The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article in the Bundaberg News Mail on 23 April 2014 headed “Fatal car crash a sad end to Easter” (in print) and “Cruel Carving left on tree as tragic crash is investigated” (online). The article concerned a fatal collision between a car and a tree, which occurred on 20 April without the apparent involvement of another vehicle. A short report of the collision had appeared on 22 April.
The complainant is a member of the victim’s family and said the article caused unnecessary offence to the grieving family and breached its privacy. In particular, it reported a witness describing the scene as “horrific”, a police officer speculating about possible causes of the accident and some words (which she regarded as cruel and offensive) being carved on the tree after the accident. It also published a photograph of the tree, although the words of the carving were not clearly visible. She said these matters were not sufficiently in the public interest to justify the grave impact on the family, especially as the accident occurred outside the town and had already been reported in the publication.
The publication said the accident was of significant public interest for the local community and the report was similar to the manner in which it usually reported serious accidents, including comments by police about possible causes. It pointed out that the victim was not named and said the description of the scene as “horrific” was not detailed or graphic. It said it deliberately did not report other rumours circulating in the town about the accident, and that the carving was so unusual and distasteful that it was appropriate for readers to know about it.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced and to respect the privacy and sensibility of individuals, while remaining free to publish matters if it is sufficiently in the public interest to do so.
The Council considered that the article, coming two days after the initial report of the accident, gave more emphasis than necessary to the selective speculation of the police officer about the possible cause of the accident, and could reasonably have been expected to give more emphasis to the behaviour of whoever carved the offensive words in the tree (which the witness described as "horrific").
The Council has concluded, however, that it was sufficiently in the public interest to report the witness’s statement, the police comments and the words on the tree, despite the likely impact on the grieving family. Accordingly, while the article might have been written with more sympathy for the family, the complaint is not upheld.
However, the Council reiterates the need for great caution in cases of this kind to avoid causing unnecessary distress or invasion of privacy, particularly in reporting speculation about the cause of an accident.
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”; and General Principle 4: “News and comment should be presented accurately and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibility of individuals. However, the right to privacy should not 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.”