The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by material, intended as humorous, published in an area headed “Smile and Be Happy” in the Portland Observer on 9 July 2018 and the Casterton News on 11 July 2018.
The material referred to a man who had texted his neighbor confessing to having an affair with the man’s wife, saying: “I have been helping myself to your wife day and night whenever you’re not around.” It proceeded to say that the man, “anguished and betrayed, went into his bedroom, grabbed his gun, and without a word shot his wife and killed her. A few moments a second text came to the man saying ‘Bloody autocorrect! I meant ‘wifi’, not ‘wife’…”
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether it took reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest as required by General Principle 6.
The publication said that the material was a joke contributed by a reader, published in a television guide that was common to the Hamilton Spectator, Portland Observer and Casterton News. It said that although there was a vetting process for contributed humorous material, on this occasion the material slipped through the process because a less experienced sub-editor was undertaking the vetting on the day. The publication said it received a number of complaints from members of the community about the material.
The publication said it published a reply from a local women’s health organisation and shire council representatives in the following week’s television guide. It also included a “Publisher’s note” apologising for the material. In the “Smile and Be Happy” area it explained that the material was a contributed joke which had by-passed normal checking procedures and should not have been published and it apologised. The publication also said it has since decided to no longer publish contributed jokes in this manner.
The Council considers that the material caused substantial offence and distress, as it implicitly conveys the message that, had there not been a typographical error in the text message, the action of the husband in killing his wife in a fit of jealousy was excusable and, in so doing, communicated a disregard for the serious issue of domestic violence and violence against women. It also implicitly objectified women as sexual objects that men ‘can help themselves to’ on the one hand but not seek their views on the other.
The Council accepts that the material was contributed by a reader; however it notes it is the responsibility of the publication to comply with the Council’s Standards of Practice and exercise editorial control over such material.
The Council welcomes the measures taken by the publication, including the apology and the published response. The measures taken by the publication do not, however, remove the effects of the breach. Accordingly, the Council considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest. In doing so it breached General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication)
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
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.