The Press Council has considered a complaint from John Nagle, the former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NSW workers compensation scheme, icare NSW, concerning 25 articles published in The Sydney Morning Herald. The articles complained of were published between 27 July 2020 and 1 October 2020. The articles, which included opinion pieces, concerned the performance of icare and its financial position, and reported criticism of the system by injured workers, referencing a NSW treasury document that said 52,000 injured workers had been underpaid $80 million. The articles also reported on a NSW Government Parliamentary inquiry into the workers’ compensation scheme. In this context, it was initially reported in August 2020 during the parliamentary inquiry that the complainant “had quit after it had emerged he was stripped of a bonus for failing to properly declare his wife had been given a contract with the agency”. It was reported that the inquiry heard that the complainant’s wife was “paid $750 a day for contract work performed between 2016 and 2019, totaling more than $800,000.” It was also reported that the complainant failed to declare in icare’s annual report, “business class flights to Las Vegas to speak at a conference organised by a software company” which the inquiry heard had received “millions of dollars in contracts from icare to provide claims management software” and that the complainant had appeared in a promotional video for the company. It was also reported that the complainant had “refused” to disclose his pay details to the inquiry.
The Council noted the complainant’s concerns that the volume and tenor of articles concerning icare were intended to discredit him personally. However, the Council was not provided with any material that is consistent with this view. The Council noted that it is legitimate journalistic practice to comment on parliamentary inquiries and accepts that the publication’s reporting was based on an accurate record of comments made at the NSW parliamentary inquiry, including by the complainant. This includes reporting on the complainant’s failure to properly declare a conflict of interest; that his business trip ought to have been included in icare’s annual report; and comments concerning his response to questions about his salary. In relation to the estimated $80 million reportedly owed by icare to injured workers, the Council accepted this figure is based on information on the public record referred to at the inquiry, which is of significant public interest. The Council noted that the complainant was given a fair opportunity to respond to the matters concerning him but did not pursue it. Accordingly, the Council found no breach of its General Principles.
The Council acknowledged the publication’s offer to publish a footnote clarifying that the inquiry was subsequently informed that the value of the relevant contract was $772,524. The Council also acknowledged that the publication has amended its original article which stated the complainant had refused to disclose his salary.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of a cartoon in The Australian on 14 August 2020. The cartoon depicts a scene of the then United States Presidential candidate Joe Biden giving a speech congratulating Kamala Harris on being the Vice-Presidential candidate. Joe Biden is depicted saying “It’s time to heal a nation divided by racism” followed by “So I’ll hand you over to this little brown girl while I go for a lie down”.
The Council acknowledged that the cartoon is a comment on what the cartoonist considers a hypocritical choice by Joe Biden to secure votes from people of colour rather than out of any genuine concern to address racial inequality. The Council did not dispute the public interest in dissecting politicians’ statements and the words and actions of US Presidential candidates in particular. Nor did the Council dispute a publication’s right to publish its and its cartoonist’s partisan views. The question is whether, in doing so, the publication took reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or whether such offence, distress or prejudice was sufficiently justified by the public interest involved.
The Council noted that, by rearranging Joe Biden’s words, the cartoon not only attacks Joe Biden’s alleged hypocrisy but could also be interpreted as demeaning Kamala Harris and other women, particularly those of colour, by referring to her specifically as a ‘little brown girl’. This is far from what Joe Biden was doing when using the words ‘little black and brown girls’ in his tweet to reference the role modelling aspect of having a Vice-Presidential nominee who is both female and of colour. While many readers might see the cartoon as a criticism of Joe Biden and of ‘identity politics’, the Council did not accept the publication’s view that readers would see it is anti-racist or anti-misogynist. Rather, in appearing to demean Kamala Harris, and other women, by referring to her as a ‘little brown girl’, it could be seen to contribute to prejudice and to undermining measures to overcome the obstacles facing women, particularly those of colour.
