Case Number: 1012

Council Meeting: MARCH 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Herald On Sunday

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

The National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges has complained about an article in the Herald on Sunday edition of October 10, 2004. The article was headed “Moment of rage led to heartbreak”, and the standfirst said, “They were college sweethearts with their lives in front of them. But one moment of madness changed their futures forever.”

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

The article told how a 20-year-old man had left an Auckland house after an argument which had resulted in his wife, aged 19, suffering head and neck injuries that led to her being hospitalised. The man died after he got into his car with his one-year-old child unrestrained in the front seat “and careered into a tree, ending it all in a flash.” The newspaper reported that he had taken off “in a blind rage” with his daughter. The child survived.

The report went on to quote an uncle talking about his nephew in a family context, about his sports achievements and the fact that he and his wife met at high school and were married a year after they left school. The newspaper reported on the man’s funeral and quoted the pastor saying that the couple were college sweethearts, that the man was a real gentle giant who did not get into trouble at school. The pastor said people were puzzled about what was going on in the man’s mind and about what went wrong.

The article also said at the time of the man’s death the couple were living in separate houses. It quoted the police confirming that difficulties in the relationship had been the reason for the man’s actions that morning.

In a letter to the editor, the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges criticised the story as biased and unbalanced, saying the story was clearly sympathetic to a man who had injured his wife so badly that she needed hospital treatment and who had driven his car at high speed with his daughter unrestrained in the front seat.

The letter said the story failed to answer questions about who inflicted the wife’s injuries, if the man was such a good father why he drove with his daughter unrestrained, how often the woman and her daughter had been the victim of the husband’s violence, how many times the police had been called to the house and the extent of the child’s injuries.

The Collective set out their view of what they contended happened, concluding that readers deserved to have “those facts provided to them and to be given an accurate and balanced account of the story.” The Collective asserted that the reporter’s intention was to make readers feel sorry for the dead man.

“Men who assault their partners and endanger their children are not ‘gentle giants’ or loving fathers, they are abusive and violent. A violent incident such as this one is almost never ‘a moment of madness’. Research shows that a violent assault is almost always part of a pattern…The sympathetic portrayal of this man in your story supports the view that it is acceptable for men experiencing relationship difficulties to assault their wives and put their children at risk.”

In the absence of a response from the editor to this letter, the Collective lodged a third-party complaint to the Press Council. The complaint reiterated their concerns expressed to the editor, saying the story misled readers by omission of facts, was sympathetic to the dead man but did not give facts to support this stance and minimised the violence the mother and child suffered.

The then-editor Suzanne Chetwin responded that the newspaper stood by what was a legitimate news story, and that readers could draw their own conclusions about the man's actions and behaviour. She noted that the story had been in the headlines for several days and that the facts had been fairly well reported.

She said the Collective’s accusation of the newspaper being “unacceptably sympathetic” to the man was not the case at all, and should not be confused with legitimately quoting family members of the man or the pastor who conducted the funeral service.

“Had we been able to obtain full details of the relationship between the pair – as we attempted to do - we would have reported them.” The newspaper’s attempts to get to the bottom of the physical dispute between the couple were unsuccessful.

The Collective did not accept the response from the editor, particularly taking issue with the tone of the article. “The National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges is speaking as advocates for domestic violence victims. Domestic violence is an epidemic in this country and newspapers have a responsibility to report that without minimising or romanticising the actions of a violent man.”

The subsequent editor, Shayne Currie, replied that the newspaper attempted to contact both sides of the family but was left having to speak to people at the funeral. For example, he said the term “gentle giant” was directly attributed to the pastor and it was not the newspaper’s job to suppress others’ views.

Two forces seem to be at work here. The National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges, in criticising the story, talks about balance, but is really deciding what emphasis should have been employed. The newspaper, while defending the story, has actually trapped itself in a sentimental scenario of college sweethearts, tragedy and “heartbreak” to quote the headline, fairly typical of tabloid-style journalism. The newspaper did select the views of the people quoted, and the story as published swerves from any detailed examination of a more complex picture which might upset the original imagery.

Although newspapers invariably approach each new story on its merits, the Collective as advocates for domestic violence victims clearly feels in any story of domestic violence, whatever the circumstances, there should be a full and blanket denunciation.

In this case the newspaper does not go far enough to breach actual standards of accuracy or balance - there is enough reference to the domestic dispute, the police and the circumstances of the man’s death to reveal some of the background to the story, even if not providing the show of disapproval and condemnation the Collective would have liked.

But the newspaper is not entirely without fault. Sunday newspapers search vigorously for new angles to stories covered as news during the week. Even if various facts had already appeared, about the child’s serious injuries, for instance, their re-use in this article would have made it more well-rounded. Here the newspaper appears captive to the particular angle chosen to freshen a week-old story, perhaps driven on by the heart-tugging prose of the opening paragraph, “A single framed photograph – a solitary reminder of a fairytale love. Now the smiles are gone and all that remains is grief and tears.”

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Jeffries (Chairman), Suzanne Carty, Aroha Puata, Alan Samson, Denis McLean, Murray Williams, Keith Lees and Terry Snow.