NEW ZEALAND COLLEGE OF MIDWIVES AGAINST WAIKATO TIMES

Case Number: 2275

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waikato Times

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Introduction
The New Zealand College of Midwives (NZCOM) complains that an article which originated on the front page of the Waikato Times on 24 May 2012 breached the Council’s principles of accuracy, fairness and balance, privacy and comment and fact. The article was republished in substantially the same terms in The Dominion Post and on the Stuff website and the complaint extends to those republications.

The complaint is not upheld.

The Article
The article, together with a related article on the family of the deceased, occupied the complete front page of the newspaper and was headed:
Birth tragedy takes mum and son
The standfirst which appeared alongside a photograph of the mother and her partner read:
A coroner has launched an investigation into how things went so wrong for first-time mother… Meanwhile, her grieving family mourns the end of two short lives.
There was a table between the standfirst and the photograph which noted the mother’s age, that she died six hours after birth and that the midwife had less than 18 months training.
The article was in many respects factual and included comments from members of both families and a father whose son died after a botched birth. It noted that the midwife had less than 18 months experience, having graduated at the end of 2010. It included:
Her family is now questioning whether that was a factor in their ‘loving’ girl’s death.
“We are talking about inadequate supervision of a recent graduate to midwifery… We have seen the recent reporting of something similar in Hamilton – we want to prevent this, we don’t want this to happen to anyone else – it has to stop here” said the deceased’s uncle.
A further quotation from the uncle was noted:
Our hearts and our sentiments go out to the birthing centre – but we are grieving too.
The grandmother was quoted as saying that the family was now waiting for the outcome of an autopsy to find the cause of the mother’s death.

The Complaint
The reasons given in support of the Complaint were, and we quote:
• Reference to midwife having less than 18 months experience identified actual midwife to many persons as there is no one else of that description in Huntly.
• Level of experience of midwife implicated in deaths of persons under her care. Inaccurate unfair and unbalanced as no factual basis for this particular midwife and her age a factor at all or relevant in deaths.
• Absence of any information to balance reference to level of experience being cause of death – in contrast to the statement in same article that hospital staff made “best efforts”.
• Failure to distinguish comment and fact – inaccurate unfair and unbalanced – statement “we are talking about inadequate supervision of a recent graduate to midwifery… We have seen the recent reporting of something similar in Hamilton – we want to prevent this, we don’t want this to happen to anyone else – it has to stop here”. Again inaccurate. No factual basis that midwife inadequately supervised. No factual basis that this was “something similar” to Hamilton case.
• No attempt to obtain/publish other information on standard of care given by health professional.
• No attempt to contact midwife for her comment.
In its complaint to the Council, the NZCOM claimed it was premature and unfair to refer to the midwife’s experience as a possible factor in deaths when there was no information that this was relevant to the cause of death. Further, it was unfair to identify the midwife before the investigation commenced. Finally, it was said that the midwife and other health professionals are prevented by legal ethical rules from commenting on the case and are prejudiced by not being able to respond.

The Newspaper’s Response
The editor of the Waikato Times replied on behalf of all publications. He gave some context to the article in that the article appeared 19 days after the coroner published his findings following the death of another Waikato baby. In his report, the coroner identified a series of failures which led to that death.
The allegation of a failure to distinguish comment and fact was not correct because the passage referred to was a quote from a family member who was entitled to have his honest opinions on matters of public interest aired in a public forum.
It was not unfair to include the comments of the father of the other baby who had been subject to the coroner’s report. It was in the public interest to include his comments in the story.
The newspaper had not implied that inadequate supervision led to the mother and child’s death. In fact, it quoted the grandmother as saying that the family was in the dark awaiting the outcome of the autopsy and that the deceased didn’t have a pre-existing medical condition that the family knew about. That was what the family needed to find out.
The newspaper detailed the steps which the reporter took to obtain a response from the midwife. She phoned the midwife but a voicemail message advised that the midwife was on annual leave and requested that she call a colleague. When the colleague was called and the reporter identified herself, the colleague hung up. The reporter then went to the birth centre and asked for the manager but was told she was unavailable. She left her card and asked for the manager to call her but the manager never did.
ln respect of the identification complaint, the editor noted that there was no impediment to publishing the name of the midwife but he chose not to do so because he believed her safety may have been imperilled if he did so.

Discussion
The newspaper did not breach the principle relating to comment and fact. The allegation by the NZCOM referred to opinions which were clearly stated as opinions in the article.
It is not correct that the newspaper did not attempt to contact the midwife. The midwife may not have been able to respond but her colleague, with whom the reporter spoke, did not explain this and hung up. The silence of the medical profession and, in this case, the midwife, can not be a barrier to a newspaper publishing a matter of public interest.
The Council’s privacy principle states that the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public interest. The editor’s decision not to name the midwife showed consideration to the midwife.
The public interest in this case did entitle the newspaper to refer to the midwife’s experience. It noted that the family was questioning whether this was a factor in the mother’s death and it was entitled to report this.
The Council notes with concern the tone of the editor’s response to the letter of complaint sent to him by the complainant. The comment that he found “your complaints vexatious in the extreme” is not an appropriate response to a complaint of this nature.

Decision
The Council finds no breach of its principles. The complaints against Waikato Times, The Dominion Post and Stuff are not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Peter Fa’afiu, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.

Sandy Gill and Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.