The Press Council considered a complaint about material published as a letter to the editor in the Manningham Leader in print on 15 May 2017, headed “LETTER OF THE WEEK: Get more buses on roads”.
An article in the publication concerning the Victorian Government’s bus services concluded: “Now we have to make sure Spring St hears the message, so tell us what you think. Email, write letters or comment on our Facebook page. And we’ll tell the Government. Loud and clear. And for free.” These statements were followed by the publication’s email address, Facebook page, and postal address.
The complainant said in response to the article, she emailed the publication with details about her experience using the bus services, believing that the publication was conducting a petition and would pass on her comments to the government. The complainant said the article did not indicate that her response would be published, and implied the comments received by the publication would be collected and provided to the government in an effort to lobby on the community’s behalf.
The complainant said her email was published as a letter to the editor without notice or consent, and provided her first and last name, details of her daily commute, and the suburb in which she lives. The complainant said consent should not simply be inferred from her contacting the publication. She said she takes great care to maintain her privacy, and this has been compromised by the publication of these details, particularly given her distinct surname. She said she would have expected the publication to contact her and seek consent for her comments to be published, especially as her comments were made a more prominent ‘letter of the week’ and were edited without her consent.
The publication said the complainant made contact via its email address in response to a campaign and that most letters to the editor are received and published in this way. The publication said it receives all correspondence through its general email address, and a reporter and its editor determine whether each item is a letter to the editor or some other material.
The publication said it was not its usual practice to contact letter writers to confirm their identity or consent to publish, unless there were concerning content or legal issues. It said it does not have a published policy on, or specific email address for, letters to the editor, although its letters page on its website states that it reserves the right to edit letters.
The publication said the email was not marked ‘not for publication’, there was no indication the complainant did not want her name to be used or did not intend the email for anyone other than the publication, and it had no reason to believe the complainant did not want her letter published. It said the complainant would have been aware it is a publication that publishes letters and comments submitted to it, and that it aims to give a voice to people by publishing views and opinions from the public so decision makers can become aware of public sentiment; to just pass on a batch of submitted letters to the government would be futile. The publication said the original article’s call for letters followed the form and spirit of the words it has used for decades.
The publication said the published letter includes the complainant’s name and details of her commute, and this is not sufficient information to allow anyone to determine her residential address. It said that it acted in good faith, there had been a misunderstanding, it had no intention of upsetting the complainant and it apologised to her for publishing the letter.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy (General Principle 5), or publishing material gathered by unfair means (General Principle 7)—unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The Council notes that the publication did not provide an email address designated for letters to the editor and the complainant did not submit her email to such an address. Had it been submitted to such an address, it would have been clearer how her comments could be expected to be used. Further, the complainant was responding to a general call for comment, and did not mark her email as a letter to the editor.
The Council considers that the complainant had a reasonable expectation that the comments contained in her email would not be published without her prior consent. The publication could have contacted her before publication and checked the email was submitted as a letter to the editor but did not do so. Given this, the Council concludes that the publication did not take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on the complainant’s reasonable expectations of privacy, and there was no public interest justifying doing so, in particular, publishing the email without the complainant being notified and giving consent. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 5.
The Council also considers the call for comment in the original article was not published with an intention to unfairly gather letters from readers or to deceive. Although the publication could have contacted the complainant before publication to check the basis on which the letter was submitted, the Council accepts the email was received and published under a belief that it was submitted for publication in response to an invitation for comment. Given this, the Council concludes the publication took reasonable steps to avoid publishing material gathered by deceptive or unfair means. Accordingly, the publication did not breach General Principle 7.
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.
7. Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.