PETER SCOTT AGAINST THE DEVONPORT FLAGSTAFF

Case Number: 2593

Council Meeting: JUNE 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Devonport Flagstaff

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Confidentiality
Photographs
Privacy

Overview

A picture framer whose shop and home were damaged by a deliberately lit fire complained about coverage of the event inThe Devonport Flagstaff published on April 7, 2017.

The Complaint

Peter Scott, proprietor of The Picture Framers of Devonport alleged his local newspaper’s reportage and editorial comment about a fire which damaged his shop and residence was inaccurate, breached his privacy, mixed comment and fact, breached confidentiality and also breached principles on the use of photographs.

He was upset the paper’s reportage and editorial suggested the fire had been deliberately lit and that he may have been specifically targeted rather than, as he contended, the result of some random vandalism in the area.

Mr Scott said that when he was approached by the newspaper’s reporter on the morning after the fire, he told her he had nothing to say.

He said she ignored his request not to photograph him or his property and he later rang the paper to tell them he had nothing to say and did not want photos of him or his home printed. He asked it not to publish his name, address and phone number.

Mr Scott also said the paper had delved into his life and had re-victimised him when the reporter rang his friends and neighbours. The story was sensational and comment made in the editor’s column in the same paper, which noted he was a man who held strong views, had suggested that somebody was trying to get at him and the editor had taken the opportunity to damage his name.

The reporter’s actions were intrusive. It had been a harrowing experience and dealing with the editor’s insensitive probing and lies had been extremely distressing.

The Response

The Devonport Flagstaff editor Rob Drent said that as far as he could tell the facts of the story printed in the paper were not disputed by Mr Scott.

When the reporter approached Mr Scott on the morning of the fire he told her he did not want to talk to her because the paper had previously published a story about vandalism of his building.

She accepted that, spoke to a police officer and took eight photos of the scene from the street as she had a right to do. The sequence of eight photos she took on her phone that morning was sent to the Press Council to show that she had not photographed Mr Scott.

The building was in the main street of Devonport and the phone number for Mr Scott’s business had been on the side of the building for many years.

Questioning nearby residents after a fire or accident was standard news gathering practice and there was a suggestion that Mr Scott had been rescued from the house.

The Devonport fire station officer Ken Lousley mentioned Peter Scott by name more than three times and the fact he was on the premises when the fire was lit was central to the story.

Mr Scott was well known in the area where he had run his picture framing business for at least two decades. It would have been nonsensical not to name him.

In publishing the story the paper was following the basic tenets of news reporting.

As for comment in the paper’s editorial column, this was opinion clearly separate from the news coverage. The comment that Mr Scott was a forthright character was based on occasional calls and messages left on the paper’s answerphone.

The Decision

The paper ran a straightforward report of a fire which caused significant damage to Mr Scott’s premises. The Fire Service said it was deliberately lit using paper and an accelerant. In an editorial column on another page the editor said he was appalled that Mr Scott’s business may have been targeted and hoped the offenders would be caught.

While Mr Scott did not wish to comment, as was his right, this did not mean he could restrict the paper’s reportage of an important local news event. His premises front onto a street and the signage, which advertises his business and its phone number, are on the street frontage. That signage was an unexceptional element of a photo showing police gathering evidence at the scene and it disclosed no more information than would have been visible to anybody walking down the street.

Mr Scott was understandably distressed by the fire and he clearly did not welcome the publicity but advanced nothing in his complaint supporting his claims that the paper was inaccurate, breached his privacy, or breached confidentiality.

The paper correctly judged that the publication was a matter of public interest that outweighed Mr Scott’s right to privacy.

It also clearly separated its news coverage and its editorial comment. The views expressed in the editorial were sympathetic and we do not believe readers would see them as a slur as Mr Scott contended.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, and Tim Watkin.

Mark Stevens stood down to maintain the public member majority.