The Press Council considered a complaint about an article published in The Daily Telegraph on 11 February 2021 in print headed "HE’S JUST A GOOD GUY" on the front page and continuing on pages 6 and 7 and online headed "Real estate agent Karl Howard took Viagra before alleged sword attack" on 11 February 2021.
The front page reported that a “former girlfriend” of “the real estate agent accused of a samurai sword attack on a woman at his home has told of her concern for him as he remains in hospital following his arrest, stating he is a ‘good guy’”. The print article went on to report that the complainant is “herself an agent” who “told The Daily Telegraph: ‘We’re very worried for him … he’s scared. ‘We’ve known each other for a very long time’”. The front page included a prominent photograph of the complainant next to the headline “EXCLUSIVE Ex-Partner of agent accused of samurai sword attack struggles to comprehend the allegations”. Page 7 included a prominent photograph of the complainant below the caption “We’re very worried for him…he’s scared”. The online article reported “A prominent real estate agent who police allege choked one woman before turning a samurai sword on another had taken four Viagra pills and had a ‘sexual intent’ before the bloody ordeal at the $2 million home he shared with his former partner, a court has heard”. The article, which also included a prominent photograph of the complainant, went on to include further details of the alleged assault by the agent against two women.
The complainant, who the article identified as the ‘ex-partner’ of the accused, said the journalist “broke confidentiality” and acted in a completely unethical manner with regards to the story. The complainant said the journalist phoned her several times prior to publication requesting a comment. The complainant also said she refused the journalist’s request for her to pose for a photograph. The complainant said the journalist’s manner was borderline harassment, and that she only agreed to provide a small comment on the proviso that it was confidential and that her name was explicitly not to be included. The complainant said the journalist agreed to this condition and that a colleague was a witness to this agreement. The complainant said that once she became aware she had been identified in the online article and prior to the publication of the print article, she pleaded with the journalist to de-identify her in the article. The complainant said the publication proceeded to publish the print article which included her comments and prominent photographs. The complainant said the article has caused her an enormous amount of stress and unwanted media attention and that since publication of the article, she has received calls from strangers leaving messages threatening and harassing her. The complainant said the reported allegations of assault had nothing to do with her and the inclusion of her photograph, name and business in the article is damaging to her career, emotional state and safety.
In response, the publication said the journalist who spoke with the complainant denies strongly the claim that an arrangement was made concerning confidentiality and also does not accept in any way that any of the phone calls to the complainant bordered on harassment. The publication said the journalist kept a log and contemporaneous notes of the calls noting that some lasted several minutes, which it said demonstrates the journalist and the complainant had an ongoing dialogue and were talking completely amicably all day. The publication said that the complainant was not harassed, rather the journalist spoke to the complainant on numerous occasions to ensure the quotes attributed to her were correct and that she understood they were quotes that would be attributed to her. The publication said no agreement was made to keep the complainant’s name out of the article and no agreement was made not to publish any photographs of the complainant. It said that after the article was first published online the complainant put the journalist on loudspeaker during a call, and the complainant claimed she had never spoken to the journalist or agreed to any of the quotes despite their ongoing dialogue. The publication also said it only published photographs that were available publicly online via her public Facebook profile and from images on her real estate agency website. The publication said that it had amended aspects of the online article to address some of the complainant’s concerns.
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 publications to avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 7).
The Council notes there are significant differences between the views of the complainant and the publication as to what was said concerning ‘confidentiality’ and as to whether the complainant’s comments were ‘on the record’. The Council also notes that due to the absence of information to enable it to conclusively determine what was said, the Council is unable to form conclusions on this aspect of the complaint. However, it is not disputed that the journalist clearly identified herself as a journalist for The Daily Telegraph; stated that she was investigating the reported assault; and that conversations did take place between the complainant and the journalist.
The Council also notes that at the time of publication, the complainant’s personal information, including her profession and where she was employed, was publicly available. Although the Council does not accept that all information that is in the public domain will necessarily diminish an individuals’ expectation of privacy, in this instance it is satisfied that the publication took reasonable steps to avoid intruding on the complainant’s expectation of privacy, noting that the personal information was publicly available and the occurrence of conversations between the complainant and the journalist. Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of General Principle 5.
In relation to General Principle 6, the Council notes the complainant was not in any way connected to the alleged assault. Accordingly, the Council considers the article was likely to and did cause substantial distress to the complainant. Although there is undoubted public interest in reporting on the assault allegations, there was no public interest in including large and prominent photograhs of the complainant, particularly on the front page of the print edition when the complainant had made it clear to the publication that she did not wish to be photographed for the story. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of General Principle 6.
As to General Principle 7, given that the complainant was aware that she was talking to a journalist, the Council concludes that the material published was not gathered by deceptive or unfair means. Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of General Principle 7. However, the Council reminds journalists that it is best practice to clearly identify when a conversation moves from 'off the record' to 'on the record’.
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.
- Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.