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.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published online by Daily Mail Australia on 5 April 2020 headed “Beach bums! Sydneysiders ignore social distancing rules as they flock to Bondi to lap up the final days of summer - risking massive fines for breaking lockdown rules”.
The Council acknowledged that the publication has an ongoing relationship with the picture agency which it relies on as a source of accurate and reliable information, and noted that the article was written entirely based on the erroneous time and date provided by the picture agency. However, the events were reported to have occurred on the Friday and it is reasonable to assume, given the significance and potential illegality of the events reported on, that if they had occurred they would be reported on by one or more media outlets on the Saturday. When deciding to publish on the Sunday, the publication should have been alert to the fact that on the Saturday other media outlets had not carried reports of the events and the publication should therefore have taken steps to check the accuracy of the photographs rather than simply relying upon the reputation of the picture agency. Accordingly, the Council considered the publication did not take reasonable steps to verify the photographs, and to ensure that the factual information in the article was accurate and breached General Principle 1.
The Council noted that the publication took action to remedy the complaint, including removing the article from its website, and reviewing its procedures for handling content provided by third parties. However, the Council considered that in this instance, General Principle 2 required the publication to publish a correction to inform its readership of the significant inaccuracy in the story. As the publication did not do so, General Principle 2 was breached in this respect.
As to General Principle 6, the Council did not consider the article is likely to cause or contribute to substantial distress or a substantial risk to health or safety. Accordingly, General Principle 6 was not breached.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in print by The Ballina Shire Advocate on 5 February 2020 headed “Church in court against Priest”.
The article reported on a claim by a serving priest against the Catholic church for damages for sexual abuse, alleged to have occurred as a child while attending a Catholic boarding school. The article said it was understood that this was the first time a serving priest had brought such proceedings. The article reported that in the alleged incident, the priest engaging in the abuse “allegedly directed the plaintiff to kneel in front of him as he exposed and placed his erect penis into the boy’s mouth while repeatedly thrusting until he ejaculated”.
The Council considered 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 presented in open court. The Council accepted that some readers may have found the specific factual description of the sexual abuse distressing. However, the Council considered that it is in the public interest to report the facts of such abuse without employing general uninformative descriptions or euphemisms and notes that the article was reporting on a single alleged incident.
In some cases, a warning that an article contains graphic content may be appropriate. However, as in this case, the details were of a single alleged instance and appeared a number of paragraphs into the article, the Council considered that a warning was not required.
The Council concluded that the publication took reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety and that in any event, the article was sufficiently in the public interest. Accordingly, General Principle 6 was not breached.
The Press Council has considered a complaint from Yamaha Motor Finance about an article in Banking Day headed “The companies that don’t respond to complaints” published online on 12 November 2019.
The article reported on a number of complaints received by the Australian Financial Complaints Authority from customers of businesses such as Yamaha Motor Finance. The article reported that AFCA had “calculated a non-response rate for companies under its jurisdiction” which is “the percentage of complaints that are progressed to the case management stage of the complaint resolution process without a response from the financial services company at the initial stage”. The article reported Yamaha Motor Finance had 14 complaints “with a 100 per cent non-response rate, and the complainant said the article is grossly misleading because the data published by AFCA shows there were 14 complaints against it in total and that 12 out of 14 complaints were addressed by it and resolved at the registration and referral stage.
The Council accepted that 12 of the 14 complaints were addressed and resolved by Yamaha Motor Finance at the registration and referral stage of ACFA’s complaints process. The Council accordingly considered that the statement that Yamaha Motor Finance had a “100 per cent non-response rate” was inaccurate. This inaccuracy was compounded by the headline. Accordingly, the Council concluded that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material was accurate and not misleading, and is presented with reasonable fairness in balance, in breach of General Principles 1 and 3.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article headed “THURSDAY CHATTERBOX” by The Daily Telegraph on 2 May 2019 online. The article described a “case of a US teacher fired due to a trans violation” and said a teacher in America was fired after a “split second decision to call a trans student ‘her’”. It said: “The student was reportedly about to walk into a wall when the teacher instinctively said ‘stop her’. And so his ridiculous fight to keep his job began. That’s it … ‘stop her’, and a man’s livelihood is under fire. Those split-second safety calls are always problematic”.
