Case Number: 914

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2003

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: That's Life

Ruling Categories: Privacy

A woman has complained about the accuracy of a story and the breaching of her privacy in the weekly magazine That's Life, which originates in Australia and has a New Zealand edition. Complainant N (to avoid breaching her privacy further) referred to a first-person account by her ex-husband of their marriage and its break-up. There are four children in the family who have been the subject of custody and access disputes.

The Press Council has upheld the complaint on grounds of breach of privacy.

Complainant N said the article violated her privacy and while parts of her former husband's story were true on a very broad basis, most of it was grossly distorted. The magazine used her first name and published two photographs of the complainant without her consent. The story was bylined "True Story as told to Louise Mills".

The editor in what appears to be something of a formula response from That's Life justified the use of the photographs provided by the husband because they were not taken surreptitiously, nor were they offensive or objectionable. She also said it would be difficult to identify the complainant from the use of only her first name and the reference to a large city.

The editor also used the formulaic argument that the publication was satisfied with the accuracy of the article because it had checked it with the husband who had given them the story, and his family members were able to verify it. This suggests that reading back to a critic the content of any criticism somehow ensures the criticism is correct.

Complainant N was also concerned that an intrusive national television interview follow-up broadcast in Australia on Channel 7 was based on the magazine story, but that does not come within the purview of the Press Council. She quite reasonably suggests that That's Life should have consulted her or members of her family to get a balanced account of an arguable tale.

The Press Council is not able to choose between the version of events presented in the article or the complainant's own account. In the classic "he said / she said" scenario, more than single, competing accounts need to be examined for the truth to be arrived at.

However, there is a case that the complainant's privacy was breached. As has been mentioned in an adjudication on another complaint against That's Life, while the Press Council’s Principle 3 says the entitlement to privacy should not interfere with the publication of matters of public record or obvious significant public interest, neither of these conditions apply 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 previously a matter of public record.

The "First Person" story is a standard magazine format but, as the Press Council has stated about this kind of article, people who willingly 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 carefully. That's Life draws in readers to supply their "true stories" by tempting them with money and invitations to tell their personal stories. A coupon allows readers to supply basic details which are filled out by a magazine ghost writer.
The person who sells a story may have an axe to grind and use the magazine invitation for their own purposes. Therefore, editors need to be aware of the dangers of this kind of journalistic voyeurism.

As a standard disclaimer, the editor said the story was not intended to offend or embarrass the complainant N, her friends or family. She offered to publish the complainant's side of the story for the same fee, a seemingly commendable corrective which yet would probably compound the exploitation of N’s privacy, although the editor has somehow guaranteed that such a story would keep complainant N's current name and contact details strictly confidential.

The magazine says that photographs are an important part of its stories, and those supplying personal details about their life are more likely to have their stories published if there are accompanying photographs. But That's Life has published stories in which "all names and identifying details have been changed” and as photographic illustration has used a “re-enactment posed by model". This approach for some of the more sensitive articles might well avoid breaches of privacy in the future.