The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by The Herald Sun headed “Time to doubt Greta’s dogma” in print on 1 August 2019, “Andrew Bolt: Greta has no doubts, but we should” online on 31 July 2019 and “The disturbing secret to the cult of Greta Thunberg” online on 1 August 2019.
The article concerned prominent, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and commented on her diagnosed mental disorders including “Asperger’s syndrome, high-functioning autism and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” The article referred to Greta Thunberg as “freakishly influential” “deeply disturbed” and a “strange girl” and commented “I have never seen a girl so young with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru.”
In response to complaints it received, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article’s characterisation of Greta Thunberg and description of her mental disorders complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice. These require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is presented with fairness and balance (General Principle 3) and to 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 (General Principle 6).
The publication said the article is clearly an expression of opinion which relies on publicly available information about Greta Thunberg’s mental disorders. This information has been disclosed publicly by Thunberg herself, and in a book by her mother, which claims Greta Thunberg’s mental conditions have been advantageous to her in campaigning against global warming. The publication said it is entirely reasonable and fair for the writer to describe Greta Thunberg as “deeply disturbed”, “strange” and “[having] so many mental disorders” as the writer’s opinion is based on accurate factual material publicised by both Greta Thunberg and her mother.
The publication also said Greta Thunberg is “freakishly influential” given that she has appeared at the World Economic Forum, European Parliament and United Nations and addressed dozens of rallies attended by tens of thousands of people at such a young age. The publication said Greta Thunberg is indeed being treated as a “guru” on global warming as evidenced by the worldwide public commentary of her campaign.
The publication also said given Greta Thunberg and her mother have been open and public about her mental disorders there is no chance the article would contribute materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health and safety.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3) and to 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 (General Principle 6).
The Council accepts that Greta Thunberg’s mental disorders are a matter of public record and have been relayed with reasonable accuracy in the article. As such, the Council does not consider that the writer’s expression of opinion is based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts and concludes that General Principle 3 was not breached.
Nonetheless, in considering the article’s language and treatment of mental health issues, the Council considers the language in the article is likely to cause substantial offence, distress and prejudice as it attempts to diminish the credibility of Ms Thunberg’s opinions on the basis of her disabilities and by pillorying her supporters on the basis of her disabilities. In doing so the Council considered that the publication did not take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing to substantial distress, offence by people with disabilities, and their families or prejudice towards people with disabilities expressing their opinions in public. The Council considered there was a public interest in the public being informed about Ms Thunberg’s disabilities but that there was no public interest in the undermining the credibility of a person, her opinions or her supporters on the basis of her disabilities in circumstances where many people without disabilities share and express similar opinions. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the article breached General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
1. 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.
2. Avoid causing or contributing materiality to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.