The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article headed “KEY WORD: ‘ATTEMPTS’” by The Daily Telegraph on 31 May 2019 online. The article commented on the reported reaction of offshore asylum seekers to the Federal election outcome saying the “election result hasn’t gone down well with our off-shore country-shopper community, currently participating in a wave of plainly inept suicide attempts”. The article included copies of tweets by media and individuals reporting on the events. The article said “Meanwhile, place your bets on the final number. Can they crack the half-century? Or even make it all the way to three figures? Go for it, boaties.” It concluded “(Note: under official Attention-Seeking Refugee rules, multiple attempts by an individual score only a single point.)”
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article breached its Standards of Practice, in particular whether the publication took reasonable steps 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 also asked the publication to comment on whether its Specific Standards on the Coverage of Suicide were breached, in particular Specific Standard 6 which requires that reports should not sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides; Specific Standard 7 which requires that reports of suicide should not be given undue prominence and that great care should be taken to avoid causing unnecessary harm or hurt to those who attempted suicide or to relatives and others who have been affected by a suicide or attempted suicide; and Specific Standard 8, which requires published material relating to suicide be accompanied by information about appropriate 24–hour crisis support services or other sources of assistance with these problems.
The publication said the article is commenting on how many people would make publicity-seeking and non-fatal self-harm attempts in order to create sympathy for their cause. The publication said the article is not about suicide. The publication also said it is extremely doubtful that the article would cause ‘direct risks’ to the health of asylum seekers noting that the article was open only to subscribers and that Manus Island and Nauru are not amongst its more popular subscription zones. The publication said that it should also be noted that this is an opinion column expressing the thoughts of the writer and written in his usual manner, which includes a level of satire.
The Council notes the publication’s comments that the columnist was making reference to ‘self-harm’ attempts by asylum seekers rather that suicide attempts and that he was using satire to express his view. However, the Council considers that the article’s comments concerning “plainly inept suicide attempts”, the inclusion of the tweets referencing suicide attempts as well as the headline itself, would lead readers to conclude that the article was commenting on attempted suicides. The Council considers that these comments, together with the reference to betting on the number of suicide attempts that might be reached, the reference to point scoring, as well as the goading “Go for it, boaties” show that the publication did not take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to some readers experiencing substantial offence, distress and prejudice that was not sufficiently in the public interest. The Council considers that the publication of the opinion piece behind the paywall did not amount to a reasonable step taken to avoid causing or contributing to substantial offence, distress and prejudice. The Council considered that the reasonable steps to be taken by publication was something other than believing the opinion piece would not be read by the subjects of the article. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication breached General Principle 6.
As to the Specific Standards on Suicide, the Council notes the publication’s indication about it taking a leading role in the responsible reporting of suicide in its print and online articles. The Council accepts that in commenting on social issues, columnists are free to express their opinions in strong terms and to use satire to make their points. However, in this instance, the Council considers the mocking tone of the article trivialises the suicide attempts referred to in the article and was presented without sensitivity or moderation. The Council also notes that article was published without a sources of assistance referral. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication breached Suicide Standards 6, 7 and 8 in this respect.
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
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.
Note – “Sufficiently in the public interest”: The necessary level of justification in the public interest is proportionate to the gravity of the potential breach of the Principles. Relevant factors to consider may include, for example, the importance in the public interest of: (a) ensuring everyone has genuine freedom of expression and access to reliable information; (b) protecting and enhancing independent and vigorous media; public safety and health; due administration of justice and government, personal privacy, and national security; (c) exposing or preventing crime, dishonesty and serious misconduct or incompetence (especially by public figures).”
This Adjudication also applies the following Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide.
Specific Standard 6 – Reports should not sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides. They should not inappropriately stigmatise suicides or people involved in them. But this does not preclude responsible description or discussion of the impacts, even if they are severely adverse, on people, organisations or communities. Where appropriate, underlying causes such as mental illness should be mentioned.
Specific Standard 7 – Reports of suicide should not be given undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images. Great care should be taken to avoid causing unnecessary harm or hurt to people who have attempted suicide or to relatives and other people who have been affected by a suicide or attempted suicide. This requires special sensitivity and moderation in both gathering and reporting news.
Specific Standard 8 - Published material relating to suicide should be accompanied by information about appropriate 24-hour crisis support services or other sources of assistance with these problems (see note 6). The degree of specificity may vary according to the nature of the report and the surrounding circumstances.