The sub-heading read: “SAME-SEX marriage supporters claim cars were used as weapons in the first violent clash between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigners ahead of the postal vote.” Below this was a 27-second excerpt of video from the scene which “shows protesters gathering around a four-wheel drive trying to make its way through the crowd”. The opening paragraph began: “THE debate over same-sex marriage turned ugly last night when a protest by ‘yes’ campaigners erupted into violent scenes. Protesters outside a Brisbane church claimed they were attacked with cars as they gathered to oppose a meeting they described as a ‘homophobic forum’”. Further on, it reported: “The event, which gathered support on Facebook, was billed as a ‘protest/dance party/street festival/glitter fest’, but quickly deteriorated into a violent clash between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigners.”
The article also reported that police “attended the gathering at St Michael’s Dorrington Catholic Church at Ashgrove and at least one woman was treated by paramedics”, the person who reportedly “was injured at the scene”. She was the only individual from the scene whose words were quoted. She said she “suffered an injury because people drove their cars nearly at full speed into the yes campaigners”. A caption to one of the three photographs, attributed to the television station from which the video excerpt was sourced, said: “Police officers were called in to bring the crowd under control but no arrests were made.”
The second half of the article referred to the protest in the broader context of the “national postal vote”, including comments from two politicians, and mentioned a “petition calling for support for the Australian Medical Association’s position in favour of marriage equality”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether, in reporting on the protest, it took reasonable steps to ensure factual material was accurate and not misleading and distinguishable from other material such as opinion (General Principle 1), and was presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3).
The publication said the reference to “clash” in the headline was appropriate and correct use of the word does not require or necessarily imply violence. It said proponents for and against same-sex marriage clash in their beliefs and demands.
The publication said the article, for instance in the sub-heading, makes it clear that allegations such as cars being used to attack people were mere claims. It said paramedics treated one woman at the scene and police at the time said one person was arrested for obstructing police.
It also said the article did not deal solely with the protest but reports a number of developments in the same-sex marriage issue and a range of views from both sides. It said the article was based on witness accounts and footage from the protest—included in the story—as well as information provided at the time by police and ambulance services confirming the incident.
The Press Council considers that the reference to a “clash” in the headline, the statement in the sub-heading that “cars were used as weapons” and the statement “quickly deteriorated in to a violent clash” amounted to statements of fact and an assertion that there was a violent clash.
The article appeared to rely on untested claims of a single demonstrator that “people drove their cars nearly at full speed into the yes campaigners”. The article contained no material supporting the claim that the clash was violent. The claims were questionable on the information presented. Police were said to be in attendance but “no arrests were made”. The video depicted protestors chanting with placards and police ushering a slow-moving car through the crowd of demonstrators.
The publication said that although the reporter made some inquiries with police about the protest, the reporter was not at the scene and had based the coverage of the protest on footage from a television station broadcast the evening before publication.
The Council concludes that in reporting a “violent clash” in the manner that it did, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material was accurate and not misleading and was distinguishable from other material such as opinion. Accordingly, it breached General Principle 1.
The Council also considers that in reporting a “violent clash”, the basis for which appeared to be only one quoted demonstrator, there was no attempt to test the reliability of the claims, particularly an allegation as serious as people driving their cars “nearly at full speed into the yes campaigners”. Absent police or other comments supporting such statements and absent an opportunity for anyone from the church to provide comment, the Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure fairness and balance in the article. Accordingly, the publication also breached General Principle 3.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication)
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.
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.