While the Council noted that the publication and the cartoonist have strongly stated that there was no intention to cause offence, distress or prejudice, the Council considered the prejudice to women and particularly women of colour which the cartoon contributes to is substantial and that it offended a wide range of people, in particular women. The Council considered the public interest in questioning Joe Biden’s words and actions was not sufficient to justify the substantial offence and prejudice caused, and that criticism of identity politics could have been achieved without such offence and prejudice. Accordingly, the Council concluded that the publication breached General Principle 6.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by a reader’s letter published in print by The Daily Telegraph headed “Briefly” on 14 November 2020. The letter read “With reference to the serial murderer Reginald Arthurell wanting taxpayers to fork out for his sex change operation, my husband said he’d perform this procedure absolutely free!”.
In response to a complaint noting the letter appeared to be threatening genital mutilation of a person on the basis of their transgender status, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the letter complied with General Principle 6. This requires the publication to 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.
The Council noted that publications must comply with the Council’s Standards of Practice in relation to letters they select and edit for publication, while also acknowledging that letters to the editor are very much an expression of the letter writer’s opinion. The Council did however recognise that passive or incidental promotion of violence and prejudice against transgender persons, including in the guise of humour, could breach the Council’s Standards of Practice and those choosing and editing letters for publication should be aware of the need for care.
The Council considered that in this instance, rather than being a serious call to violence, the letter very much reflects the strong disapproval of the writer at the crimes of the convicted person and what the letter writer considers in the circumstances to be an unjust use of community money to fund the person’s transition. The Council also considered that the letter was intended as morbid humour and most readers would recognise this. While some readers would regard the letter as offensive, distressing and prejudicial, the Council considered that in context it did not reach the level of the publication failing to take reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence, distress and prejudice.
Accordingly, the Council considered that General Principle 6 was not breached.
The Press Council has considered a complaint from Professor David Lindenmayer concerning articles published by The Weekly Times headed “Chipping away at the facts” in print and “Native forest logging: ANU academic’s claims on timber industry scrutinised” online on 10 June 2020 (“the June article”); and “Loggers can expect classic action: academic” in print and “Academic says forest industry face class action over bushfires” online on 1 July 2020 (“the July article”).
The June article reported the “academic who first called for an end to native forest logging across Victoria’s Central Highlands to create a new 355,000ha Great Forest National Park, has been accused of distorting facts to further his arguments. Evidence has emerged which appears to show Australian National University Professor David Lindenmayer is feeding environment groups and the media information on logging, fire harvesting and threatened species that contradicts critical facts.” The article set out several of Professor Lindenmayer’s comments on a range of issues including fire-damaged trees and salvage logging, employment figures in the East Gippsland forestry area, plantation forestry, and trends in the size of the Leadbeater’s Possum population. The article then set out counterpoints on each of these topics, including statements attributed to forestry industry representatives, consultants and other academics, and data from sources such as the Victorian Government which it said contradicted Professor Lindenmayer’s claims.
The July article reported “ANTI-logging academic David Lindenmayer claims legal action is about to be taken against the forestry industry for loss of property in this summer’s fires.” The article included various comments made by Professor Lindenmayer at a recent zoom seminar, and quoted him as saying “I’m quite surprised there hasn’t been a class action around the issue (logging near urban areas)… I’m sure there will be fairly soon” and “[w]e need to rethink logging of forests, that are becoming more fire prone, particularly near human settlements”. The article then reported an opposing view attributed to a “professional forester” as well as comments from a bushfire scientist.
In relation to the June article, the Council considered its definition of the East Gippsland forestry area to be misleading, noting in particular that information provided to the publication by the complainant made it clear he was utilising the relevant VicForests’ definition. The Council considered that the article misleadingly conflated sightings of the Leadbeater’s Possum with trends in the possum’s population. The Council also considered the article should have made clear that the “professional forester” referred to is also a forestry industry consultant. The Council accepted that the information contained in Professor Lindenmayer’s email, which gave rise to the article, was provided to the media. However, it considered the statement “…Lindenmayer is feeding environmental groups and the media information…” unfairly implies a political motivation on the part of the complainant. On the issue of “contracting crews” in the East Gippsland area, the Council noted the complainant’s original statement was relayed accurately, but considered the publication should have sought a response from the complainant to the criticism in the article. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 3 were breached in these respects.
