The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by The Australian headed “Firebugs fuelling crisis as arson arrest toll hits 183” in print on 7 January 2020 and “Bushfires: Firebugs fuelling crisis as national arson arrest toll hits 183” online on 8 January 2020.
The article reported that “[m]ore than 180 alleged arson cases have been recorded since the start of the bushfire season with 29 fires deliberately lit in the Shoalhaven region of NSW in just three months” and that “Police arrested 183 people for lighting bushfires across Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania”. The article reported that since 8 November 2019, 24 people had been arrested in NSW for deliberately lighting bushfires while a further 184 people had been cautioned for bushfire-related offences such as “discarding lit cigarettes, setting off fireworks and failing to comply with a total fire ban.” The article went on to report that 101 people had been “picked up” for setting fires in the bush, that four people “were caught setting fire to vegetation” outside Hobart Tasmania while “Victoria reported 43 charged from 2019”.
In response to complaints received, the Press Council asked the publication to comment on whether the articles complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice, which 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); to ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3); and to provide a fair opportunity for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3 (General Principle 4).
The complaints challenged the accuracy of the statements that “arson arrest toll hits 183” as in the headline and that “[m]ore than 180 alleged arsonists have been arrested since the start of 2019”. The complaints also asserted that the figures included people who had not been arrested or charged for ‘arson’ but for lesser offences such as unauthorised lighting of fires in contravention of local fire bans.
The publication said that the widespread and serious bushfires in 2019-20 generated intense public interest. Several state authorities had issued new or updated figures on the number of arrests, charges and actions by the police against those causing fires in a variety of time periods during 2019 and 2020. The publication said as is often the case with state-based figures, the different criteria used, including differing definitions of arson, meant that the data might not be strictly comparable. The publication said that reporting on the state-based figures was complex because a large number of fire and arson offences tend to be grouped under the heading of arson, including lesser offences. The publication said the sentence “police arrested 183 people for lighting bushfires across Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania” attempts to draw together the different data as arrests, rather than referring to specific offences which may be defined differently in different states. The publication acknowledged that the print article referred to the beginning of the 2019/20 bushfire season. However, it said its report was an accurate reflection of the data that was available at the time from various state authorities. It said it used the words “toll” and “cases” in the headline and opening paragraphs to grapple with these difficulties. To account for the disparate time frames for the data, the opening paragraph of the online article was updated to refer to the time period since the start of 2019, so that the figures could not be misconstrued as relating solely to the current fire season.
The Council accepts that the publication’s initial representation of the data may have led readers to consider that an unusually high number of ‘arsonists’ had been arrested since the beginning of the 2019/20 fire season. The Council also accepts the difficulty in aggregating information from multiple sources while reconciling different definitions of what might constitute arson under various State legislation. The Council considers that although there might have been some discrepancies in the reported figures, the publication nevertheless took reasonable steps to be accurate and not misleading when reporting the data. The Council notes that in relation to the data concerning NSW the article reports that 24 people had been charged for deliberately starting bushfires, while a further 184 had been charged or cautioned for “bushfire-related offences” which the article reported included “setting off fireworks”, and failing to comply with a “total fire ban”. The Council also notes the publication’s subsequent amendment to the online article to clarify the time period to which the bushfire data applied and to refer to alleged “arson cases” rather than “arsonists” to better reflect the different interpretations of arson in State legislation and crime data. The Council concluded that the publication took reasonable steps to ensure that the report was accurate and not misleading when reporting information from various authorities. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principles 1 and 3.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
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 other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
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.
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.