The article included a thumbnail to a video on YouTube with the words “look out faggot” appearing twice, once in prominent capital letters. The video playable in the thumbnail was of a scene from a television sitcom in which a man sees a piano about to fall on another man walking down a pavement and yells “look out faggot” in an apparent attempt to save the other man while quickly moving to push the man out of its path, narrowly saving him from injury.
The Council noted that the word “faggot” is most used as a pejorative term to describe gay men. The Council considered that, notwithstanding the satirical nature of the article, the inclusion of the word in the thumbnail and in the video itself could be read as demeaning and mocking of gay men and, as the article referred to a “trans violation”, to others with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics. The Council concluded that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, and there was no sufficient public interest in doing so. Accordingly, General Principle 6 was breached in this respect.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by The Australian headed “Health chiefs can’t ignore ‘global epidemic’ of transgender teens” online on 13 February 2020.
The article reported that “Queensland’s health authorities have been urged to confront an under-reported global contagion involving troubled teenage girls declaring they ‘are born in the wrong body’”. The article went on to report that “’Social contagion’ via online platforms – such as Tumblr, reddit and YouTube – and peer groups is suspected to be a factor in the rapid rise of teenage caseload at gender clinics around the world”.
The Council noted that the article reported on submissions made to a Queensland parliamentary inquiry concerning a proposed amendment to legislation and the potential consequences for those treating adolescents experiencing gender dysphoria. The Council noted the words complained about, such as “social contagion” and “epidemic” were words used in two submissions to the inquiry and appear in the headline and article in quotation marks. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principles 1 and 2. The Council considered by using material from public submissions to the inquiry critical of the proposed legislation and its potential impact on health practitioners, as well as material from those who are supportive of the proposed legislation, the publication took sufficient steps to show both sides of the debate, and present factual material with reasonable fairness and balance. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principles 3 and 4.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article by Emeritus Professor Ian Plimer headed “Let’s not pollute minds with carbon fears” published by The Australian in print and online on 22 November 2019.
The article was an opinion piece in which the writer criticised what he described as an “attack” on carbon dioxide. The article included statements that there “are no carbon emissions. If there were, we could not see because most carbon is black. Such terms are deliberately misleading, as are many claims.” The article also referred to “fraudulent changing of past weather records” and “unsubstantiated claims polar ice is melting”, as well as “the ignoring of data that shows Pacific islands and the Maldives are growing rather than being inundated…”.
The Press Council has considered a complaint from Senator Richard Di Natale about a print article published in The Daily Telegraph on 22 July 2019, headed “Greens put wind up farm”.
The article reported on a proposed wind farm on Robbins Island in Tasmania. It began, “The Greens are opposing a proposed wind farm in Tasmania which would inject $5 billion into the economy and produce 100 megawatts of clean energy into the grid”. The article went on to include a quote from Australian Greens Party leader Senator Richard Di Natale and stated that he “supported Dr Bob Brown’s concerns” over the proposed wind farm.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by The Herald Sun headed “Time to doubt Greta’s dogma” in print on 1 August 2019, “Andrew Bolt: Greta has no doubts, but we should” online on 31 July 2019 and “The disturbing secret to the cult of Greta Thunberg” online on 1 August 2019. The article concerned prominent, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and commented on her diagnosed mental disorders including “Asperger’s syndrome, high-functioning autism and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” The article referred to Greta Thunberg as “freakishly influential” “deeply disturbed” and a “strange girl” and commented “I have never seen a girl so young with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru.”
The Council accepted that Greta Thunberg’s mental disorders are a matter of public record and have been relayed with reasonable accuracy in the article. As such, the Council did not consider that the writer’s expression of opinion is based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts and concluded that General Principle 3 was not breached.
The Press Council has considered a complaint from Dr Stephen Bright about articles published in The Daily Telegraph headed “Experts accused of skewing statistics to help support their views on pill testing” online on 16 July 2019, “PILL YOUR HEADS IN: Experts’ MDMA testing evidence slammed” in print on 17 July 2019 and the editorial “Sniffer dogs not deadly” in print and online on 16 July 2019.
The articles reported on an inquest into the deaths of “six young revellers at last summer’s dance festivals” as a result of “complications from MDMA use”. The articles reported that Dr Bright is “one of a number of experts contacted by the inquest who have backed pill testing at festivals”, who “have been accused of skewing statistics to support their views” by a prison forensic psychiatrist and a respected medical expert from Brisbane’s Princess Alexandria Hospital who in an expert report indicated that pill testing remains unproven. The editorial also reported on Dr Bright’s statement that “MDMA itself is not a particularly harmful drug” and stated that “[t]he families of those six dead Australians may take issue with Dr Bright’s analysis”.
