The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article “Gay slurs take AIDS fighter by surprise” in The Sydney Morning Herald on 2 April 2013. The article concerned proceedings at a parliamentary committee considering the law related to same-sex marriage in New South Wales. It focussed on the questions asked by committee member, Hon. Catherine Cusack MLC, of Nicholas Parkhill, the CEO of the AIDS Council of New South Wales.
Ms Cusack complained about the reference in the headline to “gay slurs” and the statement in the first sentence saying she “stunned colleagues” when she “accused the gay community of looking down on women and deliberately excluding them from the efforts to combat AIDS”. She said these references inaccurately and unfairly described her questions to Mr Parkhill and her attitudes towards gay people, and none of her colleagues was “stunned”.
She said the journalist had not been present on the relevant day and when he called two weeks later to discuss her questions, she explained that while she stood by her words as recorded in the committee’s transcript, they were meant to refer only to an element of the gay community, not all of it. She also said the article unfairly omitted a reply from Mr Parkhill acknowledging that negative attitudes “might exist” in some sections of the gay community.
The Sydney Morning Herald said the words “gay slurs” in the headline were clearly shown in the second sentence as meaning slurs by gay men against women, not slurs by Ms Cusack against the gay community. It said the references to the gay community “looking down” on women and excluding them were fair reflections of her statements at the inquiry; that she had not said anything to dispute this in her conversation with the journalist; and that the article included a quote from her and her statement that she “stood by her comments”.
The newspaper said there was no need to include Mr Parkhill’s additional comments in the print edition of the article, which accurately reflected his statement to the journalist that he was “taken aback” by Ms Cusack’s questions. It said her questions would have been more accurately described as having “stunned the room” rather than “stunned colleagues”, and it offered to amend the online version accordingly.
The Council has concluded that the references to the gay community “looking down” on women and excluding them from efforts to combat AIDS were a reasonable interpretation of Ms Cusack’s questions at the inquiry, even though she may well have intended her comment not to refer to all gay people and may have said so to the journalist.
The headline could have been better expressed to ensure that it was not interpreted as referring to slurs by Ms Cusack. In light of the second paragraph, however, the Council does not consider that the ambiguity was sufficiently serious to constitute a breach of its Standards. It also does not consider that Mr Parkhill’s brief acknowledgement of Ms Cusack’s point, which he heavily qualified in following comments, needed to be included.
The Council considers, however, that the newspaper failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy and fairness of its claim that Ms Cusack had “stunned colleagues” by her questions. There was no evidence to support this claim. Accordingly, the complaint is upheld on this ground.
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Ms Cusack also complained about the way the photograph in the online version of the article made her look and that it contrasted unfavourably with the professional photograph of Mr Parkhill. The newspaper said the photograph was not unfair and was the most recent one taken by it. The Council does not consider that use of the photograph was unfair.
Relevant Council Standards
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This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.”