The Press Council considered a complaint about an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on 17 October 2017 headed in print “Teacher fatally stabbed at bus stop tried in vain to flee” and online “Special hearing begins into death of teacher Brian Liston at Camperdown bus stop”.
The article reported on a hearing in the NSW Supreme Court concerning the murder of Brian Liston on the evening of 10 December 2015. The article reported that the accused had been found unfit to stand trial due to the state of his mental health. The article drew on witnesses’ descriptions of the incident detailing the weapon used to murder Mr Liston, the areas of the body where the wounds were inflicted, the approximate number of wounds inflicted, and the actions of the accused when inflicting the wounds and pursuing Mr Liston. The online article included a photograph of Mr Liston holding his two young children and included a short excerpt of a video recording of police interviewing the accused soon after the murder.
The complainant said reporting the explicit and disturbing details concerning the manner in which Mr Liston was murdered breached the family’s reasonable expectation of privacy and caused substantial offence and distress to his family, friends, community, and former primary school students. The complainant said the high level of detail concerning the murder should not have been published without considering the effect on Mr Liston’s family—particularly his young children, who are unaware of the precise details of how their father died. The complainant said the inclusion of the photograph of Mr Liston holding his two children was taken from the funeral booklet and was published without their consent. She said the funeral booklet included a clear request that no attendee cooperate with, or comment to, the media, as the family requested that its privacy be respected.
In response, the publication said the case was heard in open court and there is no part of the article that was not on the public record. The information in the article was widely available. The publication said there was a public interest in reporting on the case as it raises questions about the care and support available for mentally ill people and, more broadly, safety on suburban streets. The publication said it acknowledges the incident was distressing but the incident was widely known. The publication volunteered, however, that the online article ought to have had a ‘graphic content’ warning at the top to signal to readers that they may not wish to read it and also conceded it ought to have pixelated the faces of the children. The publication said, in relation to the funeral booklet, that it was handed to its reporter after she introduced herself to a funeral organiser at the public service. At a late stage in the Council’s process the publication altered the online article by including a ‘graphic content’ warning and removing the images of Mr Liston’s children from the photograph.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy (General Principle 5) and causing or contributing materially to substantial offence and distress (General Principle 6), and to avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means (General Principle 7) without sufficient justification in the public interest.
The Council accepts there is a strong public interest in reporting on the due administration of justice and matters of public health and safety, particularly in this instance in drawing attention to the care and support available for people with serious mental illness and the risk that a lack of such care may pose to the broader community. However, the public interest in this matter did not extend to publishing the photograph from the funeral booklet. The Council notes the family’s explicit request for privacy in the funeral booklet and considers the family—in particular the children depicted in the photograph—had a reasonable expectation of privacy in this regard. As the publication did not take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on the family’s reasonable expectations of privacy, and there was no public interest justifying this, the publication breached General Principle 5, in this respect only.
With regard to offence and distress, the Council recognises that what was reported in the article was a matter of public record. However, the Council emphasises that, beyond the strict requirements of the law, publications have a responsibility to ensure compliance with the Standards of Practice which may extend to not reporting particular information that has been given in open court. The application of General Principle 6 can call for difficult judgments to be made. The Council considers the explicit description of how Mr Liston was pursued and murdered, which included where on his body the injuries were inflicted, an estimate of the number of wounds and, in particular, precisely how they were inflicted was more than necessary or appropriate to achieve the publication’s understandable aims of serving the public interest. The Council concluded that by including the level of detail that it did, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial distress to Mr Liston’s family, without sufficient public interest justifying this. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 6.
The Council accepts that the funeral was not a private service and that the journalist was provided with the funeral booklet upon introducing herself to the funeral organisers. Given this, the Council concludes the publication did not publish material gathered by deceptive or unfair means. Accordingly, the publication did not breach General Principle 7.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication)
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.
7. Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.