JOHN ARMSTRONG AGAINST ROTORUA REVIEW AND STUFF

Case Number: 2498

Council Meeting: MAY 2016

Verdict: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Rotorua Review

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Behaviour of Journalists
Conflict of Interest
Unfair Coverage

Overview

  1. Dr John Armstrong, a medical practitioner, complains that a story published on theStuff site on 19 February 2016 titled “Rotorua Boy Refused Doctor’s Appointment After Dad Accused Of Theft” breaches principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) and 10 (conflicts of interest).
  2. The story, with minor differences, was published in the Rotorua Review newspaper on 24 February 2016.
  3. The complaint that the story breaches principle 1 is upheld, with one Council member dissenting.The complaint in relation to principle 10 is not upheld.

Background

4. The story relates to the steps one Trinity Ropiha had taken to have his ill son seen at Dr Armstrong’s Rotorua surgery.Mr Ropiha was described in the story as a “canvas for his own artwork” (he was tattooed).When Mr Ropiha telephoned for an appointment he was suspected by the medical practice of having stolen personal items from the surgery during a previous visit.The theft had been reported to the Police.

5. Mr Ropiha’s request to have a doctor see his son was initially declined.While the practice agreed to see the child later in the day and while it apologised to Mr Ropiha for its earlier refusal to assist (he by then having been eliminated as a suspect) the matter came to the media’s attention.The stories were published as a result.

The Complaint

6. Dr Armstrong has two complaints. First, he says that the background to the matter was more involved than that portrayed by in the stories.Crucially he was given inadequate opportunity to respond to the reporter’s enquiries when she visited the practice the day after the incident.Dr Armstrong says the story portrayed his practice, which is centred in a low socio economic area with a “high needs” population, in a bad light.Secondly, Dr Armstrong claims the reporter was biased, she having a “close relationship” with Mr Ropiha.

7. Dr Armstrong says that Mr Ropiha’s initial request to have his son seen presented the practice with a quandary.Mr Ropiha was suspected of theft from the practice.The Police were involved.Mr Ropiha was told of the concerns when the appointment request was declined.

8. Dr Armstrong says it was then quickly realised that the practice was wrong in declining the boy’s appointment.By this point Mr Ropiha himself had gone to the Police to establish his innocence.Within a short time, and certainly on the same day, the practice saw the boy.Dr Armstrong apologised to Mr Ropiha for the error.

9. The next day (a Friday) a Rotorua Review reporter approached the practice seeking an explanation as to the previous’ day’s events.Dr Armstrong says the reporter arrived at the surgery after 3pm insisting she see him.Dr Armstrong says that at this point the surgery was “full of patients”.He could not see the reporter until after 5pm.At this point the reporter said her “deadline” had passed. She demanded an immediate comment as to the events in question.Dr Armstrong says he told the reporter he wished to provide “considered answers to the issues”.The reporter said this was “impossible” since the deadline had passed.The article had been written “and was ready to go”.The story had to be published since “old news [was] no news”.Staff were wanting to put the story online.

10. Dr Armstrong says he told the reporter he needed the weekend so as to provide a full response.The request was refused.

11. Dr Armstrong maintains that the reporter’s behaviour throughout was rude, aggressive and overbearing.He has provided the Council with various accounts by people who were were present in the waiting room and who comment on the exchange between the reporter and the practice receptionist on the Friday afternoon.These accounts bear out this claim.

12. Dr Armstrong acknowledges that the practice erred in not immediately agreeing to see Mr Ropiha’s son.This error was recognised straight away and the matter rectified.It was rectified well before the media became involved.The story’s thrust is critical of the medical practice.Dr Armstrong refers to several hundred comments published on social media many of which are adverse.Dr Armstrong says the story has done “irreparable” damage to the reputation of [his] practice in [the Rotorua] community and nationally”.

13. Dr Armstrong claims too that the reporter was biased in her reporting, she having admitted being friendly with Mr Ropiha.She had previously published a sympathetic story about his tattoos.Dr Armstrong says the article effectively accuses his practice of prejudice towards a patient because of “race and / or tattoos; an accusation which is not only serious but also wrong”.

