The Press Council considered a complaint from Victoria Police about an article published in The Sunday Age on 25 October 2015, headed “Strip-searched in Carlton on a sunny afternoon” in print and online.
The article, written in the first person, described the writer’s experience of being questioned by two police officers at a bus stop in Lygon Street about a theft of a T-shirt from a nearby store. The article suggested that the police considered the writer to be a possible suspect. The incident occurred mid-afternoon, in view of any passers-by and passengers in a stationary bus. The writer said one of the officers “squatted with a camera and told [the writer] to take down [his] pants to check whether the stolen T-shirt was hidden there”, and “to drop his underpants” as well. He said the officer “took photographs of [his] pubic hair”, “[t]hen demanded that [he] take down [his] trackies at the back” and the officer “knelt and archived [his] worn out old bum”. The article stated that a number of other questions were asked of the writer before he was then able to “pull [his] pants up again”. The article was accompanied by a cartoon of two police officers photographing a man with his pants at his ankles.
The writer made a detailed complaint to Victoria Police on 23 October 2015.
The complainant said the writer’s assertions in the article were found to be false by the Victoria Police Professional Standards Command. In a letter dated 1 November 2015, Victoria Police informed the publication of this and called for a correction. In March 2017, the writer was found guilty by the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria of making a false report to police. The complainant asked the publication on a number of occasions over a lengthy period of time to print a correction, including a request following the Court’s finding of guilt, but no correction was printed. The complainant also said that given the seriousness and unusual nature of the writer’s allegations, the publication ought to have contacted it prior to publication to seek comment on the alleged events. The complainant said the article unfairly tarnished its reputation and could have significantly affected the careers of the officers involved.
The publication said it had a four-decade long association with the writer, who was “of some renown” and who had published a book on the police force. It said it accepted the article in good faith. It had refrained from publishing the article until after a formal statement by the writer was lodged with the police. The publication said this demonstrated the writer’s confidence in his version of events and these factors contributed to the publication’s belief in the accuracy of the events as described. The publication said because the article was not a news piece, its processes were less stringent than they might otherwise have been. Accordingly, it did not seek comment from the complainant.
The publication said upon receiving the complainant’s concerns about the article, it immediately removed the online version. The publication said it did not issue a correction or apology as it had observed discrepancies in the complainant’s version of events as against CCTV footage of the incident. The publication said it accepted the writer had been found guilty of making a false report to police, but maintained its belief that an inappropriate search had been conducted by the police officers, albeit not as described in the article. The publication said it was not willing to print a correction in the absence of conclusive evidence supporting the complainant’s version of events and it had instead suggested the matter be referred for investigation by an independent ombudsman.
The publication said following the Court’s decision, it published an article in print and online headed “Writer found guilty of making a false report” on 4 June 2017. This article referred to the writer’s account of events as published in the original article, the complainant’s immediate denial, and the Court’s findings regarding the conduct of the officers. The publication said it believed this article accurately and ethically corrected the record.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading, is distinguishable from other material such as opinion (General Principle 1), 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 (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or refers adversely to a person, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council considers that the serious nature of the article’s allegations required the publication to take more steps than it took before publication to verify the writer’s account, such as contacting the complainant for corroboration or comment. The Council does not consider the publication’s reliance on its relationship with the writer and his filing of a formal complaint to the police amounted to reasonable steps to ensure the article’s account of events was accurate and not misleading. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 1.
The publication eventually accepted the article was inaccurate but, due to its reservations about the complainant’s version of events, did not at any stage make an apology or correction. The Council considers that, notwithstanding the publication’s reservations about the events of the day, sufficient evidence was provided to the publication prior to the Court hearing to demonstrate the article was significantly inaccurate and misleading on a number of key points, including statements that the police officer directed the writer to take down his pants and underpants and photographed his pubic hair. After the Court hearing and conviction, there was no doubt about the inaccuracies. The article in June 2017, which did not identify or acknowledge the inaccuracies in the original article, does not constitute adequate remedial action. As such, the publication also breached General Principle 2. The Council encourages the publication to publish a correction and apology, which it considers is warranted in the circumstances.
Given its conclusions on other aspects of the complaint, the Council considers it unnecessary to reach conclusions in relation to General Principles 3 and 4.
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.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.