KARL BOWERS AGAINST WESTERN LEADER AND STUFF

Case Number: 2531

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Privacy
Sensationalism
Suicide Reports
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] The article headlined “‘Shining star’ killed by his mum”, by Adam Dudding, ran onStuff and in the Western Leader on July 28, 2016, re-telling the story of the death of eight year-old Dominic, who was killed by his mother Kim in a murder-suicide in 2009. Kim had suffered from “serious depression for years” and the story ran as part of the Fairfax series, ‘Faces of the Innocents’, designed to shine a “spotlight on children who have died from neglect, abuse or maltreatment”.

[2] Complainant Karl Bowers is the child’s uncle and Kim’s brother, while the article drew from the public record, an interview with Alex, another of Kim’s sons, and one of the child’s teachers, Brenda Cronin.

The Complaint

[3] Mr Bowers has focused his complaint on three principles: 1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; 2) Privacy; and 4) Comment and Fact. However his central concerns are essentially issues of accuracy, fairness and privacy, so principle 4 is not relevant.

[4] Mr Bowers’ complaints are effectively threefold. First, he argues that his nephew’s story has no place in a series about what Fairfax labels “children who have died from neglect, abuse or maltreatment”. Instead, his death - and his mother’s - should be seen as a mental health tragedy, a “totally separate issue altogether”.

[5] It is also unfair to place the story, as Fairfax did, alongside an article about the murder of Moko Rangitoheriri, a clear case of ongoing child abuse. Bower writes that while Kim ultimately made “the wrong decision to take Dominque’s life… My sister never, ever neglected, abused or maltreated her children”.

[6] “There is a lot more” to the story that the paper was not aware of, Mr Bowers says, before detailing some personal family information that the Council has chosen not to recount here out of respect for the family’s privacy. Those were the core reasons for her actions, and so the story was both unfair and inaccurate.

[7] Second, the complainant was disappointed and angered “that after seven years the dirt has been dug up again”. It is both unfair and an invasion of his privacy to force him to relive the tragedy “when it should have been permanently left to settle”.

[8] Third, Mr Bowers complains that families who have suffered the loss of loved ones have no say as to what is printed about them nor any assurance that further articles won’t be published at any time. He says “media bullies” have violated his privacy. “Who has given the media the right to make these decisions?” he asks, adding that every story compounds his hurt and trauma. He wants Fairfax to be instructed to never again publish anything about his sister and nephew.

The Response

[9] Stuff editor Patrick Crewdson replies that the ‘Faces of Innocents’ series relies on a database of 210 children who have died as a result of abuse, neglect or maltreatment since 1992 and stories about 90 have been published. “Our position is that every child victim deserves to be represented by more than a statistic,” he writes. “The community should learn from each death and try to prevent a repeat so that the child victim toll can come down”.

[10] While accepting that Dominic’s death was a tragedy and that Kim was “a loving mother who was tragically troubled by mental health problems”, he says “that her actions can be explained by a mental health diagnosis (and other personal circumstances outlined by Mr Bowers in his letter), does not diminish Dominic’s status as an innocent victim who died as a result of maltreatment”. Therefore it was accurate to include Dominic’s story in this series.

[11] On fairness, Crewdson argues that every case has unique circumstances, often with mitigating circumstances for the adult involved; the article acknowledged that here. It did not attribute blame but rather urged New Zealanders to “consider more complex cases such as this and look for solution to preventing such cases from happening again”.

[12] Further, the story mentioning Moko Rangitoheriri that ran beside the one on Dominic and Kim was not about his death, but rather an “explanatory editorial” explaining the purpose of the series.

[13] Crewdson did not directly address the complaint regarding the paper’s decision to revisit the story seven years after the boy’s death, but did say that the series was launched in November 2015 covering all child deaths dating back to 1992 as an effort to remember those children and learn from them.

[14] On privacy, Crewdson concedes permission was not sought from the families of the deceased, although Dominic’s family - in the form of his brother Adam - was approached for comment. Fairfax would expect many of the families involved to find the stories painful, “but the death of a child, while tragic, is a public fact” and “we believe the public interest value of this project outweighs considerations of personal privacy”. The series’ goal of reducing child deaths makes the reportage not only justifiable, but “necessary”.

The Decision

[15] The Council’s privacy principle demands that “those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration” and it seems important to note at the start of our discussion that every child’s death, whatever the cause or circumstances, is both a private and public tragedy. It’s impossible not to feel Mr Bower’s heartache and deep grief in his complaint and his plea for families to be heard. Yet it is equally impossible to ignore Fairfax’s plea for New Zealanders’ to learn from the deaths of so many children and prevent further grief and heartache.

[16] To Mr Bowers’ first complaint, by all accounts Kim did not abuse or neglect Dominic. Quite the opposite. However, even allowing for the private detail revealed, the mental health issues discussed and Kim’s reputation as an “amazing mother”, the Council believes most readers would agree with the paper’s view that killing her son could reasonably be defined as “maltreatment”. While Kim’s mental health undoubtedly casts the murder-suicide in a particular light and highlights other issues on top of those reported, Dominic was also undoubtedly an innocent victim, and thereby an appropriate subject for this series.

[17] The article that ran alongside Dominic’s story was not about Moko, as Mr Bowers says, but rather a sidebar discussing the highest profile child death this year, the public outcry it prompted and why the paper had revisited a seven year-old story that would otherwise have long ago lost its news value.

[18] As for the other reasons behind Kim’s actions that “only family knew of”, the very fact the family has chosen not to discuss them publicly means Fairfax cannot be condemned for not reporting them. Dudding did approach a family member and asked to speak to more, but was told they would not welcome his approach.

[19] As painful as it must be for Mr Bowers to have the death of his nephew and sister again discussed in public, the Council does not accept Fairfax was digging “dirt” or should be censured for revisiting this tragedy. The story - especially in the context of a series trying to learn the lessons of the past and New Zealand’s terrible record of violence against children - is one of high public interest and these events, in part, belong to all New Zealanders.

[20] However heartfelt Mr Bower’s plea on behalf of grieving families, they cannot practically or ethically be given a veto over such stories. For a start, families do not always speak with one mind and drawing a consistent line, beyond which a family’s trauma would be too great and they should have the right to stop publication, would be impossible.

[21] Most significantly, so long as the media acts within established ethical principles, the public interest in media freedom simply too high. Transparency around criminal and mental health issues is fundamental to an open society; the privilege to report without fear or favour includes reporting without the fear of offending or upsetting; and the importance of being able to learn from tragedy so that other tragedy may be prevented will almost always over-ride even the most terrible personal grief.

[22] The complaint is not upheld.

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