Media Watch covers privacy issues

August 5, 2012 |

On 30 July Media Watch ran an exhaustive (for TV at least) on privacy issues with coverage of private tragedy involving the Channel 7 coverage of Molly Lord’s death. I posted on the incident here on 25 July 2012.

It is a fascinating story which throws a light on some newsgathering techniques, how the social networking impacts mainstream media and how that media seeks to justify itself.  The transcript provides:

Private tragedy vs public interest

I am the mother of the beautiful Molly Lord who was killed on a quad bike last week. I would just like to let everyone know of the pain and harassment we suffered as a result of channel 7…

— Channel Seven News, Facebook page, 21st July, 2012

Welcome to Media Watch, I’m Jonathan Holmes, and no jokey start this week. Our main item concerns something too tragic, and too serious

It was on the Saturday before last that that message was posted on Seven News’s Facebook Page by Mrs Linda Goldspink-Lord .

A few angry sentences later, it ended…
You bastards.

— Channel Seven News, Facebook page, 21st July, 2012

The post was dynamite. Within 36 hours it had caused a social media storm:

32,008 others like this

— Channel Seven News, Facebook page, 21st July, 2012

On the Sunday evening, the video that had caused Mrs Lord such pain was taken down from Seven’s website. But so was her post from its Facebook page – and that, of course, just made matters worse for Seven News.

Channel 7 you really are a bunch of grubby exploitative unethical low lives…

Big mistake to delete the post by Molly Lord’s mother…Disgusting Channel 7.

— Channel Seven News, Facebook page, 22nd July, 2012

And literally hundreds more. On Monday morning, with the story all over the mainstream media, Seven’s Sydney News Director, Chris Willis, posted an apology. Mrs Lord’s comments, he wrote…

… were removed from our site in error. We apologise for that.
Taking into account her understandable distress over the coverage of Molly’s death, I did ask for the footage to be taken down. That happened but unfortunately her remarks were deleted as well. They are now being restored to our Facebook page.

— Channel Seven News, Facebook page, 23rd July, 2012

The power of social media to hold them accountable is a phenomenon that mainstream media outlets are only beginning to come to terms with. But in tonight’s program, we’re going to focus on who did what that tragic afternoon.  And a warning – with the knowledge and permission of the family, we’re going to be showing photographs and video which they, and their friends, found deeply distressing when they were first published. On Iview, and on our website, at their request, the most sensitive images will be obscured.

First, here are some pictures they did want us to show: young Molly Lord as her family want her to be remembered

So what happened on the day Molly died? At 1.46 pm on Wednesday the 11th of July, the New South Wales police media unit issued a release:

Teenage girl killed in quad biking accident – Kembla Grange

— NSW Police Media Release, 11th July, 2012

Seven News in Sydney reacted swiftly. Reporter Paul Kadak, a camera crew and a links truck were sent to the property near Wollongong, a bit over an hour’s drive south.  And Seven’s helicopter was despatched to the scene. It arrived over the Lord family’s property, Newton Park, at 2.40pm.  The cameraman on board filmed these pictures of Molly’s body, covered by a white sheet, still on the ground. Seven News says its helicopter never descended below 500 metres and was overhead for about eight minutes.

Nevertheless, Mrs Lord was deeply upset by the intrusion. In her first post on Seven’s Facebook page, she wrote…

I went outside at some point to go to her horse for some comfort when the channel 7 helicopter flew above me … footage of myself sitting with my deceased daughter was put on the channel 7 website for the world to see before I had even told all my family.

— Channel Seven, News, Facebook page, 21st July, 2012

In his post on Seven News’s Facebook page last Monday, Director of News Chris Willis, wrote:

we have re-examined our reports into Molly’s tragic death and can find no video showing Ms Goldspink-Lord hugging her daughter.

