Case Number: 773

Council Meeting: February 2000

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

The Press Council has upheld part of a complaint against the Sunday Star-Times, stemming from its use of a photograph of a homeless man to accompany an article on poverty and wealth in New Zealand.

For several weeks in 1999, the Sunday Star-Times published a series of surveys with the general title "The State We're In." In part 10 of the series, the theme "Rich and Poor" was developed in a long article, headed on its first page "For Richer or Poorer" and on its second "Lifestyles of Rich and Poor." The article was accompanied by three photographs. The first, on the front page showed the rear view of a man, dressed in ragged clothing, carrying in his left hand a bucket containing some simple possessions and in his right, a sleeping roll. The photo was captioned "Class Act, Are The Poor Getting Poorer?" The second photograph, over the main heading of the article, was an enlarged but truncated version of the first, showing that it had been taken as the man crossed a city street. And the third, narrow and indistinct, showed a pair of shoes and was captioned "A homeless man takes a break from his shoes. Meanwhile the gap between New Zealand's rich and poor gets bigger." The article made no references to the man. On 26 November Sandra Page of Wellington wrote to the editor about the use of the photographs of the homeless man. She identified him by a first name who, she said, lived in a cave in Wellington and after having wealth and position, had renounced possessions and refused income support. She felt that the Sunday Star-Times should tell its readers the true details about him, rather than leave the impression that he was the victim of the circumstances examined in the article. And, with some asperity she outlined difficulties that she, as a homeless person, had encountered in seeking assistance.

On 6 December the correspondence editor of the paper replied that it did not intend to publish the letter or to take the points she had made any further. This drew a complaint to the Press Council from Miss Page. With this she enclosed two letters, published by the Sunday Star-Times asking whether the man in the photographs was aware they were to be used as they were, whether he had given his permission, and whether the paper had given him any assistance. In a footnote, the editor had given no specific reply, but said that since the paper dealt with real people, it had illustrated the gap between rich and poor with a real person. Miss Page asked why those letters had been published and hers not, particularly since she knew who the subject of the photographs was. She felt it was insulting to really poor people to suggest that his photograph was truly representative of them. And she expressed concern that a newspaper could take and publish such photographs without permission or knowledge of the person involved. Where, she asked, did the Privacy Act apply? On 22 December, the editor informed the Press Council that the photographs had been used to illustrate the article's treatment of the widening gap between rich and poor. The man was not shown front on and his name was not used. The fact that he was well-known in Wellington added to the weight of the article and fortified the paper's policy of using real people to enhance its aim of promoting debate on social issues. The man himself had not complained. The editor said also that Miss Page's letter was not published, because it was vitriolic, added nothing to the debate, and was too long.

On 12 January Miss Page rejected the characterisation of her letter. She said the man was not the appropriate person to symbolise people made poor by government policies and other factors covered in the article. She challenged the editor to fulfil her claim to deal with real people. Even if his photograph had been taken from the rear, he was easily recognisable to people in Wellington. Why then did the editor not want to know about his identity ? He was not just someone to be used by a newspaper but a human being with a name and a story behind it. She also suggested the editor had other reasons for rejecting her letter. To this, the editor rejoined that she was not interested in doing a story about him or relying on information from a person she did not know. The photographs had been used to illustrate the theme of the article and his face was not shown. Whether people had decided to be poor or not was beyond the scope of the article. She repeated her reasons for not printing Miss Page's letter.

The Press Council considered three elements in Miss Page's complaint. It concluded that there was no obligation on the editor to publish Miss Page's letter, particularly because of its length. Nor was there any obligation on the paper to provide its readers with what Miss Page contended were the true facts of the man's homelessness. However, members of the Press Council felt that a larger issue underlay the paper's decision, without reference to the person concerned, to publish the photographs for their symbolic power in evoking the condition of the poor and homeless. It was noted during discussion that the complaint lost some of its weight through being presented by a third party rather than by the subject of the photograph. Several members of the Council stressed the importance of photographs in enhancing the news. Newspapers take photographs of members of the public in many situations, and use them in ways that do not allow contact with or approval by the persons portrayed. This is especially so where photographs relate to current topics and their news value lies in their immediacy of their use. But, in this instance of the homeless man, vivid and moving photographs were used to illustrate the theme of a serious article that had obviously required careful preparation. Time was not a factor.

Members of the Council concluded therefore, that the Sunday Star-Times should have looked beyond the symbolic significance of the photographs to the man beneath and should have accorded him the dignity of being consulted over the use it intended to make of them. In this respect the Council felt that the paper had been at fault and upheld this part of the complaint.