The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by the Herald Sun online on 21 January 2021 headed “Mill Park fire: Samantha Noack allegedly detonates homemade bomb”.
The article reported a “transgender woman allegedly detonated a homemade petrol bomb in a Mill Park park then threw a molotov cocktail at a truck, starting several fires. Samantha Noack, 49, was refused bail for a second time … with a magistrate deeming her a too greater risk to public safety.” It went on to state “Noack, who was formerly known as Kenneth Noack, allegedly set off a homemade petrol bomb…”. The article also reported that the court heard “Noack was a transgender woman who suffered from personality disorder, PTSD and depression and had struggled with drug use. Her lawyer submitted she was particularly vulnerable to exclusion in custody, proposing she be bailed to live in temporary accommodation organised by support services.”
In response to a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article 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 (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 the complaint expressed concern that the prominent and repeated references to the accused’s transgender status, and inclusion of the accused’s former name, were unfair and were not justified by the public interest as the article established no relevance between the accused’s transgender status and the alleged crime.
In response, the publication said the accused’s transgender status was entirely relevant to the court proceedings upon which the article was based. The publication said it was the defendant's legal counsel who introduced the transgender status of his client into the proceedings and used it as the basis of the bail application because Ms Noack would be vulnerable in custody. The publication said the transgender status of Ms Noack was taken into account by the magistrate when deciding whether to grant bail. The publication also said that Ms Noack’s former name was mentioned in the course of the bail proceedings. It said its report of the proceedings was fair and accurate and did not imply that the accused’s transgender status was a factor in the commission of the crime.
The Council has for a long period considered that publications should exercise great care to not place unwarranted emphasis on characteristics of individuals such as race, religion, nationality, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age.
The Council notes that the article was presented as a purely factual report of bail proceedings in relation to a serious crime. It is satisfied based on the publication’s responses that the information in the article fairly and accurately reflects statements made in open court. Accordingly, the Council concludes the publication complied with General Principle 3.
However, while the accused’s transgender status may have been relevant in relation to the bail hearing given the concerns expressed by the accused’s lawyer, it does not appear to have been relevant in any way to the commission of the crime itself. The Council considers the repeated and prominent references to the accused’s transgender status, including in the opening paragraph of the article which did not refer to the bail proceedings, could lead some readers to conclude that this characteristic was either a cause of, or a factor in, the alleged crime, and could contribute to substantial prejudice against transgender people. The Council considers that in prominently identifying the woman as transgender, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial prejudice and that there was no sufficient public interest justifying it doing so. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication breached General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
“Publication 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.”