The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by material in the Sunday Herald Sun on 2 March 2014. The material included an article on page 1 headed: “EXCLUSIVE The 12 AFL stars still in ASADA limbo: DONS DRUG HELL”, and an article on pages 8-9 headed “BOMBERS IN THE DARK: Thirteen months after the drugs in sport scandal broke, these AFL players are still looking for closure”. An online version was headed “Bombers in the dark: The 12 AFL stars still in ASADA limbo”. The second article was accompanied by prominent photographs of 14 players it named as having told Australian Sports and Drugs Agency (ASADA) that they thought they had been injected with peptides during their time with the Essendon Football Club (EFC).
The material was published while ASADA was looking into the possible administration of banned drugs to players at the EFC. Where information had been provided by players in response to the ASADA investigation it was on a confidential basis. The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached the Council’s Standards of Practice relating to accurate, fair and balanced reporting and to the need to respect the privacy and sensibilities of individuals unless there is sufficient justification in the public interest for not doing so.
The publication replied that after the article appeared, ASADA issued “show cause” notices to the named players. It said it sought prior comment from the EFC and the AFL Players Association (AFLPA) and read the proposed article to the CEO of the AFLPA, but none had wished to comment. The Council noted, however, that the AFLPA subsequently advised the Council had expressed concern to the publication about the proposal to publish names. The publication published those concerns.
The publication said the article had been supportive of the players’ predicament, including a statement that they deserved closure and fairness. It said the ASADA investigation was a matter of public record and extensive media coverage. It said a public cloud of suspicion had been over all EFC players and that naming the 12 players “cleared the air” for the club’s other 26 players. It also said disclosure was in the public interest because of the public’s right to know about matters which greatly affect a sport in which very many people participate or are deeply interested.
The Council considers that the disclosure clearly intruded on the named players’ privacy and may have caused them significant harm. Despite this impact, disclosure could be regarded as being in the public interest because of the importance of the allegations to the game of AFL, its administration and the safety of players, as well as the desirability of dispelling unjustified suspicion of other EFC players. On the other hand, disclosure could be regarded as against the public interest due to the risk of discouraging candour with ASADA and thereby hindering the investigation of this and analogous matters of considerable public concern.
Having balanced these competing considerations, the Council is not satisfied there was a clear breach of its Standards of Practice in this instance. In doing so, it is influenced partly by the late stage of the protracted investigative process at which the disclosure was made.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles as at the date of publication of the article: General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”; and 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. Rumour and unconfirmed reports should be identified as such.”