The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint that an article on The Sydney Morning Herald's website on 12 April 2012 inaccurately and unfairly implied that Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt had a link with racism. The article was headed "Bolt link to racist reviews of book" and had an image of Mr Bolt' captioned, "Racist link ... Andrew Bolt". It noted that Mr Bolt's blog had provided a link to a series of comments about a book on a US-based book retailer's website.
The complainant, Tom Lalor, said the combination of the headline and the picture caption inaccurately implied that Mr Bolt was linked in some way to the making of the comments and was condoning or supporting racist views expressed in them. He queried whether any of the comments were actually racist although some people might consider some of them to be so. In any event, he said it was inaccurate and unfair to imply that Mr Bolt was encouraging or supporting the people who made them. He also said the coverage was unbalanced because the newspaper had not sought Mr Bolt's views before publication.
The newspaper responded that the term "link" was clearly a reference to the hyperlink to the comments which was provided in Mr Bolt’s blog, not to any personal connection between him and them. The newspaper pointed to a number of comments which it considered racist and that it had published a letter from Mr Bolt on the day after the article. The letter disagreed with the assertions about racist comments, especially the comments on the website at the time when he provided the link, and explained why he provided it. It also pointed out that the print version of the article (which was also on the website but in a different section from the version read by Mr Lalor) avoided the alleged implication by using the headline "Racist slurs in Bolt link spark fury" and the simple caption "Andrew Bolt".
The Press Council has concluded that the headline and caption in the online article read by Mr Lalor were unfair because they were likely to be interpreted by many readers as stating that Mr Bolt was associated with, or at least condoned, the publication of racist views. If this assertion was to be made, it should have been clearly identified as an opinion and would then have had to comply with the Council’s principles on such expressions. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld on that ground. The problem could have been avoided by using the same words as in the other published version of the article.
The Council has concluded that if the headline and caption had been appropriate the article itself was not of such a kind as required contact with Mr Bolt prior to publication. His reason for providing the hyperlink was given in his blog and quoted in the article. Accordingly, the complaint relating to failure to contact Mr Bolt before publication is upheld solely because of the addition of the headline and caption, not the content of the article itself. If the headline and caption had been consistent with the article in this way, there would have been no need to contact him.
The Council notes the newspaper’s appropriate action in promptly publishing Mr Bolt's letter.
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. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission”; and General Principle No 3: "Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that, it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication".