PAUL FLEMING AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2158

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2010

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Defamation/Damaging To Reputation

Paul Fleming is upset about the way a reporter from The Press conducted a phone interview with his wife. He says his wife, who is French, spoke English but misunderstood the reporter's intent. Mr Fleming says the reporter failed to ensure his wife had 100 per cent understanding of what the interview would be used for. He is also concerned about the article’s potential to create problems for their small business.

The complaint is not upheld.

Background
Mr Fleming and his wife, Martine Carpentier, operate a Christchurch shop selling tobacco products. A Press reporter phoned because of planned changes to New Zealand's tobacco laws. The call was prompted by the release of a report by Parliament's Maori affairs select committee.

The next day (November 4 2010) a report appeared in The Press quoting his wife's name and that of their shop. The one-paragraph reference to Ms Carpentier and the shop appeared at the end of a more substantive report about the select committee's findings.

Complainant's View
Mr Fleming said his wife told the reporter English was her second language, yet the reporter did not make extra effort to ensure she "understood 100 per cent" or ask for her consent that her details be used.

Mr Fleming said that, during the call, his wife told the reporter three times that he (Mr Fleming) was the principal partner and that the reporter should speak to him. He said this should have happened as English is natural for him, whereas it was a second language for his wife. However, the reporter did not speak to him

"If Martine had been made fully aware that this was going to happen then she would never have allowed it, or only on condition of anonymity." He and his wife considered this "a gross breach of professionalism".

The story had no consideration for his wife's right to privacy and/or giving consent to having her name and details published without her express consent. Because of the anti-tobacco laws neither he nor his wife would have been willing to put their names or that of their shop to such a newspaper report.

"'Assumed' consent may, dubiously, be OK with native English speakers but definitely is totally inadequate with non-native speakers."

He said the newspaper report could create large problems for their small business because of stringent anti-tobacco laws, especially as far as advertising was concerned.

The Newspaper’s Response
Editor Andrew Holden said it was a routine phone interview. The reporter called, gave her name and that of The Press, and explained the purpose of the call. She asked Martine Carpentier if she were the owner and was told that she and her husband ran the shop. The reporter explained the select committee's proposal, which included making tobacco illegal by 2025, and asked what Ms Carpentier thought of the idea. The interview lasted a few minutes, Ms Carpentier spoke easily in English, and the reporter felt there was no language barrier.

Mr Holden said Ms Carpentier asked if the reporter wanted to speak to her husband and said that he would be back the next day. "The reporter replied that, because the report had been released that day, the newspaper would be running the story the next day."

The reporter then asked for the spelling of her name. (In previous e-mail correspondence with Mr Fleming, the newspaper said the reporter told her the story could not wait another day, and that Ms Carpentier had then spelt out her name.)

Mr Holden said the reporter's recollection was that Ms Carpentier never said the reporter had to speak to her husband, or that she did not want to be quoted, "or in any way indicated that she did not understand she was speaking to a journalist".

He did not believe The Press had acted unprofessionally. The resultant published material was an accurate and fair account of the conversation. Ms Carpentier's privacy and confidentiality were not breached and no discrimination was involved. The reporter had extensive experience of dealing with people for whom English was a second language.

Complainant's Reply
Mr Fleming said the editor had avoided the main issue of whether the reporter had clearly and openly asked for consent for a quote to be used. Assent had been assumed, which was unprofessional and unethical.

Discussion and Decision
Mr Fleming says The Press should have taken greater pains to explain the purpose of the interview because English is not his wife's usual language. However, The Press says it was a routine interview, accurately reported, with the reporter correctly introducing herself and the newspaper, and explaining why comment was being sought. The reporter did not feel any language barrier was involved, as Ms Carpentier spoke easily in English. The reporter is also accustomed to talking to people for whom English is a second language (by no means common in New Zealand). No subterfuge was involved.

Mr Fleming says consent to the interview was "assumed" and is upset by that. However, Ms Carpentier spelt her name to the reporter, after being told the reporter needed comments then and could not wait till Mr Fleming would be available. There is no suggestion of any comments being made "off the record" or not for publication as would have been expected if Ms Carpentier did not want to be quoted.

The published reference to Ms Carpentier and the shop was also small and not the main thrust of the newspaper's report.

The Press appears to have carried out its duties in a responsible manner.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.