In relation to the July article, the Council considered the references to Professor Lindenmayer as “anti-logging” were unfair and misleading, given the evidence of the complainant’s extensive, ongoing involvement in sustainable logging. The Council also considered that the article did not accurately report the complainant’s statement regarding possible legal action, and the publication failed to seek a response from the complainant on this issue. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 3 were breached in these respects.
As the claims in the articles called into question the validity of statements made by the complainant as an expert, the Council’s Standards of Practice required the publication to put such adverse claims to the complainant in their entirety. It was not reasonable in the circumstances to simply criticise comments the complainant may have made in the past, without giving him a fair opportunity to respond to those criticisms in the article. As such, the publication breached GP4.
The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article published in The Daily Telegraph online on 28 February 2019, headed “Young men ‘at risk’ from new university policies for adjudicating rape”.
The article reported that universities were introducing regulations to adjudicate rape allegations on campus. It reported that social commentator Bettina Arndt said that an Australian Human Rights Commission survey “shows that 0.8 per cent of students surveyed said they’d had some sort of sexual incident; which Ms Arndt says means that 99.2 per cent of students have not experienced sexual assault.”
The Council received a complaint noting that the AHRC Survey referred to in the article said that “Around half of all university students (51%) were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016, and 6.9% of students were sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016. A significant proportion of the sexual harassment experienced by students in 2015 and 2016 occurred in university settings.” It also said that “1.6% of students were sexually assaulted in a university setting, including travel to and from university on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016.”
The Council noted that the article is a discussion of the opinions of Ms Arndt and her criticisms of the proposed policies of the universities, and in particular covers Ms Arndt’s opinion on the appropriate interpretation of the AHRC survey and what it shows.
The Council noted the AHRC survey does clearly distinguish between assault and harassment. However, given the context of the article and the clear contrast between “incident” and “sexual assault” in the summary of Ms Arndt’s opinion, the Council considered that reasonable steps were taken to ensure accuracy and fairness and balance. The Council also considered that reasonable steps were taken to ensure the writer’s opinions were not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts. As General Principles 1 and 3 were complied with, there was no breach of General Principles 2 and 4.
Accordingly, the Council considered that the publication complied with its General Principles.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article headed “Exclusive: Serial killer wants Medicare gender change: FIEND’S SEX OP ON YOU” (front page), “Killer's sex change farce” (page 6) in print and “Serial killer Reginald Arthurell planning sex change after jail release” online on 21 October 2020.
The article reported “A SERIAL killer due for imminent release from jail wants a taxpayer funded sex change operation infuriating the family”. The article quoted the brother of one of the murder victims saying: “It's disgusting to think this man will be out and trying to use taxpayers' money to have a sex change”. The article went on to report that the “Parole Authority said it has no power to stop Arthurell having a sex change” and that “all he will need is referral from his doctor to have most of the procedure covered by Medicare.” The article stated that relatives of one of the victims had passed on evidence to police that “Arthurell had told two inmates he has plans to kill them and police when he gets out”.
The Council accepted that a brother of one of the murder victims expressed his strong negative views on the prospect of the person’s release and that in his view taxpayer money should not go towards gender affirming surgery. As such, the Council considered the publication took reasonable steps to ensure the presentation of factual material in the article was reasonably fair and balanced and concludes that General Principle 3 was not breached.
The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by the Herald Sun online on 21 January 2021 headed “Mill Park fire: Samantha Noack allegedly detonates homemade bomb”.
