The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article headed “ABC HERO A VILLAIN: Q&A sob story star exposed as a thug as public donate $60,000” published on the front page of the Herald Sun on 13 May 2016 and with a similar heading online the day before.
The articles followed a sequence of events in which: (a) a man posed a question from the audience on ABC TV’s ‘Q&A’ Budget Election Special on Monday, 9 May 2016, asking why government policy favoured large corporate tax cuts while low income-earners like himself could not afford to take his family to the cinema; (b) an ABC producer tweeted that the man had become a ‘new national hero’ (which was subsequently deleted); (c) the man received considerable media attention in the following days; and (d) members of the public initiated a public funding campaign on the ‘Go Fund Me’ platform for the man, which raised over $60,000 in donations.
The article sought to challenge the man’s ‘hero’ status, reporting that he had a number of convictions for crimes of violence (including threats to kill, unlawful assault, criminal damage and breaches of intervention orders) and had been imprisoned “at least three times over the past 25 years”. The articles also contained quotes from the man’s adult son from a previous relationship, suggesting he had not been a good father or role model and asking members of the public to exercise their generosity by donating to a cancer charity instead of his father.
After receiving complaints about the article (not from the man himself), the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice, including those relating to fairness and balance, and not intruding on privacy or causing greater offence, distress or prejudice, or risk to health or safety, than is justifiable in the public interest.
The publication said the man chose to appear on Q&A and made other media appearances and interviews making statements about the nation’s political landscape, in the midst of a federal election campaign in which social welfare issues were part of the campaign. This was reported extensively as a high profile issue for three days before the online article appeared. The publication said it was fair and balanced to provide readers with further details about the man and his life, his criminal record and his son, particularly in light of the GoFundMe campaign. It said it did not report all information available to it. It also said it was fair and balanced to address the readiness of the ABC to elevate people like the man who were critical of the federal government to hero status without properly scrutinising them. The publication noted that it had made extensive efforts to contact the man by phone and email before the article appeared, but without success. The publication also said its use of the terms of “thug” and “villain” were justified given the man’s criminal record.
The publication also said it is normal and legitimate journalistic practice for the media to investigate individuals who are the subject of considerable public debate. Given the man’s choice to make such public comments it was reasonable in the circumstances for it to publish the material and the man had foregone any reasonable expectation of privacy. In any event there was a legitimate public interest in investigating the man’s background including his criminal record and the comments of his son. The public interest was even greater because the debate surrounding the issue arose in the context of an election campaign and because the public was being invited to donate money for the man, with substantial donations being made. The publication said that had it not published the material, it would in fact have been misleading its readers.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3) and avoid intrusion on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy (General Principle 5) and causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress, prejudice or risk to health or safety (General Principle 6), unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”
In relation to fairness and balance, the Council considers that the publication’s reporting of the man’s background resulted from the entirety of the circumstances, in which he had: become part of the public debate about taxation fairness during an election campaign, been described a national hero, made multiple media statements himself and, especially, become the subject of a significant public fundraising campaign. While the man did not necessarily seek this level of attention or financial rewards, it was not a breach of General Principle 3 for the publication to report frankly about his background and to use epithets that reflect his criminal record. Accordingly, General Principle 3 was not breached.
In relation to privacy and distress, the Council considers the publication of some aspects of the man’s criminal record and family background may have been an intrusion on the man’s privacy and may have caused some level of offence, distress, prejudice, and risk to health and safety. The Council might have been concerned if such exposure was the consequence for anyone daring to ask a challenging question, so producing a chilling effect on free speech. However, in the particular circumstances, given the man’s previous convictions—the most recent one being in 2014—his appearance on Q&A, his subsequent interviews, the GoFundMe Campaign and the reporting of the issue in the three days leading up to the article, the Council is not satisfied the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on his reasonable expectation of privacy or causing substantial offence, distress, prejudice or risk to health or safety.
In any event, the Council concludes that to the extent the article did intrude on the man’s reasonable expectations of privacy or contribute to substantial offence, distress, prejudice, or risk to health or safety, it was justified in the public interest to report his background, especially given the GoFundMe campaign. The Council considers there is a public interest in all Australians—including those who have committed offences in the past or otherwise behaved in ways which might rightly be criticised—having a fair opportunity to participate in public debate, especially in the context of an election campaign. However, in this particular situation there was a greater public interest in informing the public about the man’s background. Accordingly, the Council concludes that General Principles 5 and 6 were not breached.
Relevant Council Standards
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.
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.