The Council considered a complaint by Jan Winstanley about the digitally altered photograph and accompanying headline on the front page of The Daily Telegraph on 10 October 2012.
The photograph covered most of the page and showed Peter Slipper MP standing at the Speaker’s Chair in the House of Representatives on the previous day, when announcing his resignation from that office. His ears, nose and teeth were digitally altered to resemble a rat, whiskers were added to his face, and a very large rat’s tail had also been appended to his body. A small caption noted that the photograph had been digitally altered. The accompanying and very prominent headline read “KING RAT DESERTS THE SHIP”.
The complainant said she was horrified by the material. She said it was highly offensive, unfair and “goes against every principle that I am trying to instil in my children and in my workplace”.
The Daily Telegraph said the altered depiction of Mr Slipper and the headline describing him as “King Rat” were “robust and powerful”. But it said they were not unfair or offensive because they related to aspects of his behaviour falling within the long-established use of the term “rat” in Australian political vernacular. This behaviour included Mr Slipper accepting appointment as Speaker by the Labor Government and thereby effectively depriving the Liberal Party, in the name of which he had been elected an MP, of a crucial vote in a closely-balanced House of Representatives. The publication said cartoons of similar robustness had long been accepted as appropriate for publication. It added that the accompanying article had quoted Mr Slipper.
The Council considers the use of the term “King Rat” in this context was not so highly unfair and offensive as to outweigh the public importance of allowing robust expressions of opinion on issues of political controversy. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
In relation to digital alteration of the photograph, the Council considers that altered photographs are not necessarily to be assessed on precisely the same basis as if they were cartoons. First, the risk of excessive unfairness can be greater when, for example, the change is to an otherwise accurate photograph of a person’s features rather than being merely a cartoonist’s caricature. Second, the likelihood of confusion between fact and comment can be greater where photographs are involved. This applies especially where the precise nature of the alteration is not made clear. The first of these factors applies in this instance but the second does not because although the alterations were not described their nature was nevertheless obvious.
The Council does not consider that politicians are “fair game” for extreme levels of abuse and ridicule. Indeed, such behaviour can unreasonably inhibit their freedom of expression as well as harm the important processes of democracy and good governance. In this case, the highly pejorative nature of the alterations and their prominence on the front page created a substantial risk of excessive offence and unfairness. Despite these concerns, the Council considers on balance that they are outweighed by the overall public importance of freedom of expression. Accordingly, the complaint about the altered photograph is not upheld.
The Council emphasises, however, that digitally-altered photographs are not entirely analogous to cartoons and therefore in some circumstances may be more at risk of breaching the Council’s principles. Moreover, as in a recent adjudication (no. 1556) involving another front-page digitally altered photograph, they may combine with accompanying material to constitute a collective breach.
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The Council notes that since this photograph appeared the Commonwealth Parliament has banned the publication of digitally-altered photographs of its proceedings. This subsequent ban has not been taken into account in the adjudication.
Relevant Council Standards
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This adjudication applies part of the Council’s General Principle 3: “Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news report or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication” and General Principle 7: “Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence.”