The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published online by Daily Mail Australia on 5 April 2020 headed “Beach bums! Sydneysiders ignore social distancing rules as they flock to Bondi to lap up the final days of summer - risking massive fines for breaking lockdown rules”.
The article reported “Sydneysiders ignored strict social distancing rules as they lounged on the sand and soaked up the final days of the warm weather. Locals flocked to Sydney’s popular Bondi Beach on Friday [3 April 2020], with blatant disregard for the social distancing rules in place to slow the spread of coronavirus.” The article also included several photographs apparently depicting beachgoers at Bondi Beach on that day.
In response to a complaint noting that Bondi Beach had been closed to public access from 22 March 2020 and had remained empty as of 3 April 2020, the Press Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice. These require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1); to provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2); 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).
In response, the publication said it had received the pictures from a reputable picture agency with which it has a long standing relationship, and noted that in this case the pictures of Bondi Beach were erroneously captioned by the picture agency with the wrong dates. The publication said the article was written around the pictures and it was an honest mistake. The publication said there was certainly no intention by it to contribute to fears and anxieties in the community. It also said numerous contemporary stories on social distancing breaches at Sydney beaches had also been published by various news outlets, and that it had received accurate photographs of social distancing breaches at other Sydney beaches on that day, which added credence to the story.
The publication said many digital businesses, including it, rely on picture agencies to supply content and there is an expectation that this material is accurate. It said in this instance, the picture agency’s United Kingdom office appeared to have “re-captioned” the photographs, which originated in Sydney, with the incorrect dates.
The publication said the article was published at 2:38 am on Sunday 5 April 2020 and once it became aware the captioned dates on images were incorrect, it took immediate steps to remove the article from its website. The publication also said it has taken steps to ensure a similar mistake does not happen again.
The Council acknowledges that the publication has an ongoing relationship with the picture agency which it relies on as a source of accurate and reliable information, and notes that the article was written entirely based on the erroneous time and date provided by the picture agency. However the events were reported to have occurred on the Friday and it is reasonable to assume, given the significance and potential illegality of the events reported on, that if they had occurred they would be reported on by one or more media outlets on the Saturday. When deciding to publish on the Sunday, the publication should have been alert to the fact that on the Saturday other media outlets had not carried reports of the events and the publication should therefore have taken steps to check the accuracy of the photographs rather than simply relying upon the reputation of the picture agency. Accordingly, the Council considers the publication did not take reasonable steps to verify the photographs, and to ensure that the factual information in the article was accurate and breached General Principle 1.
The Council notes that the publication took action to remedy the complaint, including removing the article from its website, and reviewing its procedures for handling content provided by third parties. However, the Council considers that in this instance General Principle 2 required the publication to publish a correction to inform its readership of the significant inaccuracy in the story. As the publication did not do so, General Principle 2 was breached in this respect.
As to General Principle 6, the Council does not consider the article is likely to cause or contribute to substantial distress or a substantial risk to health or safety. Accordingly, General Principle 6 was not breached.
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
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.