— Channel Seven, News, Facebook page, 23rd July, 2012

We’re satisfied that Seven News neither shot nor posted video of Linda Lord, with her daughter or on her own. As we’ll see later, that footage was aired on another channel. But as Mrs Lord told Media Watch last week…

The helicopter was so intrusive. …Even if they didn’t have footage of me sitting with Molly, they still had footage of Molly and they shouldn’t have been there at all.

— Linda Goldspink-Lord, 24th July, 2012

Seven News tells us it covered the story as thoroughly as it did because it wasn’t just a family tragedy. The police media release had raised issues of wider importance, summarised by Paul Kadak in his live cross at 4.30 that afternoon…

PAUL KADAK: …police putting out a reminder that these vehicles, these quadbikes, are not toys, urging parents to make sure that their children are properly supervised and wearing the correct safety gear, like helmets.

— Channel Seven, News, 11th July, 2012

But that warning could surely have been read by a newsreader in the studio. Why the helicopter footage, we asked. Chris Willis didn’t really tell us, but I’ll tell you: because for a television news item to last more than a few seconds, it needs pictures. Mr Willis did write this:

We accept the point that Mrs Goldspink-Lord was distressed by the helicopter’s presence and sincerely regret that.

— Chris Willis, Seven Director of News, Sydney 27th July, 2012

Read Chris Willis’s full response to Media Watch’s questions

But that distress was utterly predictable, Chris. A helicopter hovering overhead at such a time is bound to be intrusive. Mrs Lord is right. It shouldn’t have been there at all.

There are more issues in dispute between the Lord family and Seven News than we have time to deal with here. We have statements from the family and their friends on our website, together with Seven News’s full response. At least, to their credit, Seven did answer our questions. Have a read, and judge for yourselves.

But the real intrusion that day, worse, in my view, than anything Seven News did, was by the local paper, Fairfax Media’s Illawarra Mercury, and the local news service that airs in the region on Channel 9, WIN News.

Soon after the air ambulance had landed at Newton Park, just twenty minutes after the accident occurred, while frantic efforts to revive Molly Lord were still going on, family friend Paul Dopper noticed a photographer on the Lord family property…

He was parked behind the rescue helicopter, standing behind the driver-side door of his car.

— Paul Dopper, 25th July, 2012

The police also noticed the photographer, but everyone was too busy to ask him to leave. This was long before Seven’s helicopter arrived.

Paul Dopper continues…

I can only assume that he was from the Illawarra Mercury because he was the only one close enough to get the ground shot that was published in the newspaper the next day.

— Paul Dopper, 25th July, 2012

That afternoon, a reporter from the Illawarra Mercury contacted Molly’s father, Peter Lord, who was in Hong Kong, frantically trying to get home. He tells Media Watch…

I basically said that the family wasn’t ready to say anything yet, and I said, ‘Look, don’t make a song and dance about Molly’s death and please don’t put it on the front page’.

— Peter Lord, 23rd July, 2012

A waste of breath. This was the Illawarra Mercury’s front page the next morning…

Holiday Tragedy
Girl, 13, dies in Kembla Grange quad bike accident

— Illawarra Mercury, 12th July, 2012

And there is a picture of the scene, with two grieving women prominently featured.

On page two, a worse intrusion – this picture…

A woman is comforted at the scene of the accident yesterday. Picture: Orlando Chiodo.

— Illawarra Mercury, 12th July, 2012

The ‘woman’ is Molly’s mother, Linda Goldspink-Lord. Her daughter’s legs are protruding from the sheet that covers her. In the accompanying report, Molly Lord and her younger sister were named for the first time in the mainstream media, without their parents’ permission…

Peter Lord has told Media Watch:

It’s an extremely personal moment and that photo has gone online. Our friends and family saw it and it caused them so much distress. A lot of them, we didn’t even have the opportunity to make a phone call to them to tell them what had happened.

— Peter Lord, 23rd July, 2012

We sent a series of questions to the Illawarra Mercury. Its editor replied:

We have been formally advised by lawyers acting for the Lord family that they are about to commence legal proceedings over the article. Consequently, I am under legal advice not to comment at this stage.