The article reported a “transgender woman allegedly detonated a homemade petrol bomb in a Mill Park park then threw a molotov cocktail at a truck, starting several fires. Samantha Noack, 49, was refused bail for a second time … with a magistrate deeming her a too greater risk to public safety.” It went on to state “Noack, who was formerly known as Kenneth Noack, allegedly set off a homemade petrol bomb…”. The article also reported that the court heard “Noack was a transgender woman who suffered from personality disorder, PTSD and depression and had struggled with drug use. Her lawyer submitted she was particularly vulnerable to exclusion in custody, proposing she be bailed to live in temporary accommodation organised by support services.”
The Council considered the repeated and prominent references to the accused’s transgender status, including in the opening paragraph of the article which did not refer to the bail proceedings, could lead some readers to conclude that this characteristic was either a cause of, or a factor in, the alleged crime, and could contribute to substantial prejudice against transgender people. The Council considered that in prominently identifying the woman as transgender, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial prejudice and that there was no sufficient public interest justifying it doing so.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by articles published in Daily Mail Australia headed “Cross-dressing serial killer, 75, wants YOU to pay for his sex change surgery when he's released from jail – and he looks almost certain to get his way” on 20 October 2020 and “Notorious cross-dressing serial killer who bludgeoned his fiancée to death with a piece of wood walks free after 23 years in jail – despite her brother's pleas for him never to be released” on 12 November 2020.
The October article reported “A cross-dressing serial killer set to be freed from jail wants a taxpayer-funded sex change upon his release…”. The article quoted the brother of one of the murder victims saying: “It's disgusting to think this man will be out and trying to use taxpayers' money to have a sex change”. The article went on to report that the “NSW State Parole Authority said there is nothing it can do in its power to prevent the convicted murderer from having the surgery” and included the comments from the NSW Attorney General saying that he “had sought legal advice on applying for a continuing detention order to keep Arthurell behind bars.”
The November article reported that the person had been released from prison and “came out as a transgender while in custody and told authorities he hopes to have a sex change and live the remainder of his life a woman”. The article said “he has been referring to himself as a female and asked all prison workers to treat him as a woman inside jail”. The article quoted the brother of one of the murder victims saying there “wouldn't be a member of the (parole) board that would like this person living in their neighbourhood, let alone living as a neighbour”.
The Press Council has considered a complaint from a teacher about an article published in the Gladstone Observer headed “Pregnant woman hit by shot put at Calliope” online on 18 September 2020. The article reported on an incident at Calliope State High School in which the complainant was hit by a shot put. It reported her age, that she was pregnant and the stage of pregnancy reached. The article was subsequently updated to report statements by a Queensland Ambulance spokesman, Department of Education spokeswoman and a Central Queensland Hospital and Health Service spokeswoman who said that the woman had been discharged from Hospital.
The Council welcomed the publication’s apology to the complainant and its indication that that it will take greater care in reporting on pregnancy in the future. However, the Council considered that the complainanthad a reasonable expectation of privacy and that it was her own decision as to when she made it known that she was pregnant. The Council also considered that the premature public reporting of her pregnancy would be substantially distressing to any person in her situation. The fact that the article attributed the information to a Queensland Ambulance spokesman did not alter the complainant’s reasonable expectation of privacy nor the likelihood of distress.
The Council considered there was no sufficient public interest to justify reporting against the complainant’s reasonable expectations of privacy or in causing her substantial distress. Accordingly, the Council concluded that the publication breached General Principles 5 and 6.
The Council has considered a complaint by Anthony Wilson about an article in the Moorabool News on 24 March 2015, “Report to reveal if dog attack court costs were paid”. The article reported on a meeting of the Moorabool Shire Council at which councillors discussed legal action taken by the Shire Council against the complainant following a dog attack.
The Council concluded that the article was both misleading and unfair in saying the Shire Council was “forced by State Government legislation to spend $100,000” to deal with the matter when the legislation offered a number of alternative means for the Council to resolve it in a less expensive manner, but the Shire Council chose not to do so. The reporting was misleading and unfair in breach of General Principles 1 and 3 and the complaint was upheld in this respect.
