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The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint about material in The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, on 26 November 2011. Front-page headings, OPEN THE FLOODGATES - Exclusive: Thousands of boat people to invade NSW, were followed by two paragraphs which commenced "Thousands of boat people will be released into Sydney's suburbs as the government empties detention centres". Readers were then directed to articles running across two inside pages with one headline reading Open the floodgates and another reading Detainee deluge for Sydney.
Anna Krjatian complained that the word "invade" was inaccurate, unfair and offensive because it portrayed asylum seekers and refugees as a threat to public and personal safety. She also said that the words "open the floodgates" were inaccurate, especially as the number of asylum seekers could not conceivably reach levels which would justify such an extreme term and they would be only a very small proportion of all new immigrants each year. She said these failings were exacerbated by the use of the word "deluge" in the heading to one of the articles and an implication in that article that a confidential "government briefing note” predicted much higher levels of boat arrivals than previously revealed.
The newspaper responded that the use of the terms such as "open the floodgates" and "deluge" were not inaccurate or unfair, especially as details about likely numbers of asylum seekers being released into the community were provided in the articles and readers could decide for themselves whether the words were appropriate. It said the State Government’s briefing note feared that government services would be swamped and unable to cope with the sudden influx. It did not seek to defend use of the word "invade".
The Press Council has concluded that use of the word "invade" was gravely inaccurate, unfair and offensive because of its clear connotations of forceful occupation. Accordingly, the complaint is upheld on this ground for what the Council regards as an especially serious breach of its principles.
The Council has concluded that use of the words "open the floodgates" and "deluge" were inaccurate and unfair. Even the intake levels claimed in the article could not reasonably be described as having such an extreme impact on suburban Sydney, and nothing quoted from the briefing note asserted government fears of inability to cope. The articles themselves conveyed a more measured assessment and did not breach the Council’s principles. But this does not render the headlines acceptable, especially as headlines must fairly reflect the tenor of the articles to which they relate. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint was upheld on those grounds.
Addendum (not required for publication by the newspaper):
The Council has noted that the initial published versions of the paragraphs on the front page described boat people as being "dumped on Sydney’s streets" rather than the later wording of "released into Sydney’s suburbs" which was in the version seen by Ms Krjatian. While welcoming the newspaper’s reconsideration, it considers that the original words were gravely inaccurate, unfair and offensive.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies part of the Council’s General Principle 1: "Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission.", General Principle 6: "Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines ... should fairly reflect the tenor of an article ..." and General Principle 7: "Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence".