The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by two articles published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 22 January 2015, relating to police investigations into a missing child, William Tyrrell. The first article, a front page report, was headed “Investigation focuses on tradesman” and the second was an online article headed “William Harrie Spedding the focus of William Tyrell [sic] investigation”. The front page article included a large photograph of Mr Spedding and a smaller inset image of the missing “toddler”, William Tyrrell. It reported on developments in a police investigation into the missing child including searches of Mr Spedding’s properties, and excavations carried out at his home.
After receiving a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether such prominent treatment focusing on a single “person of interest” had breached the Standards of Practice relating to privacy and fairness, as Mr Spedding had not been arrested or charged and police said at the time it was “not a major breakthrough”, “no person had been charged” and “a number of persons had been spoken to as part of this phase of the investigation”.
The publication said it had accurately reported details of what it said was a major development in the police investigation into the disappearance of William Tyrrell, missing since September 2014. It said in reporting on these developments, it had taken steps to offer several opportunities to Mr Spedding and his family to address the police interest in him. Although Mr Spedding declined to comment, a close friend “had spoken on his behalf” and his comments defending Mr Spedding were prominently featured in the article. The publication also said the article was balanced and not limited to reporting on Mr Spedding as it had also reported another line of enquiry, the police search of a local caravan park.
The publication said it did not dispute the intrusion on Mr Spedding’s privacy created by the coverage of the developments in the police investigation. However, it said this was justified given the case was of significant public interest. The search for the child had continued for several months. This was a two-day, very public search in a small local community, of Mr Spedding’s premises. The publication said this included the excavation of a septic tank in the backyard of his property and noted that the level of local disruption and attention created by the searches significantly diminished Mr Spedding’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
The Press Council’s General Principles require material to be presented with reasonable fairness and balance and to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy. This is especially so in cases reporting on police investigations, as prominent treatment of a person may cause readers to infer the culpability of a person who may not in fact be implicated in a crime. However, this does not necessarily require omission of matters which are on the public record or significantly in the public interest, provided such details are reported accurately and fairly.
The Council considers these articles accurately reflected the shifting focus of a lengthy and involved police operation conducted over several months and of great public interest. At the time of the report, the police interest in Mr Spedding had intensified with police conducting searches of two properties of his in the public gaze. The expectation of privacy in such circumstances is lower. In the circumstances, the article did not infringe on a reasonable expectation of privacy. As to fairness and balance, the article informed the public of the progress of the investigation and of the level of scrutiny focused on Mr Spedding at that time. The headline did not imply that Mr Spedding was the only person of interest.
Council is of the view that more prominence could have been given to police comments that Mr Spedding was only a “person of interest”. However, the inclusion of comments in support of Mr Spedding contributed to the articles’ overall fairness and balance.
Accordingly, Council has concluded that its Standards of Practice were not breached.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
5: Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.