WAIKATO DISTRICT HEALTH BOARD AGAINST WAIKATO TIMES

Case Number: 2168

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2010

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waikato Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Misleading
Sensationalism

The Waikato District Health Board complained to the Press Council about a front page lead story published in the Waikato Times on 1 October 2010 under the headline Couple left ‘disgusted’. The standfirst read: “An outraged father says he was kept waiting for hours alone at Waikato Hospital after his wife gave birth and then found himself effectively accused of beating her”.

The complaint is not upheld.

Background
The story which included a lot of direct comments from a Waihi farmer, Bill Cox, outlined the events which had occurred during and after the time that his wife, Thai born Nayana, gave birth to the couple’s daughter.

Mrs Cox had a long and arduous birthing experience, after which she was taken to surgery, the newly born infant was taken to the neo-natal unit, and Mr Cox was left alone for five hours. Mr Cox said he had no idea where they had been taken to. After those five anxious hours he went looking for information, and was finally taken to a ward to see his wife and newborn baby.

The story reports him as saying that the baby was left unfed for nine hours, and that he was accused of beating his wife.

The hospital said that they needed to investigate bruises on his wife’s body to ensure she was not the victim of domestic abuse, but Mr Cox claimed that the bruises on Mrs Cox’s arms were the results of hospital procedures and the bruises on her back occurred during the birthing. He said that Mrs Cox, who has a blood condition known as thalassemia, is known to bruise easily

A spokeswoman for the hospital said that it would be irresponsible for hospital staff to ignore unexplained bruising. Language difficulties made it difficult for staff to get an answer [from Mrs Cox] so a social worker and interpreter were called in.

The couple’s midwife said she was surprised by the allegations and said there was no bruising on Mrs Cox when she changed her nightdress during the first stage of labour. She had spent a lot of time with the Coxes – “there has never been any cause for concern”.

Mrs Cox is quoted as saying that her husband did not hit her – “he loves me”.

The hospital apologized for leaving Mr Cox alone, and not communicating with him about what was happening to his wife and daughter.

In rebuttal of Mr Cox’s claims that his daughter had not been fed for nine hours, the spokeswoman said that hospital records showed the baby had been fed at 3.45 am – Mr Cox said that this was not recorded when he saw the notes in the night.

In the final paragraph of the story, Mr Cox said “he would rather die” than return to Waikato Hospital. The couple were devastated by their “nightmare” experience after what should have been a “joyous” time in their lives.

The Complaint
The DHB stated that Waikato Times e-mailed six questions to the Waikato DHB on Monday 27 September. All questions were answered on the following day.

The DHB complained that the billboard advertising the story (on 1 October) “New dad accused of wife beating” was unnecessarily alarmist, as the staff at the hospital had acted quite properly and within Ministry of Health violence screening guidelines.

The DHB also complained that the claim that the baby had been left unfed was mischievous and alarmist, the hospital notes showing that this was not the case.

The DHB had responded to several other allegations made by Mr Cox, but these had not been published in the story.

The DHB stated that there is overwhelming evidence that health care providers have a key role to play in the early intervention and prevention of family violence.

The complaint states that the story as published lacked balance, context, and was unnecessarily critical of staff who were following national guidelines. The DHB had offered to present an article on the role of hospitals and health care workers in identifying family violence, but the editor had refused to publish. The paper had failed to put the story in the wider context of the role of health workers in identifying and reporting family violence.

The Editor’s Response
The editor stated that the newspaper had been approached by the couple who expressed their concerns about what had happened to them.

Although the DHB had stated that the story as published was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced, he rejected that view, as the DHB was given every opportunity to address the couple’s concerns.

Essentially, the editor said that the facts are indisputable; an anxious father was left unattended for five hours and when he was finally united with his wife he learned she had been questioned by a social worker about apparently unexplained bruising. The hospital did not speak to the couple’s midwife, but made assumptions about Mr Cox being violent to his wife.

The editor maintained that the hospital had an opportunity to put further facts in front of the newspaper during the Q and A “interview” when the story was being researched.

Further, as a new editor, it was not his policy to provide the DHB editorial space for columns to appease the communications director. The spokesperson for the DHB could have written a letter to the editor, but did not choose to do so.

The editor stated firmly that he stands by the story.

Discussion
It is not surprising that the newspaper gave this story prominence; as presented on the front page, it has strong reader appeal – a long and difficult labour, a new baby, a hospital seeming to fail in its duty to an anxious husband, the lack of communication, and what was viewed as an abuse of duty in questions about possible family violence.

The newspaper had sought information from the DHB and, significantly, the midwife who had attended the birth.

Mr Cox was quoted as saying that the hospital had called in Women’s Refuge when in fact it was a social worker who talked with Mrs Cox. This was indeed an error, but the newspaper reported directly what Mr Cox had said.

The Press Council does not uphold this complaint. However it does consider the editor might later have provided a follow-up on the role of health professionals in the prevention of family violence.

There are occasions when health professionals are in the position to identify possible abuse, and Ministry of Health guidelines have been developed to assist in this. These guidelines have adopted by all 20 DHBs.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.