JO-ELLA SARICH AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2605

Council Meeting: JULY 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Children and Young People
Privacy

Overview

Jo-Ella Sarich has complained about an online article and associated video (9 May) published on theNZ Herald website about a child found wandering the street alone. The video was filmed by the member of the public who had found the child and she had uploaded it on to her Facebook page. The article covered the circumstances leading up to the child being found as conveyed by the grandmother who also spoke on behalf of her daughter, who is the toddler’s mother. The re-posted video accompanied the article.

The Complaint

Jo-Ella Sarich complained to the NZ Herald that the article and re-posting of the video by theNZ Herald was a breach of principles related to privacy and children and young people. She argued that there was no genuine public interest in the re-posting of the video. In response to theHerald’s argument around public interest, the complainant countered that public interest was not the same as ‘what the public is interested in.’ It is not comparable to a story such as the Wahine disaster.

The complainant said the toddler’s case did not appear to have been one of child abuse or neglect rather an error of judgement by the mother. The article itself explained this. In response to one ofNZ Herald’s points, the complainant said the Herald could have reported the incident and the family’s version of events without the re-posting of the video which subjected the family to “further humiliation.”

The complainant acknowledges the point about child abuse being a major issue however the re-posting of the video doesn’t bring home the horrors of child abuse but aims to shame and invite criticism of the child’s mother and in doing so violated the child’s privacy.

The re-posting of the video would impact the toddler when she became older. The re-posting of the video amounted to the “salacious exploitation” of a young child to elicit page views.

The Response

Oskar Alley, Senior Newsroom Editor responded on behalf of NZ Herald. The main points can be summarised as following:

  • Ms Sarich’s complaint fails to fully appreciate the fact that the (unpixelated) video of the child was already in the public domain. It had been posted on Facebook by the woman who found the child - and had been viewed more than 100,000 times before theHerald became aware of its existence.
  • The woman who filmed the video has declined to speak to media or to explain why she chose to post the footage on Facebook. The Herald therefore cannot speak to her motivation for doing so, but her original post indicated her serious concern (and frustration) that an unsupervised, extremely upset child was found wandering in the street clad only in her underwear.
  • When the Herald newsroom learnt of the video they took steps to confirm its veracity and immediately notified Police which, it was submitted, was the logical and responsible course of action.
  • Ms Sarich bases her complaint on the fact that this incident was not one of neglect but one of a parent’s “error of judgment” – but this perspective relies on the benefit of hindsight – based on the Herald’s subsequent interview with the child’s grandmother.
  • At the time of viewing the initial Facebook post this was a case of a near naked child found wandering the streets in an extremely distressed state. This situation is entirely a significant matter of public interest – and a matter of urgent priority to alert Police and assist them to locate the child and confirm she is safe.
  • A series of public campaigns to prevent child abuse has repeatedly stressed the need for anyone who suspects that a child is being abused/neglected to report it to authorities – whether it’s a teacher, family member, neighbour, a stranger in the street – or indeed the media itself.
  • While more than 100,000 people had viewed the Facebook video no one had actually done anything about it – Police confirmed they were not aware of the matter till theHerald reporter brought it to their attention and this was when their inquiry began.
  • The publication was compelled to publish it to highlight how serious this situation was and in the interest of assisting the Police investigation. It is frequently the case that media coverage of an incident leads to vital information and it is worth noting that Police had very little to go on other than that the woman who filmed the video lived in the suburb of Otara.
  • While the child is briefly identifiable in the Facebook video (the vast majority of the footage is in fact of the pavement as the woman films on her phone as she walks) theHerald decided to blur the child’s face in order to protect her privacy. This was a responsible stance to take and is entirely consistent with the Press Council’s Principle 3.
  • By blurring the child’s face and deciding not to publish any information that could identify the child or her family theHerald has acted entirely responsibly and in accordance with Press Council guidelines. The video was clearly filmed in a public street and no one can expect privacy in such a place. The filming was not “covert” – the woman is clearly holding her phone in her hand.
  • In reality this woman rescued this child from a gravely serious situation – wandering alone, scared in the street – and returned her to her home and explained to her mother what had occurred. The publication cannot speak to the woman’s motivation to film the incident and to later post it to Facebook, but her decision to do so, and after theHerald’s intervention, led to the Police becoming involved and that was absolutely the correct course of action.
  • The toddler’s family have not asked for the video to be taken down and the child’s grandmother welcomed the opportunity to explain the background to this incident.

The Decision

The two Press Council principles being considered here are related to Privacy (Principle 2) and Children and Young People (Principle 3).

Under Principle 2, everyone is normally 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. The NZ Herald has made a compelling case in relation to their article and most importantly the re-posting of the video being of public interest.

In relation to Principle 2, no person or property was identifiable in the video or article.

One of the key elements put forward was in relation to Police not being contacted about the incident until the journalist made contact with them and at that point assistance with the investigation was important. As it became clear that the situation was an error of judgement, the publication gave the family through the grandmother the opportunity to explain in detail the circumstances.

The article does relay the emotions of both the grandmother and mother, which readers would appreciate, and allows the family to present their ‘side of the story.’

In relation to Principle 3, the publication has satisfied the Council that the public interest in providing immediate support for the investigation, to what was at the time a possible case of neglect, was exceptional. The publication’s blurring of the child’s face was responsible, and essential in the Council’s view.

At the same time, the rawness of the video would have brought home to readers that, even though it was an error of judgement, a child alone on a public street is simply not a good situation for any child to be in.

A final point – At the time of publication the video had already received widespread viewing from the Facebook post and it would have been easily traceable from the article alone.

The complaint is not upheld.

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

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.