The Press Council has considered a complaint from Frances Harrison about an article published in the Cairns Post on Monday 26 November 2018 headed “Health boss has job loss windfall” in print and “Cairns Hospital HR manager’s six-figure payout after seven months on the job” online.
The article reported that the complainant “received a payment of $106,000 upon her resignation” in March. The article also stated that sources “claimed bullying complaints within the service increased during this period” immediately above an image of the complainant. The article went on to report that the Health Service Chief Executive “declined to say why Ms Harrison had resigned from her position” and that the People and Engagement Executive Director “declined to comment directly about allegations of bullying during Ms Harrison’s tenure”.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article in The Courier-Mail on 26 May 2019 headed “Greg Inglis’ lost weekend in Brisbane mansion for Magic Round” online and “The weekend Greg forgot” in print.
The article reported on events concerning a former football player’s trip to Brisbane to attend the NRL’s Magic Round event in May 2019. It reported that he spent the weekend “in a Brisbane riverside mansion with friends” and a named “reality TV star”, whilst his “frantic family”, “girlfriend” and football club “officials tried to find him”. The article includes a photograph of the outside of the private residence.
The article further reported the observations of a “witness staying in” the residence, stating: “It seemed to me like he [the man] wanted to escape from the world for a few days and get away from whatever pressures he was feeling”, “He was drinking beer and sort of drifting in and out of consciousness” and “I tried to talk to him a couple of times and finally convinced him to have a shower and gave him some (fresh) clothes”. The article also reported on the contents of communication apparently sent by members of the man’s family and the man’s friends to the “witness”.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article headed “KEY WORD: ‘ATTEMPTS’” by The Daily Telegraph on 31 May 2019 online. The article commented on the reported reaction of offshore asylum seekers to Federal election outcome saying the “election result hasn’t gone down well with our off-shore country-shopper community, currently participating in a wave of plainly inept suicide attempts”.
The article included copies of tweets by media and individuals reporting on the events. The article said “Meanwhile, place your bets on the final number. Can they crack the half-century? Or even make it all the way to three figures? Go for it, boaties.” It concluded “(Note: under official Attention-Seeking Refugee rules, multiple attempts by an individual score only a single point.)”
The Council noted the publication’s comments that the columnist was making reference to ‘self-harm’ attempts by asylum seekers rather that suicide attempts and that he was using satire to express his view. However, the Council considered that the article’s comments concerning “plainly inept suicide attempts”, the inclusion of the tweets referencing suicide attempts as well as the headline itself, would lead readers to conclude that the article was commenting on attempted suicides.
The Press Council has considered a complaint from Cr Philip Penfold about an article published in the Maitland Mercury on 19 June 2019, headed “The weighting game” on the front page and continuing on page five, headed “Gym approval on hold over parking: Owner in tears at council’s change of heart” in print.
The article reported that a gym owner who considered that local council approval for her plans to establish an all-female gym would be a formality, was “reduced to tears” when “her application was surprisingly voted down due to concerns over parking” and that “what floored her the most was Cr Penfold’s change of heart”. The article reported “Cr Philip Penfold, who originally posted on social media his support for the proposal, changed his position” and went on to report that “Cr Penfold’s change of motion surprised other councillors too.”
The Council noted that, apart from the publication stating that it had been told by those associated with the proposed gym that Cr Penfold had publicly endorsed it, the publication provided no evidence that this had in fact occurred. Accordingly, taking into particular account the unequivocal manner in which it stated that the complainant publicly endorsed the gym, the Council concluded that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure its reporting was accurate and not misleading in breach of General Principle 1.
The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article headed “Killer shows no remorse” published in print in The Toowoomba Chronicle on 23 September 2019. The article concerned the deaths of two young boys in a Toowoomba home on 28 July 2007.
The article provided graphic detail of the crimes and also reported various details of the criminal trial. The complainant, the father of one of the victims named in the article, said that he was extremely shocked and distressed by the article and that it had a significant impact on his wellbeing.
The Council noted that the article was not labelled or presented as being part of a historical series. Given the significant lapse of time since the reported crime and the graphic details included in the article, the Council considered the article should have been clearly presented as a historical piece to give context to the story.