The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published on news.com.au on 10 May 2016 headed “Campaign for justice over death of Lynette Daley, left to bleed after ‘wild sex’”.
The article concerned the death of Lynette Daley in January 2011. It said Ms Daley was found “stark naked, bruised and bloodied” on a northern NSW beach, and that an autopsy found “she died from blunt force trauma to her genital tract, and had suffered horrific internal and external injuries after a violent sex act.” The article identified “[t]he two men who were with her [who] both admitted to having sex with the woman, but claimed it was consensual.” It said “a coroner later found that, with an extremely high blood-alcohol reading of 0.352, there was no way the woman would have been able to consent to the sex acts performed on her. She may not have even been conscious.” The article said that although the men had been charged over the incident, “the NSW Director [of] Public Prosecutions [DPP] formally declined to prosecute on two separate occasions” and referred to protests by Ms Daley’s family against the DPP’s decision and a petition addressed to the DPP.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached General Principles 1 and 3 of its Standards of Practice, which require that a publication take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading, and is presented with reasonable fairness and balance. The Council also asked the publication to comment on whether it took reasonable steps to provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if the material was inaccurate or misleading as required by General Principle 2, and to 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, as required by General Principle 6.
The publication emphasised that the article was the fifth in a series of six articles over consecutive days which drew attention to the death of Ms Daley, the coroner’s findings and the explanation provided by the men. The publication said using the term “wild sex” in the headline did not imply Ms Daley consented to the sexual acts, and the story referred explicitly to the finding by the coroner that Ms Daley could not have consented to sexual acts. It said it had published a number of articles which addressed this issue and the campaign for justice. Its regular readers would be well aware of the “wild sex” claim and the coroner’s view, and the reader of this particular article would also be clear about their relevance when they read the story.
It was not its intention at all to blame Ms Daley. It said the use of the term “wild sex” was not in breach of the Standards of Practice because readers needed to understand why the men had, until the time of the story, not been prosecuted.
The publication said after the Council raised a concern with it a few days after the article first appeared, the publication added a URL link to a later article in another publication to explain that the term “wild sex” arose from the fact that the men claimed they had engaged in a drunken night of “wild sex” and claimed it was consensual. It also added an Editor’s note that the story had been updated to clarify that this is what the men told police, although the coroner had since found Ms Daley would have been unable to consent to the sexual acts performed on her.
The Council considers that the original article should be read independently, and that it cannot be assumed all readers would have read the later or earlier articles in the publication. The words “wild sex” as used in the headline and the first paragraph were not attributed to the two men or their representatives.
The Council acknowledges that the article was one in a series which were sympathetic to complaints by Ms Daley’s family about the decision by the DPP not to prosecute. However, the Council considers that the heading and the first paragraph misleadingly and unfairly suggested Ms Daley had consented to sexual acts immediately before her death. Accordingly, the Council considers the material breached General Principles 1 and 3.
As the true situation was made sufficiently clear when the Editor’s note was added and the URL link included in the article, the Council considers the publication took reasonable steps to take remedial action. Accordingly, it concludes that General Principle 2 was not breached.
The Council considers that the article is likely to have caused some offence, distress or prejudice but, as it was corrected quickly, the Council concludes the publication took reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice. Accordingly, the Council concludes that its General Principle 6 was not breached.
Relevant Council Standards:
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
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.
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.