MATTIAS WALLNER AGAINST STUFF AND SOUTHLAND TIMES

Case Number: 2576

Council Meeting: APRIL 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Photographs
Privacy
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

Overview

Mattias Wallner of Christchurch has complained about a photograph he saw in the Stuff website showing an upturned car under a bus shortly before the car caught fire, causing the death of its two occupants. The vehicles had collided on the Milford Rd near Te Anau. The photograph was taken by a witness and used byThe Southland Times in its coverage of the accident.

The Complaint

1. Mr Wallner believes the photograph offends two of the Press Council’s principles: Principle 2 governing privacy which states, “Those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration”, and Principle 10 concerning photographs which says those “showing distressing or shocking situations should be handled with special consideration for those affected”.

2. He finds the picture very upsetting as it was accompanied by the information in the story that the two people in the car were at that point still alive but about to be burned to death. The accompanying report said, “Witnesses tried to free the trapped men, who are said to have survived the initial impact, before the car burst into flames, killing both of them.”

3. The report was also accompanied by photographs of the two named men, young tourists from Germany, taken sometime earlier.

4. Mr Wallner complains that as a person who did not know the deceased, “I can only imagine the emotional stress and horror an image like this will cause family and friends, seeing the car with their loved ones in it moments before they are to die by fire.”

5. As the picture shows nobody yet helping the occupants of the car, “and the photographer obviously feeling that taking a picture of the scene was more important that checking on the people in the car or assisting people off the bus, I feel it does nothing to add to the message of humanity nor road safety.”

6. Mr Wallner believes the picture did not need to be published and only added horror to one of the most horrible deaths imaginable.

The Response

7. The Deputy Editor of Stuff, Janine Fenwick, said the photograph of the crash scene was given special consideration for the impact “these unquestionably confronting images would have on viewers and those close to the victims”. However, it was “without doubt a horrific accident (and) we cannot shy away from reporting on news because it may offend.”

8. It was “a striking and newsworthy image”. The decision to publish was based on the public interest in road safety. Road fatalities involving tourists, in Fiordland and elsewhere, were a serious issue and, “accurate and unstinting coverage is an essential part of this national discussion”.

9. On the principle of privacy, the Deputy Editor pointed out the occupants of the car were not visible in any way in the photograph. Mr Wallner was not an affected party in the story. His privacy was not breached and the victim’s families have not complained.

10. When the Twin Towers in New York collapsed, the footage indirectly showed the deaths of hundreds of people, as did images of buildings collapsing in the Christchurch earthquake and explosions at the Pike River mine. It is the news media’s responsibility to report on the horrific consequences of mistakes on the road. Photographs of crashes carry a more powerful road safety message than words alone.

The Decision

11. The Press Council is aware newspapers exercise extreme care with photographs of dead human bodies and rarely publish them unless the bodies are completely covered. The same care ought to be taken when a person is pictured falling to their death or in any situation where death is imminent.

12. In this case the two people trapped in the car and about to die were not visible in the photograph. The complainant was upset not by the picture alone but by the information accompanying it. He is concerned for the distress this may have caused to relatives of the those killed when the car subsequently caught fire. The relatives have not brought a complaint.

13. If the photograph was simply of a car about to catch fire with people inside, the decision in this case might be different, but this photograph showed the car upside down under a bus. It was a powerful, telling image of the collision and what can happen in a road accident. It is in the public interest that this sort of consequence can be seen.

14. In the Council’s view the photograph was no less likely to have been published if the occupants of the car had managed to escape. The photograph was not gratuitous image of impending death and the report did not dwell on the shocking element of the accompanying picture.

15. In the Council’s view the privacy of those suffering grief is not in question here, the case is a matter for Principle 10 governing the care to be taken with photographs showing people in distressing or shocking situations. That principle does not mean photographs of distressing or shocking situations should never be published. In this case, the Council accepts the editor’s assurance that due care was taken and agrees with the editor, the publication was in the public interest. The complaint is not upheld.

Two members of the Press Council Jenny Farrell and Chris Darlow dissented from this decision and would have upheld the complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Ruth Buddicom, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.