The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an editorial in the Hamilton Spectator on 25 April 2015, which formed part of the paper’s weekly editorial known as “The Spec ‘BLOG’”. It commented on the punishment of two offenders in separate child abuse cases. One involved a former priest who had lost an appeal against a prison sentence for the indecent assault of a nine year old girl. The other involved a former Hamilton teacher, sentenced to imprisonment for 18 months. The editorial opined that the suspended sentence for an 83 year old infirm priest living in a nursing home “seemed pointless” and that he was “obviously not going to re-offend”. The former teacher was said to have “got 18 months gaol for merely touching an U16 girl’s breast and genitals”. The editorial noted the judge in the matter had described the offence as “‘at the lower end of the scale’”, and “yet the guy still drew 18 months with six to be served immediately”. The editorial stated “something like this for the middle-age bachelor has the hallmarks of misguided curiosity” and “you could argue that this was closer to a case of appalling manners than major crime”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice requiring that reasonable steps be taken to “avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice”. The publication was also asked to comment on the references to the teacher “merely touching” the female student, to the “misguided curiosity” of the offender, and the suggestion the child abuse was “closer to a case of appalling manners than a major crime”.
The publication said the intention was to consider the wide range of impacts that such abuse can have. The editorial had repeated what a judge had said in one of the cases that the offence was “at the lower end of the scale”. The publication said the scale concerned would be the worst crimes at one end, and bad manners at the other, and that its attempt was to echo what the judge had said, namely that in some cases the offence could be at the lower “bad manners” end of that scale. It said it was not suggesting child abuse was akin to bad manners and acknowledged the poor choice of words had contributed to the offence caused to many readers.
The publication said it had done all it could to rectify the misunderstanding. It provided substantial opportunities for readers and editorial staff to publish criticism of the editorial. It said it also published a follow-up “Blog” in which it acknowledged the word “merely” has been “thoughtless” and “clearly offensive”. It said sexual assault involving children was “particularly repugnant”, that it apologised to victims of sexual abuse and their families, and noted this apology had received wide distribution across several media outlets and via social media.
The Council accepts that some of the opinions expressed in the editorial may have been the result of poor expression. However, the effect of the editorial was to trivialise the crime and crimes of that kind.
The expressions used with reference to child sexual assault, in particular terms such as “merely touching” and “misguided curiosity” reflect a significant misunderstanding of the nature and effects of this type of offending and of its seriousness.
Council notes the paper published a number of critical responses, including from its own staff. A follow-up editorial on 29 April expressed regret, although no apology, and stood by the comments which were made. A subsequent piece published on 2 May contained a more general but qualified apology that began with a claim that the publication’s critics were like a “lynch mob”.
Council concludes that the editorial would have caused substantial offence to a large number of victims, their families and to members of the wider community. The measures taken by the publication in publishing responses does not remove the effects of the breach, nor does the rather grudging apology prevent the matter being treated as a significant breach. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of its Standards in relation to General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following Standard of Practice of the Council:
6: “Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”