The statements in the article that the costs had not been paid as ordered were reported as statements of fact rather than being attributed as a report of discussion during the Shire Council meeting. As there was no time frame in the court order for the Wilson family to pay costs, it was not reasonable to base the statement that the Wilson family did not pay costs as ordered on Shire Council’s 2013/14 report. The Press Council considered that the publication should have made additional enquiries prior to publication. Accordingly, the Council upheld this aspect of the complaint. The Council was not able to determine whether adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a reply was made available in accordance with General Principles 2 and 4, and no finding was made in relation to these aspects.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by the Herald Sun online on 10 December 2020 headed “Allergy warning over Pfizer COVID vaccine”.
The article reported “People who suffer severe allergic reactions have been advised by UK regulators not to take the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine after two British nurses who received the jab suffered allergic reactions.” The article went on to report, under the sub headline “SIX PEOPLE DIED DURING PFIZER TRIAL”, that “Six people that took part in the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial died – including four who had received a placebo shot but the vaccine was unlikely to be the cause of their death.”
The Council accepted that the sub-headline ‘six people died during Pfizer trial’ is accurate based on a report delivered to the United States Food and Drug Administration, as set out in the article, because they did die during the period of the trial. However, the Council considered that the clear implication of this statement is that the six deaths occurred or could have occurred as a result of receiving the vaccine.
The Press Council has considered a complaint from Sue-Ellen White about an article published by The Border Mail on 8 May 2020, headed online “Family and friends speak of their grief at the loss of Billy, ‘Buffalo Bill’, White ahead of 2020 Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice” and in print on page 1 headed “If only love was enough”, leading to an article on page 2 headed "‘I'm empty’: a son's last words to dad: Gaping grief left by suicide”. The article reported on the death of the complainant’s son Bill, who died by suicide, and particularly focused on the grief experienced by Bill’s father who was named. The article also promoted the Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice, an event convened by Survivors of Suicide and Friends.
The Council noted that the publication did not take steps to contact the complainant, despite there being no apparent obstacle to doing so. Although the Council acknowledged the article was well-intentioned and had been initiated by Bill’s father, Principles 3 and 4 required, in the circumstances, that consent be sought from both parents. The Council considered it was not sufficient to obtain only the consent of Bill’s father.
The Council recognised there can be substantial public interest in suicide-related coverage, and that an aspect of the article promoted an event broadly aimed at preventing suicide. However, the article predominantly focused on the individual instance of suicide by Bill, and the specific experiences of Bill’s father. Given this focus, the Council considered the public interest did not justify the nature of reporting in the article in the absence of consent from both parents. Accordingly, the Council considered that the Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide 3 and 4 were breached.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of a cartoon in The Australian on 2 June 2020. The cartoon depicts a person of colour dressed entirely in black, wearing a face mask and hat and only showing the figure’s eyes. The figure is kneeling on the neck of the Statue of Liberty which is lying on the ground next to a car that has the number plate USA. The cartoon depicts a scene of social unrest with buildings on fire and smoke in background. The figure is saying “I AM FIGHTING FOR THE RIGHT TO DO WHAT I HATE” while the words “I CAN’T BREATHE” emanate from the mouth of the Statue of Liberty.
The Council has consistently expressed a view that cartoons are commonly expressions of opinion examining serious issues and which use exaggeration and absurdity to make their point. For this reason, significant latitude will usually be given in considering whether a publication has taken reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence, distress or prejudice in breach of General Principle 6. However, a publication can, in publishing a particular cartoon, still fail to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial offence, distress or prejudice without sufficient justification in the public interest and breach the General Principle.
