The Press Council has upheld a complaint against Christchurch newspaper The Press that its actions, an article (also published on the Stuff website) and use of a photo downloaded from Facebook were in breach of the Council's privacy principle.
Isabel Rivett, the daughter-in-law of complainant Bob Rivett, died in a tramping accident on 3 January 2016. NZ Police issued a media statement about the accident two days later, ending with the statement that "the victim's family are naturally grieving so Police and Victim Support urge media to give them privacy at this time."
Shortly after release of the statement, Press reporters unsuccessfully tried to contact Mr Rivett's son via Facebook. There was also contact with Ms Rivett's employer.
On 6 January The Press published an article about the accident, accompanied by a photo of Ms Rivett, downloaded from her Facebook. Personal information in the article gave Ms Rivett's name and age, her occupation, and the fact that she and her partner both worked for the Canterbury District Health Board.
Mr Rivett complained that despite the Police request for privacy, reporters had attempted to contact his son. Without family permission, The Press then published Ms Rivett's photo and personal details that had not been included in the Police media release.
The 4-page Council decision says there is absolutely no doubt that Mr Rivett and his family were entitled to the protection of the "trauma and grief" clause in the Press Council's Principle 2 (privacy).
The Police request for privacy for the family could have been more strongly worded and could have specifically asked that the media refrain from contacting them, the Council says.
"The attempted [first] contact was not of a particularly intrusive nature, and if it had been the only attempt the Press Council would not have upheld the complaint in this regard."
However, it says, there should never have been a second attempt to contact Mr Rivett's son. The Press has acknowledged its fault in this respect.
The Council says that although The Press was clearly at fault in the way it went about attempting to collect information, it is difficult to see any breach of privacy in publication of the limited amount of personal information in the article. Some of the information was in the Police media release, and the rest was obtained from the district health board.
The Council focuses on publication of the photograph taken from Ms Rivett's Facebook page.
"While photographs on an open Facebook page can generally be regarded as publicly available (subject to any intellectual property issues, on which the Press Council is not competent to rule), this does not exempt a publication from its obligations under Principle 2 to give special consideration for those suffering from trauma or grief," it says.
"Grief and trauma are expressed in different ways, and while some families may agree to, or even welcome, a request to publish a photograph, others would find it a cause of additional distress."
The Press Council says that by the time of the decision to publish the photo the family had made it known that they required privacy and did not want any contact with the media. At the very least there should have been a check to determine whether the family had objections to the publication of the photograph.