The Press Council considered a complaint from Mariam Veiszadeh about an article published on 14 November 2018 by The Herald Sun headed in print “These facts can’t be ignored” and online “We need to acknowledge the facts about the Bourke Street attack”. The article appeared in print under the heading “Opinion” with a photograph of the author and online under a tab “OPINION”.
The article challenged criticism of the mainstream media’s labelling of the Bourke Street attack as “terrorism”. The writer argued that “facts” pointing to terrorism as the origin of violence could not be ignored. Attributing violence to “crying out for help” or to mental illness was an attempt to escape the “facts”. Towards the end of the article, the writer referred to a “tweet” by Ms Veiszadeh, asserting that the offender in the Bourke St Melbourne attack “struggled with mental health and substance abuse”. The writer said these were not “facts”, at least not yet established as such.
It stated that “During the 2014 Lindt Siege in Sydney, Mariam Veiszadeh published this solitary sentence: ‘We urge you to keep reporting any incidents of anti-Muslim sentiments via our website‘. It’s time-stamped 2.17pm. The siege was only six hours old, Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson would die 12 excruciating hours later and as Australians held their collective breaths desperate for a peaceful resolution, ‘Say no to Islamophobia‘ was Mariam Veiszadeh’s headline. That’s a fact. I do not doubt her good intentions, but as a champion of social cohesion … how ironic”.
The complainant said that the article is inaccurate and misleading and that the writer’s expressions of opinion in the above-quoted paragraph are based on inaccurate factual material. She said that the assertion that her quoted tweet was a “solitary sentence” and that her “headline” was “say no to Islamophobia” “grossly misrepresents [her] actions and words during the terrible events of the Lindt siege”. She said that the article misleadingly, unfairly and inaccurately implies that this tweet was her only comment or action at the time of the Lindt siege and that her actions and comments were inconsistent with a person who “champions social cohesion”. She said she had, in fact, made 33 tweets over the course of the six days following the siege including some in which she expressed “shock and outrage” about the incident. She said that the tweet referred to in the article was taken out of context and noted that one of her many roles was President of the Islamophobia Register - a role which she performs on a voluntary basis. She denied writing a headline “Say no to Islamophobia” in the context of the siege.
In addition, the complainant noted that she was “among the first of many Muslim community representatives to pay her respects to the victims of the siege at the memorial at Martin Place; is depicted in a number of published photographs laying flowers at the memorial”; “helped organise a joint interfaith public vigil” and “helped coordinate a joint media release on behalf of the Australian Muslim community condemning the siege”.
The complainant stated that she wanted an apology and for the article to be corrected. She did not consider an offer by the publication for her to write an opinion piece an adequate remedy because, among other things, this would probably expose her to unfair public criticism.
The publication said that the complainant spoke at length to the Herald Sun Opinion Editor on 16 November 2018, two days after the article in question was published. The publication said that it stood by the veracity of the article but that out of fairness offered the complainant the opportunity to express her concern via a letter to the editor which would be published the next day, both in print and online. Alternatively the publication offered an opinion piece from the complainant of the same length as the article the subject of the complaint. Such an opinion piece would have been published with the same prominence as that article. It said that the complainant did not take up its offer, which was made immediately and in good faith.
The publication denied that the article in its entirety was significantly inaccurate or misleading but stated that the reference to a solitary tweet was incorrect. The publication was unable to identify the source of the complainant’s alleged headline “Say no to Islamophobia”. The publication also noted that when it was contacted by the Press Council in late 2018 in relation to the complaint it offered, in resolution of the complaint, to correct the online article to make reference to the complainant’s other tweets during the Lindt Café siege. Specifically, it indicated it could amend the online article to read “During the 2014 Lindt Siege in Sydney, Mariam Veiszadeh published this line among a series of tweets over several weeks”. However, the complainant had not agreed to this proposal.
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 and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion (General Principle 1), and 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 unfair or unbalanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide a correction or adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published by a person adversely referred to (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council considers that the article contained some expressions of the author’s opinion. However, the statement in the article that “During the 2014 Lindt Siege in Sydney, Mariam Veiszadeh published this solitary sentence: “We urge you to keep reporting any incidents of anti-Muslim sentiments via our website” was a statement of fact that implied that the complainant had published only this one sentence during the siege. Moreover, it implied that her only concern was anti-Muslim sentiment and not the welfare of the hostages caught up in the siege.
In light of the series of tweets made by the complainant during the siege, the Council is satisfied that in making the statement referring to the “solitary sentence” the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure this statement was accurate and not misleading. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 1. The Council also considers that there is a significant difference between a “solitary” sentence in one tweet and a series of tweets comprising many sentences and therefore concludes that in referring to a “solitary sentence” the publication failed to take reasonable steps to present factual material with reasonable fairness and balance and ensure the writer’s expression of opinion was not based on significantly inaccurate material or omission of key facts. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 3.
The Council notes that the publication offered to correct the online article in resolution of the complaint when it was contacted by the Press Council, but that the online article remains uncorrected. Given that the reference to the “solitary sentence” is significantly inaccurate or misleading and remains uncorrected, the publication has breached General Principle 2.
The publication argued that it was not obliged by General Principle 2 to correct this inaccurate and misleading material because the complainant had not accepted its offer of corrective measures. However the obligation under General Principle 2 to provide a correction is unqualified. The publication’s suggested justification for its failure is unsound.
The Council notes that when the complainant contacted the publication, it immediately offered her a right of reply either through a letter to the editor or an opinion piece of the same length and same prominence as the article the subject of the complaint. The Council accepts that these offers were made in good faith and that the publication took reasonable steps to provide the complainant with an opportunity to reply. However, while the offer could not displace the obligation imposed by General Principle 2, in the circumstances the offer amounted to the fair opportunity for a reply.
Accordingly, the Council finds that the publication did not breach General Principle 4. This finding is not inconsistent with the finding of a breach of General Principle 2. General Principle 4 imposes a different and separate obligation.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
General Principle 1 – Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
General Principle 2 – Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
General Principle 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.
General Principle 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.