The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article headed, “Scientology tore my family apart” in the weekly magazine Woman’s Day on 25 March 2013.
The article presented the story of Adrian Kelsey, a Queensland man whose former wife (Fransyl Marmolejo) and their young children were now living in Mexico and were members of the Church of Scientology. Mr Kelsey had been a Scientologist but he said that, after he left the Church, it had forbidden his family to contact him. The article also described ways in which, according to Mr Kelsey, his parents and a son by an earlier marriage had been poorly treated by the Church.
Ms Marmolejo and the Church of Scientology complained to the Council that the article should have mentioned that Mr Kelsey lost custody of his children after failing to pay court-ordered child support. They said the Church should have been given an opportunity to comment on Mr Kelsey’s claims before publication, and that the publication should have promptly agreed to publish the letter sent to it by Ms Marmolejo after the article appeared. Ms Marmolejo also said that, in publishing the names and photographs of herself and the children, as well as parts of an email sent from the daughter to Mr Kelsey, the publication had breached their privacy.
The publication responded that Mr Kelsey had said he was free to visit his children, and there was no reason for it to check court records. It said that as the article was presented as a personal account of Mr Kelsey’s views, appearing in a section of the magazine titled “Real Life”, there was no need to seek comment from the Church or to publish Ms Marmolejo’s letter. It said that as the article was not published in Mexico, the privacy of the complainant and her children had not been breached.
The Council considers that presentation of the article as a personal account in a section dedicated to such stories does not override the need to ensure fairness to people named in the article and balance in its presentation of material to readers. By relying solely on information from Mr Kelsey, without making further inquiries about his conduct and the custody arrangements, the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fairness in describing the family situation. Also, its failure to publish comments from Ms Marmolejo and the Church of Scientology in the original article or in some other appropriate way created a lack of fairness and balance. Accordingly, the complaint is upheld on these grounds.
The Council considers that the publication did not breach the family’s privacy by publishing the names and photographs of the children. However, full publication of the 13-year old daughter’s highly personal email to her father breached her privacy as she could reasonably expect that it would be seen only by her father (although quotation or paraphrasing of some of it might have been justifiable). Protection of privacy does not apply only to material which is accessible in the place of residence of the person whose privacy has been breached. Accordingly, although the quotations were not included in the online version of the article, the complaint is upheld for breach of the daughter’s privacy by the print version.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies part of General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”; General Principle 3: “Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports 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 part of General Principle 4: “News and comment should be presented … with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals”.