PAUL COOPER AGAINST MANAWATU STANDARD

Case Number: 2313

Council Meeting: MARCH 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Manawatu Evening Standard

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Children and Young People
Court Reporting

The complainant's elderly father is in a Palmerston North rest home where he was robbed by a staff member who took his eftpos card and pin number from his room. Dr Paul Cooper complained that the Manawatu Standard interviewed his father who suffers from mild dementia and published his name and location in reports of court proceedings against the thief. The complaint was not upheld.

Dr Cooper said his father could not have given "informed consent" to the interview and the publication of his comments. He considered the newspaper had invaded his father's privacy, "revictimised" him, caused him additional stress and embarrassment and exposed him to further loss. He believed the Press Council's privacy principle should extend particular protection to the vulnerable elderly as well as the young.

After the Manawatu Standard's first report appeared on October 30, 2012, the complainant contacted the newspaper, conveyed his concerns and received an assurance from the deputy editor that his father's name would not be used in any future report of the case. However, when the offender was sentenced in January the newspaper's report again published his father's name.

In response, the editor said the name was a matter of public record and no suppression order had been made by the court. The Standard did not believe it had breached privacy, though when contacted by the complainant the newspaper had given an informal undertaking not to publish his father's name again. However, when the case came for sentencing in January the deputy editor who had given the undertaking and the court reporter were both on leave and, though the editor was aware of it, he had thought the undertaking applied only to contacting the elderly man. The editor subsequently apologised to Dr Cooper and his family.

The Press Council found the newspaper's failure to abide by its undertaking regrettable. Like the complainant, the Council was surprised that some sort of system did not alert the editor and all news staff to the undertaking not to use the name of the victim in the case when it came back to court. The editor's apology was appropriate but the underlying question remained: should newspapers give special privacy consideration to the elderly as a matter of course?

The reporter who contacted the victim of the crime had heard him described in court as "a vulnerable 84-year-old man". The complainant believed that description, along with his residence, should have alerted the newspaper to his condition. The Council disagreed; "vulnerable" could also describe a mentally competent elderly person in care. The editor said the reporter found the elderly man "lucid, friendly and happy to speak to him." At no time did the reporter have concerns that the man was unaware of what was happening. The Council noted that no mention of dementia appeared in the report published after that call.

The editor considered that a privacy rule of general application to the elderly, such as that for children, would be problematic if not impossible. All children were vulnerable but that could not be said of the elderly. He asked how a newspaper would gauge whether an elderly individual was vulnerable or not. Dr Cooper felt special consideration should be given to any group, not just the elderly, whose distress might be increased by publication of their details. He suggested age could be a "red flag" that would require newspapers to obtain informed consent and give an elderly person time to consult family or other support people.

The Press Council was reluctant to form a general principle on the facts of this case. As noted, the newspaper had no reason to think the complainant's father suffered from mild dementia when he was interviewed and his comments were published. The Council also observed that when the complainant contacted the newspaper after the report appeared he was quickly given the assurance he sought.

The Council was confident that newspapers already exercised due care when dealing with any person they have reason to believe might not be mentally competent. In the Council's view it would be impractical and unreasonable to require editors to check the competence of every old (and who would determine at what age someone is old) person, let alone every person in a possibly vulnerable "group", as Dr Cooper suggested.

But once a newspaper realises a person in the news suffers from dementia, should they publish the person's name? The editor in this case did not instinctively find dementia to be an affliction that warranted particular privacy consideration. Nor did the question of name suppression appear to have arisen in the court proceedings. Clearly dementia is not considered by the courts to warrant the automatic privacy given to victims of sexual abuse, for example.

Doubtless when a family asks that a sufferer's name be withheld, editors will normally agree to the request as readily as those in this case did. But to adopt a blanket principle for dementia would be a big step. It may seem the a name adds very little to a news report but it is important for the authenticity and reliability of news that the people involved are identified and can be verified.

The adverse consequences of the newspaper's actions in this case were explained to the editor in strict confidence and the Council considered them. The consequences did not appear to be serious enough to warrant a general rule against identifying people suffering a condition that has become more common with increasing human longevity. The complaint was not upheld but the case raised a question that possibly deserves more discussion within the industry and the wider community.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding and John Roughan.