The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article in The Courier-Mail on 9 April 2015. The report centred on a NSW woman’s disappearance, six days before her wedding. It consisted of a large front page photograph of the woman wearing a dress and pink sash bearing the words “Bride to Be”, a very prominent headline “BRIDE AND SEEK” and two smaller headings, “FAIRYTALE TURNS NIGHTMARE” and “Six days to wedding and she just vanished”. The article reported circumstances surrounding the woman’s disappearance after she was last seen four days prior to publication. It said that police could not say whether the disappearance was a result of “cold feet” or “something more sinister”. However, a public statement by police early on the morning of publication said that murder charges were expected following the arrest of a suspect in relation to the woman’s disappearance.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached General Principle 6 of its Standards of Practice requiring that reasonable steps be taken to “avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”. The publication was also asked about two media statements released by police on the two days prior to publication, stating they held concerns for the woman’s welfare as her disappearance was “out of character". In the police media statement on the morning of the publication, the police stated that investigators had been questioning the suspect “since around 7:30pm" the evening before the article was published and that he was “subsequently arrested”.
The publication said the headline reflected the focus of the report: the vanishing of a bride-to-be and the search for her. It said this was why it had used the word 'seek' and that the article was based on information which was available to the publication at the time of printing of the newspaper on the evening of Wednesday 8 April. The publication noted the article was consistent with other media reports on the disappearance and canvassed a number of lines of enquiry, including suggestions that she may have experienced “cold feet”. The publication said that when the article was prepared and printed on the evening of 8 April, the official police position was that it was a “missing person case”.
The publication said the news of the arrest and pending murder charges did not emerge until approximately seven hours after the article was prepared and after distribution of that edition had occurred. It said there had been no intention to make light of a shocking event. The publication said staff had been horrified to discover there were such tragic circumstances around the disappearance. The publication said after becoming aware the case was a murder investigation it took swift steps to remove the cover page from all of its digital platforms and also changed its online coverage.
The Council accepts that on the information available at the time of printing and distribution, it was possible that the woman was a missing person. The publication did not know about the arrest. It repeated statements by friends and family and concerns expressed by police indicating that flight was a remote and slender possibility.
Council concludes the publication’s elevation of this possibility to the very prominent “Bride and Seek” headline and the front page treatment it received, in addition to the lighthearted tenor of the headline, was substantially offensive to many people, and could be expected to have caused distress in particular to those who knew the woman. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of its Standards of Practice in relation to General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following Standard of Practice of the Council:
6: “Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”