The Press Council considered a complaint about an article published in the Mercury headed “Interim FVO left standing as Adam Brooks and former partner head to mediation” online on 16 September 2021 and “Court bid on Brooks” in print on 17 September 2021.
The article reported that the complainant, who is an ex-partner of Tasmania’s former Mines Minister, Adam Brooks, “has applied for a family violence order against Mr Brooks.” The article included a photograph of the complainant and quotes from the complainant’s address to the court saying “‘He kept coming into the house even after he moved to Brisbane. He would come in while I was at work and spend time there … And he would watch me from a lookout.” It reported that the Magistrate upheld an interim Family Violence Order (FVO) against Mr Brooks and set the matter down for mediation at a later date. The article went on to include comments from Mr Brooks’ lawyer saying the “respondent denies any wrong doing whatsoever and the allegations are very much in dispute.”
The complainant said that the publication had repeatedly named her in the article as the Applicant of the FVO and had included a prominent photograph of herself with Mr Brooks. The complainant said she felt humiliated as the community would know about her past relationship with Mr Brooks and about the FVO. The complainant said that, as the Applicant for the FVO, she was seeking the protection of the court. The complainant said that, as the Applicant seeking an FVO, there was no public interest justification for the publication to intrude on her reasonable expectations of privacy or for it to contribute to her distress and the risk to her safety.
The complainant said that while she acknowledges the important role media can play in highlighting issues of family violence, and that naming perpetrators can act as a deterrent to future offending, reporting on family violence should not deter victims from coming forward and seeking the assistance of the courts for fear of being named by the media.
In response, the publication said the article is a news report of proceedings held in open court, with no suppression order on the identity of the complainant issued by the court or sought by the complainant. The publication said there is significant public interest in ensuring the media is able to report on the due administration of justice, including the matters heard, evidence raised, and parties involved in open court proceedings. The publication said its general policy is to not name alleged victims when reporting on domestic and family violence proceedings in open court. It said, however, given the high-profile nature of the former couple, the publication considered that its readership would have been aware that the article was referring to the complainant even if it had not named her, as the complainant’s relationship with Mr Brooks was public knowledge. The publication also said it sourced the photograph included in the article from the complainant’s Facebook page. It said, on balance, the public interest in naming the complainant was appropriate.
During the Adjudication hearing, the publication said it now considered it appropriate to remove the complainant’s name and photograph from the article.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications 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 accepts there were no suppression orders in place to prevent the publication from naming the complainant, nor were there any other legal restrictions preventing it from doing so. It is also clearly in the public interest for publications to report on findings of the courts, including in this case that a former Mines Minister, Adam Brooks was the subject of court proceedings. Nonetheless, the Council considers that given the sensitive nature of the court proceedings in seeking an order to protect the complainant and the fact that the complainant’s actions were not the subject of court scrutiny, there was a reasonable expectation that the complainant’s privacy should not be intruded upon. The Council considers that, in the circumstances, the reporting of the complainant’s name and the inclusion of a prominent photograph of her was not sufficiently in the public interest to outweigh this expectation of privacy. The Council also considers that in this matter, the absence of a suppression order does not reduce this expectation of privacy. Accordingly, the Council concludes that General Principle 5 was breached in this respect.
The Council also considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial distress or a substantial risk to health or safety. Identifying the complainant in a report of court proceedings concerning allegations of domestic violence was likely to cause substantial distress without a sufficient public interest justification. The Council notes that publishing the complainant’s name and a prominent photograph of her was unnecessary and did not add to the report of court proceedings. Accordingly, the Council concludes that General Principle 6 was also breached in this respect.
As the complainant initiated the court proceedings, and is not merely a relative or friend of an accused person, the Council makes no finding in relation to Privacy Principle 7.
The Council notes that this matter highlights for all publications the need to exercise great care and respect when reporting on matters concerning family and domestic violence. In this context, the Council notes amongst other matters highlighted in its Advisory Guideline on Family and Domestic Violence Reporting, is that the safety and well-being of those affected by family violence must be the primary consideration. Publications should not publish information that could cause or contribute to the risk of harm, offence or distress.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“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.”
Privacy Principle 7: Sensitive personal information
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.