Radio 531 PI News – report that 20 year old Tongan man had died as a result of suicide – privacy – inaccurate
Privacy Principle (i) – highly offensive fact – father identified – no public interest – breach
S13(1)(d) compensation – $500
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A news item on 531 PI broadcast on 13 June 2000 reported that a 20 year old Tongan man, the son of an official in a named Church, had died as a result of suicide and that a service was being held for him the next day.
M, the victim’s brother, complained to the Broadcasting Standards Authority that the broadcast breached his family’s privacy, by naming his father. He also pointed out that at the time of the broadcast, the Coroner had not completed a report on the death.
After a considerable delay, the station responded to the complaint, advising that it had been charged under the Coroner’s Act 1988 in relation to the broadcast. It said it "deeply regretted" that the family had been adversely affected by the broadcast, but said that it was based on the station’s best judgment at the time and was not intended to cause further distress. In its view, it was "duty bound" to report on an item that was newsworthy, and it was necessary to include the details about the young man’s father.
For the reasons given below, the Authority upholds the complaint and orders payment of compensation to the complainant’s family of $500.00.
The members of the Authority have read a transcript – in English – of the item, and the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. No tape was provided. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
A Tongan language news item broadcast on Radio 531 PI on 13 June 2000 reported that a named 20 year old Tongan man, the son of a named senior official in a named Church, had died as a result of suicide.
M, the victim’s brother, complained to Radio 531 PI that the broadcast breached the family’s privacy. He objected to the broadcast naming his father and giving his occupation. He also noted that there had been no report from the Coroner at that time and that the cause of death was not suicide. M said that after the broadcast he had contacted the station, which claimed that a named Sergeant at the Mangere Police Station had released the information. M said he went to see the police officer who told him that he had not released any information to the station. The police officer wrote to the station expressing his displeasure for causing the family a great amount of distress and to reiterate that he had made no comment to its employee. The police officer said that it annoyed and concerned him that he had been quoted as saying something he had not.
In its initial response, the station advised that the matter was being investigated by the police as a possible breach of the Coroner’s Act. It asked for more time to make its final response.
The full response was sent some three months later. In it, the station expressed its deep regret that the family had been adversely affected by the story. It wrote:
The information on the death of [x] came to us from family contacts in the community who were advised of the funeral. This is not unusual as our reporter who covered the story is Tongan and is expected to know what happens in her community.
The station noted that the story involved a "very senior and influential member of the Tongan community". It maintained that the story stated only the facts which were known at the time. As the victim’s father was an influential person, and as the victim had been named, the station argued that it was necessary to provide further information linking him to the family.
The station advised that it had taken steps to meet with the victim’s father following the visit from the police, but that he had since indicated that the matter should be put behind them, and that such a meeting was no longer needed. According to the station, it could not continue to seek to meet the family, for cultural reasons, but that it intended to write to the family and, as appropriate in the circumstances, make a presentation of food.
The broadcaster acknowledged that the complaint was understandable and justified in that the family had been upset by the report, and for that it had apologised. However, it continued, at the time, it had felt "duty bound" to report on an item that was newsworthy and, as the victim’s father was an influential person, it was necessary to include details about him.
The station concluded by noting that it had been charged under the Coroner’s Act and asked that its apologies be conveyed to the complainant.
In his final comment M commented first on the information source for the item. He noted that when he had contacted the station at the time of the broadcast, it had notified him that its source was the Acting Senior Sergeant of the Mangere Police station. However, in its letter to the Authority the station claimed that it had been given the information by "family contacts". This, M wrote, was very upsetting to his family.
M said he did not understand why the station had waited so long to act, and why, at this late stage, it said it would write to the family and send a gift of food. The damage, he said, could not be undone with a letter and food. He noted that his father was a very senior person in the church and was, in Tongan custom, treated with the highest respect. He was well known in the Tongan community throughout New Zealand and especially in Auckland, where the broadcast occurred. In his position, M wrote, it was appalling that the incorrect information had been broadcast. He wrote:
The Tongan community knew what had happened, but not the truth, and it is not something Tongans can openly discuss. So from their point of view [the son] committed a terrible crime in his death and this is how they will remember [him]. The Radio Station 531 PI would have been well aware of that, and I think they did an incredible injustice to my family.