The Council noted that the cartoon could certainly be seen as an offensive and prejudicial portrayal of protestors in the wake of the George Floyd protests, particularly given its depiction of an African-American man kneeling on the neck of the white Statue of Liberty and its use of the words “I CAN’T BREATHE”. However, the Council accepted it was in response to the riots a week after Floyd’s homicide and after the peaceful protests and in which violence was perpetrated by African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities against their own communities. The Council considered that the cartoon would mostly be considered in the context of the articles about the riots on the front page and other pages, as well as the letters section above which the cartoon appeared.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by the Herald Sun on 24 and 25 June 2020 headed “Why we need to probe if tribalism is behind new coronavirus spike” and “VICTORIA'S CORONAVIRUS CRISIS: MADE BY MULTICULTURALISM” online and ‘Is Tribalism behind spike?’ in print. It also considered an article published online by the Herald Sun on 12 and 13 July headed “Andrew Bolt: Multiculturalism made Victoria vulnerable to coronavirus” and “VIRUS THRIVES IN MULTICULTURALISM” respectively.
The June article stated “Victoria’s coronavirus outbreak exposes the stupidity of that multicultural slogan ‘diversity makes us stronger… It’s exactly that diversity — taken to extremes — that’s helped to create this fear of a ‘second wave’.” It went on to say that most new infections where breaking out in poor outer suburban areas where more than a third of residents were born overseas, in countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Iraq, China and Vietnam”, and “…it seems there’s not just a language barrier. There may also be a cultural one.” The July article stated “Be calm. I am not ‘blaming immigrants’… But multiculturalism has made Victoria more vulnerable not just because we’re increasingly a nation of tribes, less likely to make sacrifices for people outside our ‘own’. There’s also ‘language and cultural problems’ that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews admitted the virus fighters faced.”
In relation to the accuracy of the information in the articles concerning the ethnic makeup of suburbs, places of residence and workplace the Council found no breach of General Principle 1. In relation to the comments that multiculturalism polict had caused the second outbreak, the Council notes that these were expressions of the writer’s opinion and was identified as based on difficulties in communication in multiple languages and cultural factors. Accordingly, General Principle 3 was not breached in this respect.The Council acknowledged that some readers may have found the argument offensive and prejudicial, however the Council considered such offence or prejudice as was caused was justified in the public interest in debate on the issue and General Principle 6 was not breached in this respect.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by The Australian headed “Firebugs fuelling crisis as arson arrest toll hits 183” in print on 7 January 2020 and “Bushfires: Firebugs fuelling crisis as national arson arrest toll hits 183” online on 8 January 2020. The article reported that “[m]ore than 180 alleged arson cases have been recorded since the start of the bushfire season with 29 fires deliberately lit in the Shoalhaven region of NSW in just three months” and that “Police arrested 183 people for lighting bushfires across Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania”. The article reported that since 8 November 2019, 24 people had been arrested in NSW for deliberately lighting bushfires while a further 184 people had been cautioned for bushfire-related offences such as “discarding lit cigarettes, setting off fireworks and failing to comply with a total fire ban.” The article went on to report that 101 people had been “picked up” for setting fires in the bush, that four people “were caught setting fire to vegetation” outside Hobart Tasmania while “Victoria reported 43 charged from 2019”.
The complaints challenged the accuracy of the statements that “arson arrest toll hits 183” as in the headline and that “[m]ore than 180 alleged arsonists have been arrested since the start of 2019”. The complaints also asserted that the figures included people who had not been arrested or charged for ‘arson’ but for lesser offences such as unauthorised lighting of fires in contravention of local fire bans.
The Council accepted that the publication’s initial representation of the data may have led readers to consider that an unusually high number of ‘arsonists’ had been arrested since the beginning of the 2019/20 fire season. The Council also accepted the difficulty in aggregating information from multiple sources while reconciling different definitions of what might constitute arson under various State legislation. The Council considered that although there might have been some discrepancies in the reported figures, the publication nevertheless took reasonable steps to be accurate and not misleading when reporting the data.