New Zealand Law Society - Complaint against Women's Weekly upheld

Complaint against Women's Weekly upheld

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The Press Council has upheld (with dissent) a complaint against the New Zealand Women's Weekly following its publication of an article on 7 March 2016, "Abuse survivors share their stories; 'You are not alone'".

In its decision the Council emphasises the need to at least attempt to communicate with someone against whom allegations are made.

A majority of the Council agreed that the story breached the Council's Principle one (accuracy, fairness and balance) and all members found it had breached Principle three (children and young people), but the Council did not accept the complaint that Principles two (privacy), eight (confidentiality) and nine (subterfuge) had been breached also.

The story reported the initiatives taken by two women, each of whom said that they had left abusive relationships, in publicising the steps women in similar situations could take to seek help.

One of the women, Raquel Roderick, described the abuse she said she suffered in a relationship along with the actions she took to leave her husband and to improve her life and employment prospects. The story identified her children by their first names and ages.

The complainant is married to Ms Roderick although they have been separated. While not identified in the article, he said he was identified as the alleged perpetrator of the abuse by the references to Ms Roderick's marriage and to the children.

Denying that he ever abused Ms Roderick physically or otherwise, the complainant said the article was unfair and lacked balance. He was not approached by the New Zealand Women's Weekly as the story was being written and was not given the chance to comment.

The complainant said the article compromised his privacy and breached confidentiality, and that the magazine should not have named the children. He did not challenge its right to publish "abused women's stories" but only the elements relating to his alleged behaviour and the children.

New Zealand Women's Weekly's response was that it was satisfied that Ms Roderick was being truthful when recounting her experiences of abuse, and that it did not believe the complainant.

It also said the article was an important human interest story primarily about the issue of family violence, and the inclusion of any comment from anyone who was claimed to have abused a woman the subject of the article would have undermined the story's purpose.

"...the requirement for balance should not require equal time to be given in an article to a person who is alleged to have perpetrated abuse on the woman who is the subject of the article, especially when the alleged perpetrator of the abuse is not named in the article," it said, stating that the appropriate balance was struck by not mentioning the complainant by name.

The majority Council decision says which it could not determine whether Ms Roderick or the complainant were telling the truth as to the abuse allegations, it was clear that New Zealand Women's Weekly did not seek the complainant's response when writing the story.

"Nor did NZWW undertake any independent background checks as to the veracity of Ms Roderick's account at least as far as her abuse allegations are concerned. While the Council accepts it was not necessary for NZWW to record the complainant's version of events in any detail, Principle one required the magazine to at least try to communicate with him and, assuming he would have denied the claims, record the denial."

The Council says that in referring to the marriage and the children in its story, New Zealand Women's Weekly had a duty to also give the complainant the opportunity to comment. By not seeking and mentioning any such comment the story lacked balance.

The Council says it does not agree that the story's message overrode the requirement that the opposing voice be at least noted.

"The majority of the Council does not agree either that NZWW could avoid Principle one by avoiding naming the complainant. It is clear he is recognisable in his community. NZWW could not assume, as NZWW's lawyer has argued, that the few people who knew the couple were already aware of the issues between them. Some or possibly all of those people may not have been so aware."

The Council unanimously found there had been a breach of principle three: children's interests, saying it saw no basis for the magazine identifying the couple's children.

"Principle three is clear. In cases involving young children 'editors must demonstrate an exceptional degree of public interest to override the interests of the child or young person'. This is not one of the cases the Principle refers to. The purpose of this article could have been served just as well without the children having been identified."