Case Number: 958

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2003

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Bay of Plenty Times

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of

Sue Furey and Kathryn Atvars complained about an article in the Bay of Plenty Times on Saturday, August 9, 2003, which was headed "160kmh driver was taking cocktail of pills for migraine". The article was the report of an inquest into the death of Mrs Margaret McCausland in a car crash in the Bay of Plenty in April.

The Press Council has not upheld the complaint.

The article reported the pathologist's and witnesses' comments referring to the painkillers and sedatives Mrs McCausland had been prescribed and the effect of those on her life, with evidence of her driving at the time of the accident which caused her death. There was also reference to her Housing New Zealand work and the coroner's ruling that death was the result of multiple injuries sustained in the crash.

An incorrect photograph was run with the story which the paper quickly admitted in a paragraph headed Wrong Photo and published prominently with apologies in the page where the original story had appeared.

The two complainants originally wrote to the general manager and copied to the editor. The procedural error of writing firstly to the general manager instead of the editor was satisfactorily corrected.

They expressed their upset at the story, enclosing letters and comment from "many people from varying walks of life in this community who were deeply disturbed and outraged by this article."
They also asked for a meeting with the general manager and editor, and after this took place the editor wrote offering to publish a letter with the name of the author (not multiple signatories) regarding their concerns over the paper's coverage of the inquest. He accepted that many people were hurt by the story but defended the paper's right to publish a truthful account of an inquest.

The formula letter, copied by many who signed it individually, indicated an arranged campaign of comment to the newspaper. But the correspondents had a genuine concern that the paper had sensationalised a negative report. The letter said that by highlighting only the personal and private health problems, the story had painted an inaccurate picture of a very exceptional woman whose achievement in establishing and improving rural Maori housing, and contributing to community organisations and programmes, was outstanding.

The complaint to the Press Council cited inaccuracy in the report of the inquest, invasion of the privacy of the McCausland family at a time of trauma and grief, confusion of comment and fact, the headline as an emotive interpretation and an incorrect photograph.

The editor acknowledged the error with the photograph but otherwise stood by the report. After the meeting with the complainants, he wrote to Kathryn Atvars agreeing with her concern to rebuild bridges between the community and the newspaper.

This complaint is almost about two stories. The report of the inquest is the focus of the complaint, but a constant theme is the plea for another story as a fitting eulogy for Margaret McCausland, one which would underline her selfless community service and counterbalance the tragic circumstances in which she died.

To deal with the individual parts of the complaint which cited Press Council principles, on the actual reporting of what was said by witnesses, the fact the hearing was not private and also a matter of public interest relating to causes of the road toll in the Bay of Plenty, the paper could not fudge its duty or soften the reality of what was stated in evidence. The references to Margaret McCausland's drug prescriptions and their effect, and the witness estimates of the speed she was travelling at, were all stated in open court and so form a natural if unhappy part of a court story.

The headline used refers simply to the comments made at the inquest and reflects the horrific nature of the tragic accident and its surrounding circumstances. The place for a commendatory headline is on another story about Margaret McCausland's achievements. That the photograph was wrong was quickly acknowledged by the paper and corrected.

It is a pity that a letter from the concerned correspondents could not appear because of the paper's unduly restrictive single-signature policy - what happens if three doctors sign a compelling letter about strains within the local health service, for example?

Equally, there was a chance, which the newspaper seems to have missed, to satisfy obvious community interest in the personality and work of Margaret McCausland. It could have published a solid feature on the woman whose life ended so sadly and abruptly, but whose impact on the people she helped was enduring.

However, the article in question can stand alone as a report of a coroner's inquest, although its isolation as a story that fails to recognise an important and larger context gave rise to this complaint.

The complaint is not upheld