The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by articles published in Daily Mail Australia headed “Cross-dressing serial killer, 75, wants YOU to pay for his sex change surgery when he's released from jail – and he looks almost certain to get his way” on 20 October 2020 and “Notorious cross-dressing serial killer who bludgeoned his fiancée to death with a piece of wood walks free after 23 years in jail – despite her brother's pleas for him never to be released” on 12 November 2020.
The October article reported “A cross-dressing serial killer set to be freed from jail wants a taxpayer-funded sex change upon his release…”. The article quoted the brother of one of the murder victims saying: “It's disgusting to think this man will be out and trying to use taxpayers' money to have a sex change”. The article went on to report that the “NSW State Parole Authority said there is nothing it can do in its power to prevent the convicted murderer from having the surgery” and included the comments from the NSW Attorney General saying that he “had sought legal advice on applying for a continuing detention order to keep Arthurell behind bars.”
The November article reported that the person had been released from prison and “came out as a transgender while in custody and told authorities he hopes to have a sex change and live the remainder of his life a woman”. The article said “he has been referring to himself as a female and asked all prison workers to treat him as a woman inside jail”. The article quoted the brother of one of the murder victims saying there “wouldn't be a member of the (parole) board that would like this person living in their neighbourhood, let alone living as a neighbour”.
In response to complaints, 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 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 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 noted that complaints expressed concern that the prominent references to the planned ‘sex change’ suggest that gender affirming surgery is not medically necessary; that the gender treatment itself is as abhorrent as the crimes committed; and that the references to being transgender were prejudicial, given that it was not a relevant factor at the time the crimes were committed.
In response, the publication said it is in the public interest to report on the release into the community of a convicted multiple murderer and to report the views of the brother of one of the victims. The publication noted that the October article reported that the brother had a very strong opposing view to the person using tax-payers’ dollars to have gender affirming surgery. The publication said the articles are factual and neither article states nor suggests that the gender affirming surgery was not necessary or that it is as abhorrent as the crimes described. The publication said that referring to the person’s transgender status is a significant fact to both articles as it allows its readers to understand the history of the case. The publication said it was reported at the parole hearing that the person had identified as a woman and that she wanted to commence gender affirming surgery.
The Council recognises the importance of allowing the brother of a murder victim to express his robust personal views on the release of the prisoner. However, in relation to the October article, the Council considers that the headline’s prominent reference to gender affirming surgery being at the cost of the ‘taxpayer,’ together with the comments in the article stating that the parole board is powerless to stop the surgery, diminishes the importance of the surgery. The Council considers the headline and comments in the article unfairly imply that such surgery is either not medically necessary or that such surgery should not be paid for by Medicare. The Council considers this unfairness is compounded by an absence of any balancing comments, either in support of why such surgery is medically necessary treatment, or in support of rights of released prisoners to access public health care. Accordingly, the publication has failed to present factual material with reasonable fairness and balance in breach of General Principle 3.
The Council considered there was a public interest in the public being informed about the prisoner’s release given the seriousness of the crimes committed. However, the Council does not consider there was sufficient public interest in the prominent references to the person’s transgender status, which was not reported to have a connection with the crimes for which the person was convicted. The Council considers the prominent references to the person being transgender could lead some readers to conclude this was somehow connected to the crimes and could contribute to substantial prejudice against transgender people. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication breached General Principle 6.
The Council considers in relation to the November article, that the publication on balance took reasonable steps to ensure the presentation of factual material in the article was reasonably fair and balanced, and concludes the publication complied with General Principle 3. The Council also accepts the strong public interest in reporting on the release of the prisoner and concludes that the publication complied with General Principle 6. The Council acknowledges the publication amended the article after receiving the complaint to remove the irrelevant and potentially prejudicial references to the person’s transgender status.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
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.
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.”