The following adjudication has been issued by the Australian Press Council.
The Press Council has considered a complaint against an article entitled “Successful fund-raiser ends with sad news” in the Launceston publication, The Examiner, on 15 July 2012.
The article related to the condition of a three-year old girl, Lucy van der Molen, and included quotations from Doug Barker whom it described as her grandfather. The quotations included “She’s been taken off certain medications and is fighting pneumonia … her little body just can’t cope with it” and “The doctors have given her a few days”. Lucy was at that time in a Melbourne hospital, accompanied by her parents. She died later on the day of publication.
Lucy’s father, Daniel van der Molen, complained that The Examiner had been told beforehand by his father, Matthew van der Molen, that Mr Barker was her step great-grandfather, not her grandfather, and the newspaper should check with Daniel or Matthew rather than rely on Mr Barker. He said that the information about Lucy’s medical condition should not have been published without the consent of himself or his wife. Her family members knew she had previously recovered from serious episodes and this article was the first time some of them heard that her prognosis had become so bad.
The newspaper said it had given considerable support to earlier fund-raising for Lucy’s treatment, about which Mr Barker had sometimes provided information to it and been described in many articles as her grandfather. It said it had not been informed to the contrary before the article in question was published. Accordingly, it had believed there were good grounds to assume Mr Barker’s comments about the gravity of Lucy’s condition were made with her parents’ approval for publication, rather than needing direct confirmation of it from them in Melbourne and that it could be disclosed.
The Council is unable to determine with confidence whether the newspaper had been informed of Mr Barker’s actual relationship with Lucy and been warned not to rely on him. It recognises the reasons which led the newspaper to regard Mr Barker as a reliable and authorised source; however, it was Lucy’s grandfather who had been the source of sensitive information about her health and he was known to be in Melbourne with her parents and other family members.
The Council considers that in circumstances of such sensitivity the newspaper should have sought confirmation that the story was accurate and could be published from the parents or at least some close relative such as the cousins who operated the Facebook site for the family as the principal source of public information about Lucy. But the Council recognises the newspaper’s good intentions in the matter, the substantial assistance which it had provided over a considerable period to the family’s fund-raising, and its genuine regret about the way in which some family members had heard the news about Lucy.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced” and part of General Principle 4: “News and comment should be presented … with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals”.