The Press Council considered a complaint about three online articles published in The Courier-Mail, headed “Brisbane house flipper’s alleged secret life as drug trafficker" 8 July 2021, "’Hectic’: House flipping accused drug kingpin’s texts, associates" 8 July 2021 and "’WTF just happened?’: ANOM text messages revealed" 24 July 2021.
The articles reported on court proceedings of the complainant’s partner who had been charged for allegedly being involved in serious criminal activities. In reporting on the proceedings, the articles also reported the serious criminal enterprise in which the complainant’s partner and others were allegedly involved. The article headed “Brisbane house flipper’s alleged secret life as drug trafficker" reported that “A million-dollar Brisbane house flipper who has virtually no online presence is alleged by police to have been living a secret life as a high-level wholesale drug trafficker” and the article headed "’Hectic’: House flipping accused drug kingpin’s texts, associates" reported “Details of the police claims against Adelaide-born Spurling were revealed in documents filed in the Supreme Court in Brisbane as part of his successful bail application on June 22 charges of trafficking in cannabis and ice and gun trafficking”. The article headed "’WTF just happened?’: ANOM text messages revealed" reported “Text chats between Queensland men who believed they were shielded by using an encrypted app will form the basis of police allegations they plotted million dollar drug deals”.
The complainant said the 8 July 2021 articles included the names, occupations and suburbs of residence of the accused’s close relatives. The complainant said the articles also included personal information including details of her relationship with her partner, her employment details, a photograph of her as well as the name and age of their infant child. The complainant said the 24 July 2021 article also included a photograph of her as well as her employment details. The complainant said that while she acknowledged that court hearings and outcomes can be reported on, the inclusion of such personal and sensitive information was not necessary for the full, fair and accurate reporting of the alleged crime or legal proceedings. The complainant said the articles have had a direct impact on her personal and professional reputation and have caused great angst and anxiety for all the relatives involved. The complainant also said the publication of personal details and locations of various named relatives had caused serious concerns for their safety, given the seriousness of the allegations.
In response, the publication said the articles report on court documents that are available to any member of the public prepared to pay the relevant court fees. The publication said the complainant’s partner and his legal representatives made a decision to highlight the stability of his family and longstanding connections to Queensland to support his bid for bail. The publication said the court documents on which the articles are based, are replete with references to the information the complainant has expressed concern with and noted that at least one the court documents would appear to have been prepared with the complainant’s full cooperation and consent.
The publication also said that as the complainant is a solicitor, she would have been aware that once the court documents were filed, these documents would become public documents and could not only be reported on as part of a fair report but also accessed and read by any member of public who chose to apply for the court file. The publication said while it appreciates that the reports may have impacted the complainant’s reputation, this will remain true irrespective of whether the articles continue to be published or not as her partner stands charged with serious alleged drugs offences. The publication added that although the complainant would appear to have consented to her daughter’s name and date of birth being included in at least one of the court documents, it subsequently amended the articles to remove such references.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 5) and to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6). They also require that unless otherwise restricted by law or court order, open court hearings are matters of public record and can be reported by the press. Such reports need to be fair and balanced. They should not identify relatives or friends of people accused or convicted of crime unless the reference to them is necessary for the full, fair and accurate reporting of the crime or subsequent legal proceedings (Privacy Principle 7).
The Council notes the complainant had a reduced expectation of privacy as the information about which she expressed concern is based on publicly available court documents. The Council also considers that to the extent that those named in the article did have a reasonable expectation of privacy, this was outweighed by strong public interest in open justice, including the freedom of the press to report on matters of public importance, such as the legal proceedings associated with alleged criminality. Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of General Principle 5.
The Council also finds that to the extent the complainant and the named relatives were distressed by the publication of personal information, this was outweighed by the strong public interest in reporting on serious criminal activity and associated legal proceedings. However, the Council does not consider it was necessary or sufficiently in the public interest to include the name and the age of the complainant’s infant child. Accordingly, General Principle 6 was breached in this respect. The Council welcomes the publication’s subsequent amendment to the articles to remove such references.
As to Privacy Principle 7, the Council acknowledges there was no suppression order in place to prevent publication of information concerning the complainant and named relatives. The Council also acknowledges it is clearly in the public interest for publications to report on findings of courts. However, on balance, the Council does not consider the inclusion identifying information, namely photographs of the complainant, the name and age of the complainant’s infant child, and the occupations and suburb locations of named relatives, was necessary for the full, fair and accurate reporting of the crime and subsequent legal proceedings. Accordingly, Privacy Principle 7 was breached.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
- 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.
PP7. In accordance with Principle 6 of the Council's Statement of General Principles, media organisations should take reasonable steps 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. Members of the public caught up in newsworthy events should not be exploited. A victim or bereaved person has the right to refuse or terminate an interview or photographic session at any time. Unless otherwise restricted by law or court order, open court hearings are matters of public record and can be reported by the press. Such reports need to be fair and balanced. They should not identify relatives or friends of people accused or convicted of crime unless the reference to them is necessary for the full, fair and accurate reporting of the crime or subsequent legal proceedings.