Footage of a man confessing, in a police interview room, to having murdered his daughter was included in a 60 Minutes item broadcast on TV One on 3 October 1999, beginning at 7.30pm. The man subsequently killed himself.
The Hope family, who are related to the man and his daughter, complained to the Broadcasting Standards Authority that the broadcast was an invasion of their privacy and had caused "an immense amount of distress and heartache" for the family. Their major concern, they wrote, was how the broadcaster had managed to obtain the tape of the confession when that was the property of the police.
Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, observed that the item raised issues about the adequacy of care available to people suffering from a psychiatric illness, and that this was an issue which the family had themselves raised in published comments following the man’s death earlier in the year. It regretted any distress the programme had caused, but noted that the item was broadcast only a few days before the Coroner’s Inquest – an event which undoubtedly would have brought the matter into the public arena again. Turning to the issue which it considered central to the complaint – the use of the videotaped confession – TVNZ explained that the man’s former wife, the mother of the murdered child, had been given access to the tape and that it had been used with her knowledge and authority. In addition it noted that the contents of the tape were part of the police evidence at the Coroner’s Court and had been reported widely in newspapers that week. It emphasised that the family had no privacy rights over the tape, and that the police were entitled to use their discretion in releasing it to the man’s estranged wife. It submitted that there was no breach of privacy, but even if there were, matters of public interest had been revealed.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape and read a transcript of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
A 60 Minutes programme broadcast on TV One on 3 October focused on a case where a man undergoing psychiatric treatment killed his daughter and then himself. His estranged wife expressed her dissatisfaction with the care and treatment he had received, and blamed the mental health system and CYPFA for her daughter’s death. The programme included footage from a police tape in which the man was recorded confessing to the killing of his daughter.
The Hope Family, relatives of the two victims, complained to the Broadcasting Standards Authority that their privacy had been breached by the broadcast of the videotape showing the man’s confession. That, they argued, should never have been shown on television, as it was the property of the police.
Expressing its regret at the distress the item might have caused the family by reviving painful memories for them, TVNZ extended its sympathies to them. It pointed out that the item had been broadcast only a few days before the Coroner’s Inquest into the deaths of the man and his daughter and that this would inevitably have brought the matter before the public once again.
Central to the complaint, it noted, was that the extract from the police tape of the man confessing to the murder of his daughter had breached the family’s privacy. TVNZ responded that, in its view, no such breach had occurred. It noted that the man’s estranged wife had requested a copy of the tape and it had been used on the programme with her full knowledge and authority. TVNZ submitted that, as she was the next of kin of the daughter, she had every right to grant that permission. In addition, it reported, medical authorities had given her access to the man’s medical files. These had been accessed by 60 Minutes because she believed they belonged in the public domain, so that the operation of the mental health system could be examined.
TVNZ also noted that the content of the confession was part of the police evidence at the Coroner’s Court and had been widely reported in newspapers that week. It challenged the family’s claim that the tape was the sole property of the police, arguing that the police were entitled to use their discretion in releasing it to the man’s former wife. The Hope family, it said, had no privacy rights over the tape.
TVNZ advised that the Hope family had been consulted prior to the broadcast, but had declined to participate.
TVNZ submitted that if there were a breach of the Hope family’s privacy (which it doubted), then Privacy Principle (vi) applied because the confession tape raised issues about the man’s state of mind which were matters of genuine public interest. TVNZ provided the Authority with newspaper clippings relating to the case which, it suggested, placed the item within a wider context of public concern and interest.
In their final comment to the Authority, the Hope Family said that they understood TVNZ’s wish to broadcast a programme highlighting the inadequacies of the mental health system. They emphasised that their concern was not with the programme in general, but with "the screening of a mental health patient’s confession to the police".
The family also reported that it had never been consulted about the making of the programme. They wrote:
This family was never consulted about the making of the article. A reporter and producer went to [the man’s] parents’ home to inform them a programme had been made and were told that we had no comments to make. We asked the reporter by phone if we would be able to view the article before it was shown or at least know the time and date it was to be screened and were denied both requests.
The Authority begins by clarifying that privacy rights do not attach to a deceased person. The Broadcasting Act refers, in s.4(1)(c), to a requirement for broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with the privacy of an individual. The Authority therefore is not required – and nor has it been asked – to assess the complaint in relation to the dead man who was the subject of the item. As a further clarifying point, it notes that the family has referred to the broadcast as having breached the Privacy Act. The Authority has no jurisdiction over the Privacy Act. Its role in dealing with privacy issues is as set out in the Broadcasting Act.
The first threshold when the Authority deals with a privacy complaint is identification. It is accepted that as the deceased man was identified by his name, and pictures of him were shown, his identity was revealed. Those who knew and identified him would possibly have known other family members. Accordingly, the Authority concludes that the identity of members of the family – as being relatives of a man who confessed that he killed his daughter and then subsequently committed suicide – was revealed. In addition, there was film footage of the house where the man was said to have lived with his family.
The Authority’s task is to identify whether private facts were revealed during the interview and, if so, whether those facts were highly offensive and objectionable.
It turns then to the footage of the confession which is central to this complaint. The family contends that its broadcast was an invasion of their privacy, and that the footage was a "callous, hurtful and unnecessary inclusion" in the programme. The Authority notes that it was filmed in a police interview room where the man was being interviewed after he had killed his daughter. Its view, recorded in Decision No: 1999-201 and 202 is that:
…the interview room in a police station is a private place insofar as it is generally not accessible to the public, except with the permission of the police or in the exercise of some other legitimate authority.
The Authority observes too, that the process of a police interview is essentially a private matter at the time, notwithstanding that those same matters may become matters of public record later. However, those factors alone are not sufficient to enable a complainant to claim the cloak of privacy. In order for a breach to occur, the facts disclosed must be highly offensive or objectionable to the reasonable person.
On the face of it, therefore, the conduct of the interview, including not just the content, but the man’s demeanour and behaviour, was a private matter between him and the police. As noted above, however, in order for a breach to occur, the facts disclosed – in this case about a member of the family – must be "highly offensive and objectionable" to the reasonable person. The Authority therefore applies the test under privacy principle (i). That principle reads:
(i) The protection of privacy includes protection against the public disclosure of private facts where the facts disclosed are highly offensive and objectionable to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.
Notwithstanding the arguably private nature of the police interview, the Authority observes that the matters revealed during that interview were, if not already in the public domain at the time of the broadcast, widely reported in other media after the Coroners Court hearing a few days later. While it understands the family’s distress at having those details disclosed by the broadcast of the extract from the videotape, it does not consider that the broadcast revealed private facts. As no private facts were disclosed, the Authority is not required to further consider whether the facts revealed crossed the threshold so as to be deemed offensive and objectionable to the reasonable person.
The Authority acknowledges the Hope family’s objections to the use of what they considered to be private police footage. It notes that they have also lodged complaints with the Police Complaints Authority and the Privacy Commission relating to the release of the videotape to the man’s former wife and its use by the broadcaster. As noted above, the Authority has found that the broadcast of the footage in itself did not transgress its privacy principles. Nevertheless, the matters surrounding the release of the footage could well be the subject for consideration by other authorities.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
16 December 1999
The following correspondence was received and considered when the Authority determined this complaint:
1. The Hope Family’s Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority –
10 October 1999
2. Television New Zealand Ltd’s Response to the Authority – 28 October 1999
3. The Hope Family’s Final Comment – 9 November 1999