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Ask and ye shall receive?

By Steven | December 2, 2010

Next time you hear the media bleating about our restrictive suicide-reporting rules, consider this. The law allows the media to seek permission from the coroner to report the details of an apparent (or confirmed) suicide. Last night, I asked Chief Coroner Neil MacLean how often the media sought such permission. He said it was extremely rare. How often had they asked him for reporting permission, during his 30-year career as a coroner, I wondered.

He said: never.

I’m prepared to get outraged at unjustified refusals by coroners to grant permission to report details of suicides when the public interest seems to demand it. But I’m equally outraged by the media’s failure to even seek permission, given how often they stress the importance of talking openly about suicide and how harshly they criticise the current reporting rules.

Topics: Journalism and criminal law, Media ethics | 49 Comments »

49 Responses to “Ask and ye shall receive?”

  1. ross Says:
    December 4th, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Steven,

    Why would you be surprised that the media hasn’t approached the Chief Coroner when the media is restricted by what it can report? Furthermore, how long between a suicide and publication of a coroner’s report? In August this year, Neil McLean said:

    “My personal view is that there’s room for some gentle opening up of things … but it probably requires legislative change to restore the balance, and that’s a matter for a conscience vote in Parliament.”

    So legislative change is what’s really required…seeking the coroner’s permission is a separate issue.

  2. Steven Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    I would have thought the answer to this is obvious, Ross. The media CAN report the details of suicides if they have the permission of the coroner, both before and after an inquest. Since the media frequently complain about the rules, they are open to criticism for not bothering to try to avail themselves of the exception. I don’t understand why you would wonder why I’m raising this question.

  3. ross Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Steven,

    If the media simply require the permission of the coroner, why has Neil McLean suggested that legislative change is required to “restore the balance”?

    And as I explained there is a delay from when a suicide occurs until when the coroner publishes his findings, a delay that could take several months. The media I suspect would like to report on suicides much sooner than that.

  4. Steven Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Ross, this is just tiresome. If you’d read my response above, or the section in the Coroner’s Act, you would see that the media can apply for permission to report the details of an apparent suicide BEFORE the coroner reports his or her findings. That includes straight away after the death.

    I can’t speak for Neil MacLean, though he may think the media shouldn’t have to ask for permission, or have in mind that the test for how coroners are to exercise their discretion to permit reporting, which they cannot do if it would cause harm to the public. (My point is that the media haven’t even bothered to test how that discretion would be exercised). Whatever the Chief Coroner was thinking, I know he’s aware of the permission rules, and seemed surprised that the media hardly ever seeks to use them.

  5. ross Says:
    December 7th, 2010 at 6:10 am

    Section 71(2) of the Coroner’s Act 2006 says:

    If a coroner has found a death to be self-inflicted, no person may, without a coroner’s authority or permission under section 72, make public a particular of the death other than—

    (a) the name, address, and occupation of the person concerned; and

    (b) the fact that the coroner has found the death to be self-inflicted.

    Section 72 exempts the IPCA and the Commssioner of Police, not the media.

  6. Steven Says:
    December 7th, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Um. Okay. That shows that the coroner has the power, on application of the media (or anyone else), to allow reporting of suicide details after an inquest that finds death by suicide.

    And section 71(1), which we might have expected you to read on the way to section 71(2), shows the coroner has the power, on application of the media (or anyone else), to allow reporting on details of suicide before an inquest:

    “No person may, without a coroner’s authority, make public any particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred if—

    (a) the death occurred in New Zealand after the commencement of this section; and

    (b) there is reasonable cause to believe the death was self-inflicted; and

    (c) no inquiry into the death has been completed.”

    Can we stop this annoying exchange now?

  7. metanarratives Says:
    January 2nd, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    Steven,

    Two responses to your post “Ask and ye shall receive?”

    Suggestions why applications haven’t come before the Chief Judge, this is based on what I have seen in courts:

    1. Media are told at hearings that they cannot report, not that an application may be made to the judge.

    2. When media have informally asked or inquired whether they can report they are told something like “absolutely not.”

    3. When the Media have made an application to the court registry the application hasn’t made it to the judge, registry politics have come into play and defeated the application. Two ways this can happen: (1) the Registry refuses to place the application before the judge, saying it’s “unusual” and sends it back to the applicant to “reconsider” or (2) the application sits around the registry and is not immediately placed before the judge, when it comes before the judge the news cycle has changed and the public interest has moved on.

    What sometimes happens in the criminal court when an application is made by the media to photograph the defendant is the judge, acting for individual reasons or on the ploys of a crafty counsel, as a means to effectively defeat a visual application, won’t come to consider the application until the substantive proceedings have been dealt with and when the application is considered the defendant has left the courtroom and is in the cells and no photographs have been taken.

  8. Steven Says:
    January 18th, 2011 at 10:44 am

    This is all extremely interesting. It seems you’re not talking about the coroner’s court, though. I was talking about the Chief Coroner, not the Chief Judge. The comments you make don’t mostly don’t carry over to a coroner situation. Before an inquest, there’s no hearing or formal suppression ruling, for example. The media would simply have to write to the coroner. Nor is there the same opportunity to delay photographs.

    But I guess your point is that court staff and judges can be very obstructive. I don’t know whether that applies to coroners. It doesn’t seem to have been tested. So I’m still inclined to blame the media for not asking, and not not have much time for the excuse that they’ve had problems getting permission in other parts of the justice system. It’s not very hard to ask, and if reporting about suicides is as important as the media keep saying it is, I’d expect them at least to try to get permission.

    It worries me that judges (and court staff) can be so dictatorial about such requests, but at the same time, the media need to take some responsibility to know and assert their rights. For example, any return of requests on grounds of “unusualness” by registry staff should be taken up with courts’ management so that it doesn’t happen again.

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