Case Number: 811

Council Meeting: December 2000

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Children and Young People

The Press Council has upheld two complaints against the New Zealand Herald over a photograph of a young girl published on 12 June 2000. The complaints were made by YouthLaw Tino Rangatiratanga Taitamariki, a national community law centre that offers a range of services to children and young people up to the age of 25, and the Department of Child, Youth and Family. The latter complaint was made in agreement with the girl and her family. The coloured photograph concerned filled about 60% of a front-page boxed story headed "Child speedster run off the road" and captioned "JOYRIDE OVER : The 11-year-old girl sits safely in the back of a squad car after pursuing police cars forced her stolen vehicle into a brick fencepost to make her stop." The boxed story covered five columns to a depth of 22.5 cm. The child's eyes were blocked out by a black rectangle.

The complainants based their objections on three Press Council Principles: No. 3 : the right to privacy; No. 5 : the need for particular care and consideration in reporting on children and young people; and No. 11: the need to take care in photographic and image selection and treatment. They also made reference to aspects of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to which New Zealand is a signatory.

The second complainant, in its initial letter to the Herald, stated that "The young girl was identified by both her extended family in the community (some of whom were unaware of her arrest), by peers and other residents of West Auckland. The repercussions of the publication included emotional distress for all family members and in particular for younger siblings in the school environment." Both complainants acknowledged that the Herald had made an effort to protect the girl's identity but believed this to have been insufficient to achieve its purpose.

The Deputy Editor's replies to the complainants rejected the claim that the Press Council's Principles had been breached. He stated that "The obscuring of the young girl's identifying facial characteristics was conducted with real care, and the image was amended more than once at the duty editor's request to ensure she could not be identified; the black square being enlarged in each instance." He emphasised that the story had obvious significant public interest, a consideration recognised in the Press Council's Privacy Principle as one of the reasons for not treating the right to privacy as an absolute one.

The complainants approached the Press Council because they were not satisfied with the responses from the Herald. The first complainant, Youthlaw, repeated points made earlier to the editor and drew attention to the Herald's different treatment of a name-suppression case in the same month, where the whole of the face was obscured (by pixillation, i.e. blurring). It asked why the photograph of the child did not receive the same treatment, in view of the Press Council's Principle regarding children and young people. The second complainant regarded the Herald's attempt to conceal the identity of the child as having been futile, whereas complete obscuring of her face would not have been.

In his response to the Press Council about the complaints the Deputy Editor stated that the paper's aim was "to protect the girl's identity while still showing her age - which was highly pertinent given the circumstances. It was our judgment that pixillation would not meet that objective the obscuring of this driver's face was the subject of special, particular, care on the night concerned. The Council's principles were explicitly considered and a number of staff consulted, resulting in the black strip being twice widened and deepened. The Herald had no desire to identify this child. Her identity was not important. Her extreme youth, clearly conveyed by the non-identifying facial features and head, was directly relevant." He also stated that the photograph was taken at a distance.

The Press Council accepts the Herald's statements that close consideration was given to the issues raised by the opportunity to publish a photograph of the young girl at the centre of this dramatic and highly newsworthy incident. It also recognises that several decisions about its publication had to be made under great pressure of time, and that having to weigh competing rights and interests in such circumstances is a severe test of professional judgement.

The Press Council considers that the steps taken by the Herald to conceal the identity of the child were insufficient, and that it made an error of judgement in treating the child's eyes as her sole identifying feature. Although the photograph was said to have been taken at a distance, the effect is of a close-up view of the child's features with the detail enhanced by the use of colour. In many instances a blocking bar across the eyes may be sufficient to prevent identification, especially if the figure is in profile, at a distance or in movement. In this case, however, the image presented to readers is much more immediate and intimate. The Press Council's assessment is supported by the Department of Child, Youth and Family's statement that the child was identified and that distress was caused by the photograph.

As a consequence of this inadequate care with the photograph (Principle 11) the child's right of privacy was infringed. The Press Council's Principle 3 recognises that the publication of matters of obvious significant public interest may justify overriding the entitlement to privacy. The Press Council does not consider that there were compelling reasons in this instance for allowing the child's privacy to be intruded on. It was not essential to show the child's face to bring home to readers the central point of the story. The reported comments of two tow-truck drivers at the scene graphically expressed their reaction to the extreme youthfulness of the driver, and the police sergeant's remarks about previous similar instances of "kids in cars" added to the impact of the report.

The Press Council's Principle 5 emphasises that children and young people are deserving of particular consideration in print media. The Council thinks that greater weight should have been given to this aspect of the matter, so that the child's right to privacy was reinforced. She should have been protected from being identified, and from the consequences of that disclosure.

The complaints are upheld.