The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article headed “The Secret Life of Gary Low” in The Sun-Herald (in print) and The Sydney Morning Herald (online) on 24 January 2016.
The article reported on a man who “is as much a mystery in death as he was in life”, one who “had so assiduously concealed from the world”. He was “a quiet man, a diligent worker” who “was kind and generous with his time… For years, possibly decades, he cultivated extreme privacy, and scrupulously avoided his most basic details being recorded by government departments, agencies or businesses.” He apparently lived under the assumed name of Gary Low, used various birth dates, had no known next of kin, was vague about where he actually lived, had no bank account, no driver’s licence, and no immigration or citizenship records. The article also noted that Mr Low mentioned in passing to an acquaintance that he had a son and a grandson, but did not offer further details. The article reported that Mr Low’s health declined very rapidly in 2014, since “[h]is immune system had been ravaged by HIV, which had gone untreated for as long as a decade and had now advanced to AIDS”. Mr Low died three weeks after admission to hospital. A coronial inquest was conducted and his body remained unclaimed at the morgue.
After receiving a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice, in particular those requiring that publications take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, and to avoid causing or materially contributing to substantial offence or distress or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principles 5 and 6). The Council asked the publication to comment on whether in disclosing Mr Low’s HIV status, it may not have taken reasonable steps to avoid breaching his and others’ reasonable expectations of privacy, or contributing to substantial distress or prejudice or risk to health and safety, and whether there was a public interest in such disclosure — even if it was on the public record, given the stigma often associated with it and the effect it might have on those communicating their status to others who should be told.
In response, the publication said the article amounted to a fair and accurate report of a court process and that the information relating to the circumstances of Mr Low’s death was obtained from publicly available court documentation made available by the Coroner’s Court. The publication noted the strong public interest in ensuring courts remain open and transparent. The publication also noted that the hospital in which Mr Low was a patient did not make any submissions to suppress or redact the information about his HIV status, nor did the Coroner’s Court make any non-publication orders. Further, the journalist who wrote the story had sought confirmation and comment from the hospital authorities before publication, but they declined to comment.
The publication said it was keenly aware of the issue of privacy about HIV and conscious of its responsibilities to the community in this regard. However, this was discussed at length by senior editorial staff and was seen as an integral part of the story about Mr Low. The publication stated that there was a strong public interest in providing a sensitively told account of the fringe existence of a man who lived in our society with a diagnosable, treatable condition for 10 years.
The Council considers the article provided a remarkable account of a life lived on the fringes of society. The only issue to be considered is whether the publication took reasonable steps to ensure that disclosure of Mr Low’s HIV status did not contravene the Standards of Practice with respect to privacy or involve a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
With regard to privacy, the Council considers that beyond the strict requirements of the law, publications have a further responsibility to ensure compliance with the Standards of Practice, which may extend to moderating or not reporting particular information that has been said in open court. However, in this case the Council considers there was no reasonable expectation of privacy particularly because (a) Mr Low is deceased; (b) the facts were stated in open court and recorded in official and accessible court reports; and (c) no suppression or redaction order was sought by the relevant hospital and health authorities or made by the Court. Further, in this case, had the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a reasonable expectation of privacy, the reporting was sufficiently in the public interest to outweigh such an intrusion, given the significance and public policy implications of the story. Accordingly, the Council concludes that its Standards were not breached in this respect.
Similarly, the Council considers the publication took reasonable steps to ensure the article did not cause or contribute materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or to a substantial risk to health or safety. The article was sensitively written and sympathetic to Mr Low, did not use any stigmatising or discriminatory language, and is considered unlikely to dissuade anyone from seeking medical advice in appropriate circumstances. Accordingly, the Council concludes that its Standards were not breached in this respect.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
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.