In a further comment, the station explained how it had heard news of the death. It said it could not reveal sources, but that it had learned from a family contact that the death was possibly a result of suicide. It said that it then sought confirmation from the police.
The station said that its reporter had advised that she had spoken to a police officer and was told that the cause of death was suicide. She then prepared the story and made the broadcast. The station acknowledged that there was an issue between the police and its reporter about what was said. However, it maintained, its reporter was qualified and highly experienced and it had no reason to doubt her credibility. It suggested that there may have been a misunderstanding, and she might have been given the wrong impression by the police. The station manager wrote:
It is not our station’s policy to report anything other than fact and we would not certainly report rumours with the intention of hurting our listeners.
The station reported that at the time of the broadcast it had explained to M’s father that it had decided to run the story because the death was newsworthy, and that his position in the community made it even more pertinent that it be reported. The broadcaster acknowledged that M’s father was influential in the community. It also agreed that no amount of apologies or customary obligations would "revert the situation to what it was prior to the report". However, it wrote that it hoped the family:
…do not believe that as a consequence to all of this the family should be exempt from coverage on this or on any other matter of public interest.
Finally, the station advised that it had considered correcting the story but had been prevented from doing so because of the family’s wish to withhold the coroner’s report from publication. It accepted that no matter the outcome of the complaint, no remedy would undo what had taken place. The station said it would be guided by the family’s wishes on whether the report about the cause of death should be corrected. It was, it said, prepared to accept the family’s word that the official cause of death was not suicide.
The Authority is aware first, that the broadcaster has been charged under the Coroners Act 1988 in relation to the broadcast complained about and, secondly, that negotiations between the family and the broadcaster are taking place in an attempt to settle the dispute between them. Nevertheless, the Authority’s task is to determine whether a news item broadcast on 13 June 2000 breached s.4(1)(c) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. This provision requires broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with the privacy of the individual.
The Authority is not concerned about the accuracy of the broadcast. That is not part of its deliberations. Irrespective of whether suicide occurred, the Authority is concerned with the effect of the broadcast and its impact on the privacy of the family.
A translation of the broadcast in Tongan was supplied by the broadcaster. It reads:
A family service will take place tomorrow night for the young Tongan youth who was found dead at his family’s garage last week.
The *year-old ** of * is the son of a steward of the *** Church *.
The police say that the young man died as a result of suicide but refused to provide any further details.
The young man’s brother, M, complained to the Authority that the broadcast breached the family’s privacy.
When determining privacy complaints, the Authority applies the Privacy Principles it has developed. Principles i) and vi) are relevant to this complaints, and they provide:
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.
vi) Discussing the matter in the "public interest", defined as of legitimate concern or interest to the public, is a defence to an individual's claim for privacy.
Under principle i), the Authority considers first whether the act of suicide is a private fact and whether its disclosure is highly offensive and objectionable to a reasonable person. The Authority notes that it could be argued that the disclosure of a person’s suicide might no longer reflect adversely on the family as attitudes towards suicide are becoming less condemnatory. Nevertheless, the Authority accepts the complainant’s observation that suicide in the Tongan community is regarded as a major crime. Its disclosure thus amounts to a breach of privacy for the family.
The dead youth was named in the broadcast and his father was clearly identifiable. Accordingly, the Authority concludes that the father’s privacy specifically, and the family’s privacy more broadly, was breached by the broadcast.
Having decided that the broadcast amounted to a breach of principle i) and thus s.4(1)(c) of the Act, the Authority turns to the principle vi). It notes that the broadcaster’s argument that the father’s high status in the church justified the broadcast in the "public interest".
In the present circumstances, the Authority does not accept that the public interest outweighed the highly offensive and objectionable nature of the information disclosed. The Authority declines to accept the applicability of the public interest defence.
For the above reasons, the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast of a news item by Radio 531PI on 13 June 2000 breached s.4(1)(c) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under s.13 or s.16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It invited submissions from the parties on the question of penalty. After taking the submissions into account and reviewing the range of penalties available given the circumstances of the breach, the Authority decides on the following Order.
Pursuant to s.13(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Broadcasting Standards Authority orders Radio 531 PI to pay, within one month of the date of this decision, the sum of $500 by way of compensation to M.
The Order shall be enforceable in the Auckland District Court.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
26 April 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: