Case Number: 911

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2003

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: That's Life

Ruling Categories: Privacy

A woman has complained to the New Zealand Press Council about her privacy being breached by the publication of a story in the weekly magazine That's Life, which originates in Australia and has a New Zealand edition. The story, told from the point of view of a woman reader, is about an affair that the complainant had with the woman's husband. The story was bylined "True Story as told to Kate Parsons."

The Press Council has upheld the complaint on the grounds that there was a breach of Principle 3 of the Council's Statement of Principles which relates to respect for people's privacy.

That's Life, at the lower end of spectrum of magazine publishing, entices readers to supply their "true stories", tempting them with money and invitations to tell "have you been betrayed?" ($400), "your secret story" ($300), to "pay tribute to a special person" ($400) or tell "about your relationship" ($150). A simple coupon ("It all began like this…"; "Then this crucial event happened…"; "It ended like this…") allows readers to supply basic details which are filled out by a magazine ghost writer.

Complainant M (to avoid further breach of her privacy) says the publication of her first name and a photograph of her have led to her being identified by colleagues, friends and family. She acknowledges having had the affair and tells of her feelings of guilt since "the betrayal", but says her alcoholism and emotional difficulties at the time made her vulnerable, and that the husband of her friend wanted the affair.

The Press Council's Principle 3 says publications should respect people's entitlement to privacy of person, space and personal information, although that entitlement should not interfere with the publication of matters of public record or of obvious significant public interest. Neither of these conditions applies here. The complainant is not a public figure, and while there may be public curiosity about this private domestic drama it is hard to see significant public interest being served by its publication. This personal story was not a matter of prior public record.

The editor explained that to ensure the article was accurate the full text was read back to the woman who supplied the story details and who confirmed it was "a fair and accurate account" of what happened, as did her family members. That is as absurd as saying criticism of a magazine was correct because it was read back to the critic who affirmed that the criticism was accurate.

The photograph complained of was taken by consent at a time when the story's main players were still friends, and was not misleading, nor offensive or objectionable, the editor said. In soliciting stories from readers, the magazine says: "Photos are an important part of That's Life. There's a better chance of your story being used if you enclose some." It's clear the magazine is undiscriminating in its acceptance of photo offers, not limiting the choice to photos of the reader supplying the story.

As a standard disclaimer, the editor said the story was not intended to offend or embarrass the complainant, her friends or family, and offered to publish the complainant's side of the story for the same fee, a commendable corrective which yet seems exploitative, and scarcely protective of privacy.

The "First Person Story" is a recognisable format, especially in magazines: Reader's Digest has published its heroic adventure, or "narrow escape" "first person" accounts for decades; personal oral history is a valuable part of a nation's archives. Although there is no balancing view of events, the direct, dramatic nature of one person's experiences would be diminished if their views and story were constantly interrupted by another person's corrective statements.

But while such stories can appear singly focused to the readers, it should be incumbent on the editor prior to publication to ensure there is accuracy, balance and fairness and no breach of privacy, by virtue of checks that are carried out with any parties affected, not just the first-person narrator.

Such articles may accurately reflect what has happened from one person's point of view but accuracy can rarely be assured on the account of a single eyewitness. If there is doubt, the Australian Press Council has even recommended that editors seek a legally binding affidavit from the reader supplying the story.

People willing to expose their personal life to public gaze have presumably thought of the consequences; the consequences for third parties caught up in this exposure may not have been weighed equally. The person who sells story may also not be acting from the most altruistic of motives and those with an axe to grind may use a magazine invitation to tell their story for their own purposes. Therefore, editors need to be aware of the dangers of this kind of voyeurism.