The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in print by The Sunday Telegraph on 14 June 2020 headed “Where’s the real justice?”.
The article commented on the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in Australia in June 2020 concerning police behaviour and black deaths in custody. The article said: “The reality in this country – and the US – is that the greatest danger to aboriginals and negroes – is themselves” and that until “we address this issue, protests damning white police officers are nebulous”. In support of this view, the article said that the “protests are facile and irrelevant because police and indigenous deaths in custody are a small part of the complex jigsaw that goes into making black lives matter.” The article referred to the death of four Aboriginal teenagers in a stolen car and asked “Where was the protection for four innocent children? Police say they knew the car was stolen and decided not to pursue”. The article also referred to a university study which said that “indigenous females and males are 35 times and 22 times as likely to be hospitalised due to family violence related assaults as other Australians”, and to the death of a four-month-old Aboriginal girl while her mother was in police custody and said “Blaming police and the Corrective Services system for their ills is, frankly, a cop out”. The article also referred to the killing by a policeman of an Australian woman (presumably non-Indigenous) in the US and asked “where were the marches through the streets of Australia after Ms Damond died?”.
Following a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article complied with its Standards of Practice. In particular, the Council sought comment on the statement that “The reality in this country – and the US – is that the greatest danger to aboriginals and negroes – is themselves”. The Council referred the publication to concerns raised that the term ‘negroes’ is an outdated racial slur and the article unfairly characterises Indigenous Australians and African Americans as the key perpetrators of racial violence, and implies that they are responsible for, or deserving of, such violence. Concerns were also raised that the article is based on unfounded, racist generalisations and is likely to contribute to substantial prejudice against those minority groups.
In response, the publication noted that the article is an opinion piece and said the columnist is entitled to express his personal views on issues which are clearly in the public interest for community discussion and debate. As with many opinion columns, there will be alternative views within the community which disagree with those of the author. However, this fact should not deny the author the right to express his opinion which is a fundamental right of a free press and, importantly, a democratic society. This aspect is part of the normal discourse of public debate. The publication also noted that at the time of publication, the columnist believed his opinion column to be fair and balanced and was assessed as such by the publication before it decided to publish the column.
In relation to the use of the word “negroes”, the publication said the columnist removed the word before publication from the versions of his column which appeared in other newspapers and online. It was his intention also that the version published in The Sunday Telegraph did not contain the word negroes. Regretfully, this did not happen because there was a communications breakdown during the production process which resulted in the original, not amended, version of the column being published in The Sunday Telegraph’s print edition. It said both The Sunday Telegraph and the writer published apologies in the next print edition of The Sunday Telegraph. The publication said the columnist, in particular, regrets that the column was published with the word negroes. It said he is a passionate advocate of all Australians as a society working together to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians. His column never intended to vilify any person or group but rather to engage in public discussion on issues of public importance and to express his own opinion on the issues.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require that publications 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 to a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The Council recognises that opinion articles by their nature make an argument. However, even in an opinion article, the publication is obliged to ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance and expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts. The Council notes that, in criticising the protests, the article drew on factual material about deaths and family violence amongst Indigenous people not related to police behaviour or deaths in custody. In doing so, however, the article omitted any reference to well-documented societal factors contributing to Indigenous community and family dysfunction including unemployment and poverty, poor housing and overcrowding, and poor education and health, and that the attitudes of non-Indigenous Australians can also contribute. In referring to an Australian woman killed in the US, the article in the Council’s view includes factual material that bears no relevance to the protesters’ concerns or actions or to Indigenous welfare.
The Council believes the columnist’s criticisms of the protesters could have been made based on a fair and balanced presentation of factual material, highlighting the deeper problems in many Indigenous communities than caused by alleged police brutality and deaths in custody. However, the article published did not do so.
Accordingly, the Council considers the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure the factual material was presented with reasonable fairness and balance and to ensure the writer’s expression of opinion was not based on significantly inaccurate material or omission of key facts in breach of General Principle 3.
The Council also considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence and prejudice. Although the Council notes the very substantial public interest in allowing freedom of expression, the public interest did not justify the level of offence and prejudice in its assertion that the greatest danger to Indigenous Australians and African Americans is themselves. The lack of fairness and balance in the presentation of factual material was also likely to have caused substantial offence and prejudice beyond that which might have been justified in the public interest. In relation to the use of the term “negroes”, the Council welcomed the apologies from the publication and the columnist. The measures taken by the publication do not, however, remove the effects of the breach.
Accordingly, the Council considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest. In doing so it breached General Principle 6.
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.”