— Alistair Langford-Wilson, Editor, Illawarra Mercury, 26th July, 2012

Read Alistair Langford-Wilson’s response to Media Watch’s questions

Well, here’s my comment. Whatever the law may say, whoever decided to put that picture in the paper, and the story on the front page, despite Peter Lord’s request not to, needs to ask themselves the first question posed in Fairfax’s Code of Conduct:

Would I be proud of what I have done?

— Fairfax Code of Conduct

And that leaves us with WIN News, which has so far been untouched by the social media barrage that’s descended on Seven.

ANNOUNCER: This is WIN News

— WIN News, 11th July, 2012

It was WIN, not Seven, that aired this shot of Mrs Lord sitting beside her daughter in its 6.30 bulletin that Wednesday evening.

Because, as they put it…

this matter could be the subject of legal proceedings

— Stewart Richmond, Network Director of News, WIN TV, 27th July, 2012

Read Stewart Richmonds response to Media Watch’s questions

…WIN declined to answer our detailed questions, telling us instead that:

WIN’s coverage did not identify individuals and was taken from a respectful distance.

— Stewart Richmond, Network Director of News, WIN TV, 27th July, 2012

And that it

believes that its reporting team complied with the Commercial TV Code of Practice.

— Stewart Richmond, Network Director of News, WIN TV, 27th July, 2012

…which says that licensees…

must exercise sensitivity in broadcasting images of… bereaved relatives and survivors or witnesses of traumatic incidents

— Commercial Television Code of Practice

Read the Commercial Television Code of Practice

You can be sure that so far as Mr and Mrs Lord are concerned, airing that shot was neither sensitive nor respectful. And they don’t intend to let the matter lie. They’re looking at taking legal action against some or all of Seven, WIN and the Illawarra Mercury. Peter Lord told us…

We want a change to the legislation or the code of conduct to remove the ambiguity surrounding the media’s intrusion on grieving families.

— Peter Lord, 23rd July, 2012

Frankly, I doubt that the law can be made unambiguous. But The Media Alliance’s Code of Ethics is plain enough:

Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.

— MEAA Code of Ethics

Read the Media Alliance Code of Ethics

It’s up to individual reporters and photographers to make a stand, their own union says. How realistic that is, especially at a time when jobs in the media are scarce and precious, is another matter.

Private tragedy vs public interest – additional information

Other matters of disagreement between the Lord family and friends, and Seven News Sydney

THE ‘DEATH-KNOCK’

When Paul Kadak finished his live cross at 4.30pm, he and a crew member drove onto the property to see if anyone from the family would comment for the 6pm news bulletin. Peter Lord was overseas. Linda Lord, who was of course very distressed, never actually spoke to Paul Kadak. However she was incensed by what she heard from others about his behaviour. In her post on Seven News Sydney’s Facebook page she wrote:

A reporter was on our private property very soon after the accident and whilst Molly was still on the ground. He walked up to the house down to the stables anywhere looking for a story.

— Linda Goldspink-Lord, original post on Channel Seven Facebook page, 21st July, 2012

And in her statement to us, Mrs Lord said:

Seven News reporter came to my house only an hour or two after the incident had happened. He was told to go away and still he tried to interview our staff. He was asked to leave so many times.

— Linda Goldspink-Lord, statement to Media Watch, 24th July, 2012

According to Seven News, however, Paul Kadak went onto the property after 4.30pm, more than an hour after Molly’s body had been removed. Here is News Director Chris Willis’s account of what he did:

He (Paul Kadak) and a crew (member) drove through the gate marked Newton Park. They pulled up before getting to the house. He left the vehicle and approached a woman at the stable. He identified himself as being from 7 News, apologised for disrupting her, and said he was there to talk about what had happened earlier. She directed him to the house. He approached a woman who was standing outside the house. Again, he identified himself, apologised for disrupting her and asked if anybody was available to talk about the accident. She went into the house and returned with a man who said nobody wished to say anything. Kadak then asked the man if he could have his phone number in case he wished to contact him in future. The man willingly gave his number. Kadak then left. Kadak says he was there for approximately 10 minutes. He spoke to three people and at no stage was he asked to leave.

