The Press Council has considered a complaint about two news reports (“King’s student on rape charge and Headmaster won’t expel boy charged with rape”) and an editorial (“Allegations put rhetoric on values to the test at King’s”) in the Sun Herald and The Sydney Morning Herald in December 2012.
The material related to a serious criminal charge against a student of The King’s School while on an exchange program overseas; the responses of the Headmaster, Dr Timothy Hawkes; and some broader issues about the school’s culture. The charge was actually of an attempt to commit the offence in question and was eventually withdrawn in February 2013.
Dr Hawkes complained his comment that the student had “failed in his ambassadorial duties” had been reported in both articles as if he was referring to the criminal charge, rather than to other conduct by the student while overseas. He said this inaccurately and unfairly implied that he did not take the criminal matter seriously. He also complained the articles breached the student’s privacy because, while not naming him, they gave sufficient information for him to be identified by some people who would not otherwise have known.
Dr Hawkes complained the report of allegations that the school had a culture of bullying and cover-up was inaccurate, unfair and very damaging to the reputation of the school and himself. He said the criticisms were based on the views of one unnamed parent and that a more representative range of views should have been canvassed. He should also have had an opportunity to comment on the criticisms before publication, rather than only in a letter to the editor published four days after the first article (by which time the newspaper had already published an editorial reiterating the earlier criticisms).
The publication replied that Dr Hawkes was asked for comment on the criminal charge before the first article appeared. It had assumed his comment about ambassadorial duties related to that charge as it was unaware of any other misconduct to which it might refer. It said the student’s privacy had not been unreasonably breached because his identity was already known within the school community and was provided to it by a parent of another student.
The publication said that the unnamed parent’s comments had been echoed subsequently by other sources. It had published Dr Hawkes’ letter of rebuttal and placed a link to it on the online versions of the articles and the editorial.
The Council’s Principles require that privacy must not be intruded upon unless there is sufficient ground for doing so in the public interest. The privacy of young people is regarded as being of special importance in this respect, as is the need for caution in reporting charges. The Council considers that the detailed nature of the articles meant the student was likely to be identifiable by a number of people who would not otherwise have found out.
Despite the harm caused to the student, against whom the charge was eventually withdrawn, publication of the articles at this early stage might have been justified on public interest grounds if it had been a crucial part of powerful evidence that the school had a culture of sexual assault, violence or other such conduct. As the evidence fell far short of that benchmark, the complaint relating to breach of the student’s privacy is upheld on this ground.
The Council’s Principles require that people and organisations be given a reasonable opportunity to respond to proposed criticisms, either before they are published or subsequently. In relation to the very serious criticisms of the school’s culture, no prior opportunity was given and the subsequent opportunity was unreasonably delayed. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is also upheld.
The Principles also require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fairness. The Council considers there is insufficient ground for concluding that the journalist should have interpreted Dr Hawkes’ comment about “ambassadorial duties” as applying to other aspects of the boy’s conduct rather than the criminal charge. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
Dr Hawkes also complained that the journalist unfairly obtained information by speaking to the student by phone and reporting a quote from him. The publication replied that the journalist ended the call within a minute after it was unexpectedly answered by the student himself. It said the student’s quote was innocuous but should not have been published. The Council was not able to fully determine the circumstances surrounding the call, but it agrees the comment should not have been published and therefore this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
Note (not required for publication by the newspaper):
The Council notes that the initial report described the charge as being rape rather than attempted rape. This was not due to lack of care by the publication and the error was subsequently corrected in the archived copies of the online articles. However, even if the initial reports had been correct in this respect, their prominence on both pages 1 and 3 (as well as a lengthy editorial) meant that the eventual withdrawal of the charge should have been reported much more prominently than the short report which subsequently appeared on page 9.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission.”; 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.”; part of General Principle 4: “News and comment should be presented honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy is not to be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest.”; and General Principle 5: “Information obtained by dishonest or unfair means, or the publication of which would involve a breach of confidence, should not be published unless there is an over-riding public interest.”