The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint from Matt Durrant about a report in The Maitland Mercury on 2 February 2011 that Denis Durant (his father) had been killed in a road accident on the previous day.
Mr Durrant complained that his father was named in the report before he had identified the body, before the police had confirmed the identity and before some close friends had been informed. He also complained that reporters from the newspaper had unfairly intruded on the family’s privacy by visiting the home of a family member very soon after the accident to inquire whether Denis Durrant was the victim.
The newspaper said that a next-door neighbour of the father told its reporters that he had been informed by the police that the victim was Denis Durrant. It said the reporters were also told he was the victim by a person in the house of another son who, the person said, had left to notify some other family members. It said that the reporters left a message with the person offering the family an opportunity to pay a tribute in the newspaper on the next day. Matt Durant told the Council that the person was a babysitter not a family member.
The Press Council has concluded that the newspaper did not have sufficient basis for absolute certainty that the accident victim was Denis Durrant. In particular, the police had not explicitly stated that the victim was Denis Durrant. That degree of certainty is essential if the death of a named person is to be reported as a fact, rather than a possibility or belief, prior to official confirmation. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is upheld.
The Council considers that, save in exceptional circumstances, the identity of a deceased person should not be reported as a fact unless the publication has reasonable grounds for believing that at least one close relative is aware of the death and has had a reasonable opportunity to advise other close relatives who may otherwise find out from the newspaper’s report. This accords with a well-established convention amongst newspapers.
In this instance, the deceased man's close family knew by the time the newspaper was published that there was a very strong likelihood that the victim was their relative. But they did not know for certain and the identity had not been officially confirmed. Accordingly, the Council considers that any mention of the identity should have been qualified by words such as “believed to be” and accordingly the complaint in this respect is upheld.
The Council does not consider that the reporters’ visit to the home of a family member was necessarily an unfair intrusion on privacy. As there was no evidence that the visit was conducted insensitively, this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.