— Chris Willis, Director of News, Seven Network, Sydney, 27th July, 2012

The man who came out to talk to him was family friend Paul Dopper, who’s told Media Watch:

We all saw that a van had pulled up and it was a Seven reporter. Linda asked me to go and tell them to leave.

I immediately asked the reporter if he was a father. I said to him, ‘Are you serious?’ I told him the family wasn’t going to comment, I explained that the father Peter was in Hong Kong. He gave me his card and asked me to get Peter to call him within half an hour when the bulletin would go to air. He then left.

— Paul Dopper, Statement to Media Watch, 25th July, 2012

COMMENT BY JONATHAN HOLMES:

Mr Dopper’s account seems to accord closely with Seven’s.  But should Seven News reporter Paul Kadak have gone onto the premises at all so soon after the accident? The family certainly thought not. Unfortunately, many may think the so-called “death knock” is standard media practice. Often the very last thing a shocked family wants to do is deal with the media; but not always. Veteran reporter Mike Seccombe wrote in The Global Mail last week about his memories of the dreaded death-knock.

“Come in,” they would say, all too often. “Have a cup of tea.” And so you would ask your awkward questions about a death of which you knew a little and a life of which you knew nothing.

— The Global Mail, 25th July, 2012

If Paul Kadak behaved as Seven claims, few editors would fault him – but should journalists refuse to approach recently bereaved families in this way at all? Most would say, ‘Unless you ask, you will never know whether a family wants to comment or not.’ In this instance, Paul Kadak was the only reporter who tried. But it can be truly unbearable for a family if not one but several reporters come knocking or telephoning within hours of a tragedy like this. The problem, as always, is competition. If one reporter tries and succeeds in getting a comment from the family, a reporter who has refused to try will get short shrift from his or her editor.

THE PHONE CALL TO SEVEN

The Seven News crew initially parked their links truck and camera car outside the cement gateway clearly marked “Newton Park”. They say the police told a freelance cameraman working for Seven, who had arrived a bit earlier, to park there. They thought they were on public land, but apparently they were not. The actual boundary, we’ve been told, is further from the house. Their truck was also in full view of the house, and the family found this upsetting. Paul Dopper told us…

I made three trips down, and one of the staff members also went down and all of us told them to leave. Another guy John went down and he probably used stronger language than me. And then Mandy also told them to leave. So that’s six or seven attempts to get the crew to leave.

— Paul Dopper, Statement to Media Watch, 25th July, 2012

‘Mandy’ is another family friend, Amanda Fanning. She told Media Watch:

About 5pm, on my way out, I approached the crew and told the technician that the family would not be commenting and could they please leave. The guy was very apologetic and said. ‘I’d rather be anywhere else than here right now’. He told me to phone [Channel Seven] and ask to speak to the News Director. My assumption was that he did not have the authority to leave. Just after 5pm I rang the news line and asked to speak with the news director. A woman said she knew of the story and would attempt to put me through to the news director, but she came back to me and said, ‘Sorry but we are going to cover this story’. I reiterated that nobody would be commenting and that the crew should just leave. I explained how upset the family was and that they were adding to the family’s distress. I went back to the crew and told them that if they were still there when I returned I would call the police. About 30 minutes later I got back to the property and the crew had moved to outside the gate, which was no longer on private property.

