The Press Council considered a complaint about two articles published in The Canberra Times headed “Former cop sues for psychiatric injury caused by horror car crash” on 14 May 2015, and “Former cop in horror crash to be paid $1.225 million. But who will foot the bill?” on 31 August 2015.
The articles stated that a former NSW Police officer, who was identified by name, was a passenger in a police car which had pursued a stolen vehicle, apparently unregistered and uninsured, from New South Wales into the Australian Capital Territory after attempting to stop that vehicle. The police car had ceased the pursuit shortly before that vehicle ran a red light and caused a high speed collision with a third vehicle, killing all occupants of the third vehicle. The driver of the stolen vehicle later died in hospital and a passenger in that vehicle suffered serious injuries. The former officer provided first aid to the occupants of two vehicles involved in the collision at the scene.
The first article reported the former officer’s case that he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression as a result of the negligence of the driver of the stolen vehicle. The ACT Government authority defending the claim argued that the driver of the police vehicle and the NSW Government were also negligent and claimed contribution from them to any compensation payment made to the former officer. The former officer claimed $960,000 for economic loss to himself and his wife, who had been forced to leave her job to care for him. The second article reported the agreement in July 2013 between the former officer and the ACT Government authority to $1.225 million in compensation, and the ACT Supreme Court case in May 2015 on the issue of contribution.
The complainant said the articles breached the former officer’s privacy and risked aggravating his mental health condition. The complainant said that if the publication had made enquiries before the articles were published it would have revealed a history of court orders suggesting public disclosure of the former officer’s mental health condition would likely exacerbate it.
The complainant referred, for example, to orders of the ACT Coroners Court in February 2012 that publication of the officer’s “mental condition and the content of the documents given to the Coroner by his solicitor is prohibited".
The complainant also said that the publication’s reporter attending the Supreme Court proceedings on 11 May 2015 would have heard submissions about setting aside a subpoena for the former officer to attend as a witness due to the potential of this to aggravate his mental health condition. The complainant added that evidence tendered to the Court established that the former officer was hospitalised at that time and at significant risk of further health problems.
The publication responded that two Supreme Court decisions relating to the former officer’s claim for compensation – both mentioning the former officer’s psychiatric injury – had been published on the Supreme Court website. It said the first article was based on the second of the Supreme Court decisions, and there was nothing in the decisions that raised concerns about public disclosure of the former officer’s name or mental health status. The publication said the findings of the coronial inquest into the collision, which also mentioned the former officer’s mental and emotional state, were also published online.
The publication said the former officer’s mental health had no bearing on the coronial inquest, which focused on the cause of the collision, whereas his mental health and who, if anyone, was liable to pay compensation were the central issues in the Supreme Court proceedings. The publication added that it is entitled to report what is said in open court, in the absence of any law or suppression orders to the contrary.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that they avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy and 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 (General Principles 5 and 6).
The Council notes that beyond the strict requirements of the law (such as the need to comply with statutory obligations and suppression orders), publications have a further responsibility to ensure compliance with the Standards of Practice, which may extend to moderating or not reporting particular information said in open court. The question in this instance is whether, in the absence of any suppression order by the Supreme Court, the publication has any obligation under the Standards of Practice to omit the former officer’s name or the details of his mental health condition, even though this information was on the public record and accessible via the Court’s website.
The Council is sensitive to the distress that might be caused to a person suffering from mental health conditions such as PTSD where this is revealed publicly. However, the details of the former officer’s mental health condition were central to the Supreme Court’s considerations, no orders for suppression had been made, they were discussed in open court and repeated in the published decision of the Court which is publicly accessible on the internet, and it was not directly brought to the publication’s attention that revealing the former officer’s name risked aggravating his condition. The Council does not consider the circumstances of the case or the earlier coronial and court orders gave the former officer a reasonable expectation that his name and mental health condition would not be published, or that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on any reasonable expectation of privacy.
In addition, both General Principles 5 and 6 allow publication where it is sufficiently in the public interest. The Council considers that in this case there was a strong public interest in open justice, including the freedom of the press to explore matters of public importance, such as police pursuits and the effects of road accidents on victims and first responders.
In all the circumstances, the Council is satisfied the publication took reasonable steps to avoid intruding on any reasonable expectation of privacy of the former officer or to avoid contributing to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or substantial risk to health or safety. In any event, the reporting was sufficiently in the public interest. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principle 5 or 6 and the complaint is not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest
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.”