Case Number: 920

Council Meeting: MARCH 2003

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Mountain Scene

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Balance, Lack Of

Southland District Health Board has complained to the New Zealand Press Council about an article in Mountain Scene published last December. The complaint is part-upheld.

The article, headed The $50 Stitch, told the experience of two young Queenstown people who had sought medical treatment at Lakes District Hospital for a lacerated toe to be told that the after-hours charge was $50.

The DHB disputed the accuracy of the article and complained directly to Mountain Scene editor Philip Chandler within a day or two but the paper’s decision not to correct the report brought both parties to the Press Council.

Board public affairs manager Eirwen Tulett said that the community paper knew, or ought to have known, that, starting on December 1 – 11 days before the toe incident – new 24-hours emergency medical services had been introduced by way of what she referred to as an “expansion” of the hospital’s services.

Local media outlets had been sent a statement on December 3 advising them that those expanded services meant the DHB had employed staff doctors to provide round-the-clock in-patient and emergency care five nights a week; on the other two nights when staff doctors were rostered off, local GPs would provide on-call cover after midnight.

Mrs Tulett said that as part of the agreement, the DHB had allowed local doctors to run their private after-hours urgent-doctor service between 6pm and midnight from the hospital’s premises, rather than from their various practices sited around town, as had earlier been the case. Usual fees would be charged.

She complained that the report was unbalanced and inaccurate, and that Mountain Scene refused to correct it.

At the heart of this dispute between the DHB, based in Invercargill, and the feisty community newspaper run from Queenstown is a matter of considerable importance and interest to the Government, local communities and health professionals – the provision of public health services and how they will be paid for.

Some history: until last December, the DHB employed no doctors at Lakes District Hospital; medical expertise was provided by local GPs. When they threatened to discontinue their services unless they were paid more, the board opted to employ three doctors at the hospital. At the same time, it negotiated with local GPs for them to run their own private, after-hours urgent-doctor service between 6pm and midnight, from the hospital premises.

It was just days into this arrangement that Mountain Scene carried the report that angered the DHB.

The Press Council was provided with considerable written evidence from both parties, evidence that in the Council’s view showed that in essence, a simple breakdown in communication on the day that the paper went to press had been largely responsible for the serious difference of opinion.

Further, it is the Council’s position that the health board was economical with the facts when it announced the changes to after-hours services at Lakes District Hospital from December 1.

Mrs Tulett might be right that Mr Chandler should have known enough about the so-called “turf war” between the board and local GPs to have understood the import of the DHB’s December 3 press release, given that he had reported the turf war last September.

But the Council cannot fault Mountain Scene for not penetrating to its core the message behind the December 3 press release – that a public-private partnership had been negotiated, which involved private health practitioners, GPs, charging for services provided in hospital premises and that this had come about after serious negotiations between the board and GPs in Queenstown.

Had the DHB been more forthcoming in its December announcement about the implications of the new after-hours arrangement – and the Council can understand from the information put before it why it chose a softly-softly approach – Mountain Scene might have published a very different article.

That part of the complaint is not upheld.

However, the Council believes that Mountain Scene should have acknowledged the DHB’s point of view in a follow-up report, which would almost certainly have become another good news story.

To refuse to publish a correction – or a clarifying article – on the grounds that an editor disagrees with the tone of a complaint is not, in the Council’s view, sound ethical practice.

This part of the complaint is upheld.