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The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by Mark Latham about articles in The Sunday Telegraph on 11 and 18 December 2011. They concerned his behaviour at a swimming lesson run for the NSW Education Department at a local pool and attended by his young children.
The first article alleged he had been reported to the Education Department for intimidating one of the swimming teachers, who is the mother of two famous Australian sportsmen. It said he approached the teacher from behind, told her “As far as I can see, they are not learning anything” and, after she replied, said “a lot of parents are going to be pulling their children out of the scheme”. It added that teacher was “visibly shaken”.
The article identified the public pool at which the swim program, which still had a week to run, took place and also the school that Mr Latham's children attended. The first article also stated the reporter approached Mr Latham at the pool three days later but he refused to comment, saying the matter had nothing to do with her.
The second article reiterated some of the earlier report and added that Mr Latham had withdrawn his children from the classes after the first article was published.
Mr Latham complained that, as the reporter was the daughter of one of the other swim school teachers, she had a conflict of interest which should have been disclosed in the articles. He said at least one of his children had been taught by the reporter’s mother during some of the lessons and he provided what he said were his children’s descriptions of their interaction with her.
The newspaper denied that she taught either child at any stage or had any direct contact with them, and also denied there was any conflict of interest. It said she was one of the three-person team teaching the course and, on the day in question, was under the supervision of the teacher to whom Mr Latham spoke. It added, however, that she was not a frequent member of the team.
Mr Latham also complained that the articles breached the privacy of his family, especially his children while engaged in an educational program, without any justification in the public interest.
The newspaper replied that he was a public figure because he was a former Leader of the Federal Opposition, received a parliamentary pension and was a very active media commentator on politics and national affairs. It said the report related to a “loudly audible confrontation at a publicly-funded swimming school between a public figure with a reputation for bullying and intimidation” and the teacher who was well known because of her famous sons. Mr Latham denied, however, that the encounter was a loudly audible confrontation.
The Council has concluded that the reporter’s relationship with the supervisor should have been disclosed in her articles. This conclusion is based on the agreed fact that her mother was one of the very small team conducting the program (and on the day in question was being supervised by the woman with whom Mr Latham spoke). It is not based on any decision about whether the mother taught the Latham children or was the source for the story. The Council emphasises that in accordance with generally-recognised principles a conflict of interest exists where there is a reasonable possibility that the conflict will affect a reporter’s impartiality, irrespective of whether it actually does so. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
The Council considers that Mr Latham remains a public figure despite ceasing to be a Member of Parliament, at least by virtue of his high-profile role as a media commentator. In some circumstances, reports which intrude on the privacy of a public figure may be justifiable if they relate to his or her public activities or views and are in the public interest. But Mr Latham’s complaint related to the privacy of his family, especially his young children, not himself. Accordingly, this adjudication does not consider whether his own privacy was intruded upon without adequate justification.
The Council has concluded that Mr Latham’s alleged conduct at the pool was not of sufficient importance in the public interest as to justify seriously intruding on the privacy of his young children in the manner caused by these articles. This applies especially to the initial disclosure that they are participating in an ongoing educational program in a named place, the disclosures in both articles that their father had criticised the program to one of their teachers, and the claim in the second article that their father had withdrawn them from the program. There is no evidence that these matters had become widely known before being disclosed in the Sunday Telegraph, a mass circulation newspaper.
Mr Latham reiterated much of the material in an online news site twelve days later and his regular magazine column a further eight days later. But as the children were no longer participating in the program, this disclosure did not retrospectively justify the initial breaches of privacy (even though he also mentioned, without apparent need, the name of one of his children). His alleged behaviour in unrelated contexts, including possible breaches of other people’s privacy, also does not justify a newspaper’s breach of his children’s privacy in the absence of a public interest justification. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld on the ground of unreasonable intrusion on the children’s privacy.
Relevant Council Standards (not required to be published):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: "News and comment should be presented honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy is not to be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest. ..."; part of Privacy Principle 1: "Public figures necessarily sacrifice their right to privacy, where public scrutiny is in the public interest. However, public figures do not forfeit their right to privacy altogether. Intrusion into their right to privacy must be related to their public duties or activities"; and part of General Principle 6: "... readers should be advised of any … potential conflicts of interest". [NB: The word "potential" in Principle 6 is unnecessary because a "conflict of interest" arises where there is a potential for the conflict to affect behaviour.]