The Press Council has considered whether a series of news reports in The Sydney Morning Herald between August and December 2013 breached its Standards of Practice. The articles concerned public and parliamentary debate about a Bill in the Parliament of New South Wales seeking to define a foetus as a legally recognised person once it reached 20 weeks or 400 grams, for the purposes of the crime of causing grievous bodily harm to a person.
The relevant Standards of Practice relate to fairness and balance in the overall coverage by the publication. The headlines on all but one of the articles highlighted the views of opponents of the Bill, rather than its supporters. Examples include “Doctors, lawyers push case against planned abortion law”; “Proposed amendment to Zoe’s bill dismissed by critics”; “Law on foetal rights bill ‘will put many women at risk’”; “No need for foetal rights bill, says Law Society”.
The articles reported a number of parliamentarians as supporters or opponents of the Bill, but while it reported the view of many community sources who opposed the Bill, very few community voices in support were reported. The parliamentary debate was reported very sparsely, despite being subsequently described by one of the publication’s journalists as of an unusually high standard. A small majority of speeches were by opponents and they were reported a little more than those by supporters.
A number of opinion articles and letters were published during this time in addition to the news reports. None of them appeared to be in support of the legislation, although nine opposing pieces were published.
The publication submitted to the Council that the articles “reflected the fierce debate and wide-ranging voices in the community as parliamentary debate progressed”. It said most of the main public voices opposed the Bill, including in statements by leading legal, medical and women's groups and by a number of female MPs.
The publication said its frequent efforts to find people willing to publicly support the Bill were largely unsuccessful. In particular, it said it could not find any medical or health group willing to do so. It said the few prominent supporters who would speak publicly were reported, including on several occasions the MP who introduced the Bill as well as the Attorney-General and another Minister. It also said because this was a private member’s Bill and there was no public consultation process before it was introduced to parliament, it was in the public interest to report the views of these many groups.
The Council has noted many opponents reported by the publication were prominent representative bodies and there was no evidence any similar body which supported the Bill had been ignored. On the other hand, 22 speakers in the parliamentary debate supported the Bill, often at some length, but it appears none of them nor anyone else was invited to submit an opinion piece or letter to the editor so the publication’s coverage might be more balanced.
Publications should, and commonly do, make some effort to identify and publish a range of different views on controversial issues of public importance. But the Council’s Standards do not require complete or approximate balance, especially where little or no material from a particular viewpoint is submitted to it or readily obtainable. In any event, there are many circumstances which may justify greater emphasis being given to particular perspectives in the coverage of an issue.
The Council considers the publication might well have achieved better fairness and balance in this case by giving prominence to some of the supportive speeches in the Parliament or asking the speakers to submit a letter or opinion piece, in the lengthy period during which the parliamentary debate continued. However, the Council does not consider the failure to do so in these particular circumstances so significant as to constitute a breach of the relevant Standard of Practice.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.”