TRISH LAMBERT AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2495

Council Meeting: MARCH 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Privacy
Taste Lack of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Trish Lambert’s complaint relates to a January 29, 2016 nzherald.co.nz article headlined “Prominent cot death researcher and paediatrician dies” marking the death of Dr Shirley Tonkin.

Dr Tonkin was the mother of Heather Tonkin who after a one night stand with Captain Mark Phillips nearly 30 years ago, had a daughter Felicity, described in the article as Philips’ “love child”. The details of those events are covered in the first five paragraphs of the original version of the article - before it moved on to other details of her life and brief details of Dr Tonkin’s life.

The Complaint

Her objection is that it included material relating to Dr Tonkin’s daughter and granddaughter that she considered spurious and disrespectful to the grieving family, a breach of privacy and unnecessary in the article.

She has complained that the article breaches the Council’s principles on privacy, accuracy, fairness and balance.

Ms Lambert did not see the original version, but only a later and longer version which added more details about Dr Tonkin’s life. She did not complain about the angle the article took but more generally about the inclusion of the material about Dr Tonkin’s daughter and granddaughter arguing it should not have been included at all “in an obituary purporting to celebrate the achievements of Dr Tonkin”.

Her objection is that it included material relating to Dr Tonkin’s daughter and granddaughter that she considered spurious and disrespectful to the grieving family, a breach of privacy and unnecessary in the article.

She has complained that the article breaches the Council’s principles on privacy, accuracy, fairness and balance.


The Response

On behalf of the NZ Herald and NZME Irene Chapple responded that the article was amended soon after publication to focus on Dr Tonkin’s personal achievements. She defended the inclusion of the material objected to, saying it was a newsworthy aspect of Dr Tonkin’s life. She pointed out that Heather Tonkin had spoken publicly about her relationship with Phillips and that in 2011 Dr Tonkin had made several comments to the media about her granddaughter, in relation to Zara Phillips’ marriage, and spoke of her granddaughter’s sporting achievements. Chapple said Dr Tonkin seemed very comfortable speaking about the topic, particularly given the time that had elapsed, and the article did not intrude on privacy or private grief.

Chapple did note that Dr Tonkin’s achievements were significant and hugely influential in New Zealand and the story was changed and “re-nosed” to lead with her personal achievements which “appropriately recognised how she should be honoured”.

Chapple also offered an apology to Ms Lambert for any unintended offence that she had taken to the original article – although Ms Lambert had not seen that version and reiterated her objection was to the material being included at all.

The Decision

On the issue of privacy, the relationship between Dr Tonkin’s daughter and Phillips, and related details of Dr Tonkin’s granddaughter, were well known for many years and in the public domain. The family, including Dr Tonkin, had from time to time commented to the media on the relationship and life of Dr Tonkin’s granddaughter. The Council finds no breach of this principle

Nor was the article unbalanced by the inclusion of those details, or inaccurate. Indeed it would have been odd and incomplete if such well-known facts were not at least mentioned. They were significant and newsworthy events linked to her life and important people in her life.

However, it is questionable whether the article should have been angled – and initially dominated – by so much detail from the life of her grand-daughter.Many editors would have handled it differently and given less prominence to the Mark Phillips' connection.

We note again though that Ms Lambert stressed she was not specifically complaining about that emphasis, or (despite the tenor of Chapple’s apology) the introduction in the original version. She had not seen that, but objected to the inclusion of the material at all.

On balance the Council believes angling the article on the link to Mark Phillips did give it an unfortunate “skew” and may serve as a warning of the dangers of rushing to mark Dr Tonkin’s passing without giving due prominence to her achievements. To some extent the NZ Herald has acknowledged this in its response, though the changes it made to the second version before the Council did not amount to it being "re-nosed to lead with her personal achievements" as claimed by Chapple. But that did not amount to unfairness to the extent that any further action is required of the Herald.

The Council does not uphold the complaint.

Marie Shroff dissented from this decision.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.