.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.

Jenny Farrell took no part in the consideration of this complaint.