The Response

14. Stuff and Rotorua Review deny the complaints have merit. They say the reporter had made various attempts to contact the practice through the Friday before the reporter attended it in person in the afternoon.They said Dr Armstrong had “adequate opportunity” to put his side of the story particularly since:-

      1. He was aware of the incident the previous day;
      2. He had previously apologised to Mr Ropiha;
      3. He had the opportunity to comment after the Stuff story had been published;
      1. He had simply chosen not to comment.

15. The media says also that the story was accurate.It referred to the surgery’s apology for the false theft accusation and the fact that the boy had been seen later the same day.The social media comments “canvass a range of views but are largely in response to the accurate and uncontested central theme of this story; that Trinity Ropiha’s 7 year old son was denied a doctor’s appointment because Mr Ropiha was accused of theft”.

16. Stuff and Rotorua Review deny the story was compromised because of the “working relationship” between Mr Ropiha and the reporter.Journalists are “expected to have a wide network of contacts”.

The Decision

17. The Press Council does not agree that the story was balanced or fair in circumstances. Putting aside, for the moment, Dr Armstrong’s claim that the reporter approached him in an overbearing way, there is no question he was given an unacceptably short time in which to respond to the reporter’s questions. Stuff and Rotorua Review do not deny that Dr Armstrong’s practice is a busy one.To require a doctor to respond to questions on such a serious issue in two hours is not right.Stuffand Rotorua Review do not explain why it was important for the story to run so quickly.If indeed the media’s view was that “old news is no news” (as the reporter is alleged to have said) then the Council does not agree.Rotorua Reviewchose to report the story five days after it ran on Stuff.The Council sees no reason why theStuff story could not have waited. Having said that we certainly do not mean that someone in Dr Armstrong’s position can dictate the timetable.

18. The Council is of the view that just as the reporter’s insistence on an immediate response was unacceptable, expecting the matter to be deferred for the whole weekend (as Dr Armstrong sought) was unrealistic in terms of news. The reporter should have been able to negotiate a better outcome which required some compromise from Dr Armstrong.

19. The Council is reinforced in its view, that Principle 1 was breached, by two other matters.First, the story in both the online and printed versions opened with a line “Tattoo Artist Trinity Ropiha was denied a Doctor’s Appointment for his seven year old son after being falsely accused of stealing from a Rotorua Surgery”. It was followed by the line “the Owhata surgery has since apologised for the false accusation ….”.

20. The implication here (particularly through the use of the phrase “has since…”) is that the medical practice belatedly realised the error of its ways and backed down.Such an implication is wrong.Dr Armstrong says, andStuff and Rotorua Review do not deny, that the practice itself realised it had wrongly declined the appointment.It took the initiative and a doctor saw the boy later in the day.The practice apologised to Mr Ropiha promptly and gratuitously and not as a result of the media’s or anyone else’s intervention.While the story acknowledges the apology further in the article the damage had been done by the opening.

21. Secondly, both the online and the print stories concluded with the statement that the surgery had declined to comment.This was untrue.Rather Dr Armstrong sought time to provide a response but the time he sought (the weekend) was not accepted by the reporter.

22. The Council does not accept that the media’s offered to publish a correcting statement by Dr Armstrong later is sufficient to save the finding that principle 1 has been breached.

23. John Roughan dissented from this decision.

24. The Council does not agree that the story breached principle 10.The fact the reporter had previously written the story about Mr Ropiha was not a compromising element in this case.

25. The final matter is the reporter’s behaviour. To arrive in a busy doctor’s waiting room and to expect to be seen immediately and ahead of patients was unreasonable. Further it seems that the reporter did not deal with the situation in a calm and professional manner. Of equal concern is the fact that she was apparently backed in her actions by a more senior staff member in the office.

26. A reporter in this situation is the public face of the publications and the industry. Both were let down by the unprofessional behaviour displayed.

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