The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article, “Murder sex tape link – Fresh look at killing of mother and daughter”, in the Herald Sun newspaper on 20 March 2013. The first sentence read: “A home-made sex videotape could have triggered the unsolved … murders of a mother and daughter.” The sentence also mentioned the particular year during the 1980s in which the murders occurred.
The article said police were “having a fresh look” at the murders and the associated rape of the daughter and that “one clue the review will be examining” was that the woman had been having an affair with a man (which the article described by reference to his profession) who had then died before her murder. It said after his death his wife found a videotape of him having sex with the woman and “angrily confronted” her.
The article also said that: “Police have discovered the [man’s] wife was living with a paedophile at the time” of the murders and rape; “[d]ocuments reveal the [man’s] wife paid the paedophile $52,000 about the time of the murders”; and letters from relatives of the man had said his wife hated the woman and “was capable of murdering her”.
The man’s wife complained to the Council that the article was inaccurate and unfair because she had found the sex tape before her husband died, not after, she never spoke to the woman about it, and the friend was not a paedophile and had never lived with her. She said the $52,000 payment was a loan from her husband and herself. She provided the Council with documents recording the loan being paid in five instalments – the first three before her husband died and the last paid 15 months before the murders. The documents also recorded the security given for the loan and its release in 1997, but actual repayment of the loan as a loan was not clearly documented.
The complainant said the article did not respect her privacy because it gave details of her husband’s profession, the murders and the locality, which allowed her to be identified. She said to her knowledge she was not a suspect and had not been interviewed by police since shortly after the murders, more than 25 years ago. She said the police officer handling the case had told her solicitor recently that if he had felt it necessary to contact her, he would have done so. She said she would have corrected the allegations she maintains are false if the journalist had contacted her before publication.
The publication said the article’s statements about the sex tape and the woman’s friend being an alleged paedophile were based on confidential but highly credible sources which it could not disclose but would be verified by material in the police files. It said although the claim of paedophilia was not based on any record of a charge or conviction, the claim was supported by information in materials made available by a confidential source. It said it had also seen material reporting assertions that the money was paid early in the year of the murders, that the former wife of the friend told police the money was a present, and that the money was never repaid. It had not, however, seen any financial records on these matters.
It said the journalist knew the complainant was a “person of interest” to police and therefore it would have been irresponsible to contact her for comment prior to publication and risk interfering with a murder investigation by, for example, enabling her to alter or conceal evidence. It said the journalist was an experienced crime reporter and knew that police do not like journalists interviewing suspects before the police have done so, but it conceded that it had not been told of any intention to re-interview her.
It said the complainant was not identifiable from the article because the names of her and her husband had not been published and the murders happened long ago. Although the complainant had been referred to as “the [professional’s] wife”, the murdered woman had had several lovers from the same profession. It said any privacy concerns were outweighed by the fact that publishing the article might help solve the murders.
The Council’s Principles state that publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. The requisite steps commonly include giving persons an opportunity to respond to allegations before publication and to have their views reasonably reflected in the published material. This is especially so in this case where several of the allegations inferred that the complainant was likely to have arranged two murders.
The Council considers that, if the publication was concerned that approaching the complainant for comment might hinder a police investigation, it should have explicitly asked the police. The Council took this course when the publication initially said that consideration of the complaint was likely to hinder the police. The police told the Council they had no such concerns. Moreover, any risks of alerting the complainant to fresh allegations were greatly diminished by the fact that almost all of them had been reported five years earlier by the same journalist in the same publication.
The Council considers that the failure to contact the complainant was aggravated by the exceptional prominence given on this occasion to the “sex videotape” allegation, the statement that she “paid” the friend although the publication had reason to believe it needed further investigation, and the failure to mention any of the other people regarded as possible suspects. Many of these people were named in a longer online version of the article published the previous day. The failure to seek comment was aggravated by the article using words such as “reveal” and “discover” in relation to matters which were actually allegations, not established facts.
The Council has concluded that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fairness. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is upheld. The failure was of a very serious nature and of considerable concern to the Council. The publication’s assertion that it had relevant and credible information from a confidential source did not remove the need to seek comment and to avoid publishing the claims as if they were established facts.
In relation to the complaint about privacy, the Council recognises it is often necessary to disclose considerable detail when an article aims to trigger recollections among readers that might assist a “cold case” investigation. However, this does not justify portraying allegations as if they are facts. Moreover, if the publication is correct in saying the complainant was not identifiable from the article, then the likelihood of triggering relevant memories about her may have been somewhat remote.
The Council considers that, especially because her husband’s profession and his death were mentioned, the complainant would have been identifiable to some people who knew some of her background but not necessarily some or all of the adverse statements made about her in the article. It has concluded that a significant breach of privacy occurred and that the public interest justification which might often apply to “cold case” articles is not sustainable in this instance because of the failure to give the complainant an opportunity to comment and the description of grave allegations as if they were established facts. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is also upheld.
Note (not required for publication):
The complainant asked for her name to be withheld from the published adjudication. As the complaint related in part to protection of her privacy, the Council agreed to this request.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies two of the Council’s General Principles as they were at the time of publication of the article. They are General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”; and General Principle 4: “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. Rumour and unconfirmed reports should be identified as such.”