The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article headed “Could you spot a paedophile? Here’s a guide on how to pick a child molester” on the news.com.au website on 19 September 2013. After an introduction it presented nine categories of sex offenders, with information about each and photographs of well-known offenders.
Nicole Lamb and others complained about an entry in one of the categories labelled “The damaged”. This section read:
“Paedophiles are often the victims of child molestation themselves. If you know this about a person’s past, beware. It’s all very well for you to feel sorry for a person, but don’t [let] them anywhere near young people you know. Child molestation victims frequently seek out children at the age or stage of physical development at which they were molested, and are able to more easily justify their repetition of history. They may network with others like them whose beliefs and practices are that sex with children is acceptable.”
The complainants said the second, third and fourth sentences were deeply offensive and served to marginalise victims of child sex abuse and discourage them from speaking out. They also said the statement that “child molestation victims frequently seek out children…” misrepresented the incidence of victims becoming perpetrators as research on the issue does not support the claim that a high proportion of victims of child abuse go on to become paedophiles or child abusers.
In response, the publication said that the second and third sentences of the applicable section should not have been published, and had been deleted shortly after receiving complaints about the matter. It said there was research to support the proposition that a significant number of child sex offenders have reported a history of sexual victimisation, but acknowledged this did not mean that most victims become perpetrators. It said the intention had been for this section to refer only to the category of paedophiles who have themselves been abused as children, but it acknowledged the section was open to being read more expansively.
The publication also noted that it had published an article by the president of Adults Surviving Child Abuse in response, and had placed a prominent link on the original article noting the author’s point that the article lacked taste and sensitivity.
The Council decided that the original version of the section labelled “The damaged” was so gravely offensive that it breached its principle requiring publications to balance the public interest with the sensitivities of readers. In order for a breach to occur, the level of offensiveness must be so high that it outweighs the very strong public interest in freedom of expression. In this case, the Council considered the level of offence would not only be very high, but it would be widespread throughout the community.
The Council’s principles also require that relevant facts should not be misrepresented. The Council has said this means that if a statement is likely to be read as purporting to be a statement of fact, there must at least be a tenable argument that it is correct. The Council considered the statement concerning the frequency with which victims of sexual abuse become offenders and noted the publication’s acknowledgement that evidence of a significant number of perpetrators being victims does not establish the frequency of victims becoming perpetrators.
Accordingly, the complaints are upheld. However, the Council acknowledges the actions taken by the publication to address the issues raised by the complainants. These include: promptly removing two of the sentences from the article after being contacted by the complainants and the Council; amending a further sentence after discussing the matter with the complainant and the Adjudication Panel; expressing sincere apologies to the complainant during the Panel discussion; and indicating that it had implemented internal checks to ensure this kind of content is not published again.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies General Principle 6: “Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article and readers should be advised of any manipulation of images and potential conflicts of interest” 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”.