The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by articles published by news.com.au headed “Australia’s most sadistic child killer applies for parole, sparking warning from original investigator" on 26 February 2021 and “Cop Reveals Creepy Love Letters Sent from Child Murderer's Prison Cell" on 27 February 2021.
The 26 February 2021 article reported that “Australia’s most sadistic child killer ‘will kill again’ if freed, warns the detective who helped put the ‘most perverted evil human I have ever come across’ behind bars.” It reported that “Robin Reid is again up for parole consideration next month, 39 years after he kidnapped, tortured, shaved and buried alive Peter Aston, 13.” The article referred to Reid’s accomplice in the crime as his “transgender soldier lover” who the article reported “began hormone treatment” while in prison and changed their name by deed poll.
The 27 February 2021 article reported that a “detective still haunted by the case of a perverted child killer has revealed how the sadistic criminal sent him twisted ‘love’ letters from prison” and that he is “being considered for parole almost 40 years after he and his transgender soldier lover kidnapped two boys and tortured and buried alive Peter Aston, 13, before killing him in 1982.” The article went on to report the “two men were lovers”, with his accomplice “harbouring a desire to become a woman, and Reid a Satanist and sadist with a desire to torture and kill a male as ‘sacrifice’”. The article included a photograph of the victim with the caption “Murder victim Peter Aston was beaten, shaved, tortured and buried alive by Reid and his transgender soldier lover.”
In response to a complaint received, the 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 the complaint expressed concern that the articles’ prominent references to Reid’s accomplice being a transgender person, including images of them were prejudicial given that their gender identity was not reported to be a relevant factor at the time the crime was committed.
In response, the publication acknowledged that the crime for which Reid’s accomplice was convicted occurred prior to transitioning to a woman and that the references to their transgender status were accordingly irrelevant. The publication also said that when the complaint was brought to its attention, it initially understood that amendments to the articles to remove most of the transgender references were sufficient to address the concerns raised. Nonetheless, the publication said it accepts that there are aspects of the articles that infer a link between the accomplice’s transgender status and commission of the crime. The publication added that there is ongoing training in its newsroom on the need to report transgender issues in an appropriate and respectful manner. The publication said that given this training, and increased awareness in the newsroom, if the same articles were written now the irrelevant references to transgender status would not have been included.
The Council notes that Reid’s accomplice transitioned to a woman sometime after the crime for which they were convicted. As such, the Council considers the transgender references in the articles were irrelevant. The Council also notes that no information was presented to support the statement in the 27 February 2021 article that around the time of the crime, the accomplice was “harbouring a desire to become a woman”. Accordingly, the Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material was presented with reasonable fairness and balance in breach of General Principle 3.
The Council notes that there was a significant public interest in the public being informed about the parole hearing of Reid given the seriousness of the crime he committed. However, the Council does not consider that there was sufficient public interest in the prominent references to his accomplice’s transgender status, which was not reported to have a connection with the crime for which they were convicted. The Council considers that the combined effect of the references to the accomplice’s transgender status together with the statement that, at the time of the crime, the accomplice harboured “a desire to become a woman”, could lead some readers to conclude that there was a connection between transgender status and the commission of the crime reported in the articles. The Council considers that in prominently referring to Reid’s accomplice’s transgender status in the articles, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial prejudice and that there was not sufficient public interest to justify doing so. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication breached General Principle 6.
The Council welcomes the publication’s subsequent amendments to the article to remove the transgender references, its acknowledgement that the transgender references were irrelevant and its newsroom education. The Council emphasises, however, that publications are obliged to take reasonable steps to comply with its Standards of Practice at the time of publication. In this context, the Council has repeatedly stated that publications should exercise great care not to place unwarranted emphasis on characteristics of individuals such as race, religion, nationality, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age.
Relevant Council Standards
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.