— Amanda Fanning, statement to Media Watch, 24th July, 2012

Seven News’s account, both of the crew’s behaviour and of the telephone call, is very different. Sydney News Director Chris Willis writes…

Our link van was set up outside the gate signed Newton Park. At approximately 4.50 pm the operator was approached by a man. Our operator says they had a calm amicable conversation. The man told him the van could be seen from the house and that this was causing distress to the family. He then asked our operator if he could move the van out of sight of the house. It was agreed to move the van behind some small trees where it would not be visible from the house. Our operator moved it. A woman approached him shortly after 5pm and demanded that he remove the van altogether. He said he would ring the office and suggested she do the same. He gave her the Seven switchboard number. He made the suggestion because she was obviously upset. Before he could ring the office he received a call from the Deputy News Director of 7 News asking him to relocate away from the gate.

He was in the process of packing the van to move when two men approached in a car from the house and repeated that he should move. Our operator informed him he was in the process of moving. They then left. Our operator subsequently moved the van to an area near the entrance of the Kembla Grange racecourse just off the Princes Highway which was approximately 800 metres from the house and out of sight of the house… As can be seen from the above, the crews and reporter at all times accommodated requests; according to them nobody threatened to call the police.

— Chris Willis, Director of News, Seven Network, Sydney, 27th July, 2012

And this is Chris Willis’s account of how Mandy Fanning’s telephone call to the 7 newsroom was handled:

The woman who took the call – I want to make it clear she is an adult and a professional media employee – at approximately 5pm from a distressed woman who did not identify herself but said she was calling from the “accident”. She said a reporter was on the property and we had to get him off. There was no reference to the link van. The woman did not ask to be put through to the News Director. Our employee apologised for any distress that had been caused and asked her to hold while she made some enquiries. She then spoke to the most senior person in the room at that moment, the Deputy News Director who told her to tell the woman that we would contact the reporter and ask him to leave. Our employee then passed that message on to the female caller. She apologised to the woman again and in answer to a question did say we would be doing the story. I was in the building at the time. If Ms Fanning had asked to be put through to me she would have been. I take calls from viewers and complainants on a regular basis. I am willing to do it and my staff know that I am willing to take calls.

I accept that Ms Fanning was deeply distressed. I have empathy with her as I too have had a loved one’s death reported by the media, but I do not accept her version of the call. I know the employee. I have heard her take telephone calls many times. She is diligent, intelligent and respectful. I am satisfied that she handled it as described. People nearby in the office, while not listening to the content of the conversation, remember the tone was sympathetic and respectful.

— Chris Willis, Director of News, Seven Network, Sydney, 27th July, 2012

COMMENT BY JONATHAN HOLMES:

There is a direct contradiction between Ms Fanning’s account of the telephone call and Mr Willis’s. But it’s certain that by the time they did the live cross at 6pm, the Seven crew had moved considerably away from the house onto what was indisputably public land. The question is, does it really add to our knowledge of events to have a reporter do a live cross from outside a gate, whether or not it is on public land? Is television news carrying its addiction to the live cross from somewhere – anywhere – near the scene of the action too far?  Before you respond to that question, try to imagine how you would react to television news that consisted mostly – as it used to do thirty years ago – of a newsreader reading text in the studio.

Issue

The to and fro between the witnesses in support of the Lord’s version of events and that of the Seven news crew and management is found in the same place as those who enjoy counting angels doing a minuet on the head of a needle.  Whether the Channel Seven chopper was buzzing at 500 meters over the body of a dead child and her grieving mother or less or was the camera crew just inside or outside the family property is fairly moot.  What is clear is that Channel Seven wanted visuals and a interview or story from the farm.  Hovering over a farm was an interference with Mrs Lord’s privacy.  The behaviour of the crew within the farm may have been a trespass but that is not the issue and a tricky claim to prosecute.

This case is a classic example where the common law provides insufficient protection to an individual.  There is no common law tort of privacy.  The statutory basis is non existent notwithstanding calls for such a cause of action in the Victorian, New South Wales and Australian Law Reform Commissions.  Where things stand is moral suasion.  It was moderately successful here but on many occasions it has no impact on the behaviour of the transgressor.

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