The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of two articles published in The Daily Advertiser. The first article published in print and online was a letter to the editor on 16 June, headed “Maccas’ ads in bad taste, just like gay marriage”. The second article published in print only, was a “Wheeler’s Wisdom” column published on 14 July 2015, headed “Gay marriage is not all it seems”. Both articles appeared in the context of a number of articles and letters which the paper had published on the subject of marriage equality.
The first article, a letter by Arnold Jago, suggested homosexuality was analogous to “a little-discussed disorder of coprophagia” and was “unhealthy and abnormal”. The second article commented on the same-sex marriage debate and opined that “[h]omosexual campaigners do not want you to know the facts”, highlighting an increased rate of HIV and AIDS, the “plight of adopted children”, and the suggestion that changes to marriage laws could result in recognition of polyamorous marriage as reasons to support “opposition to homosexual marriage”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the two items breached its Standards of Practice requiring that reasonable steps be taken to “avoid causing … substantial offence, distress or prejudice”.
The publication was also asked to comment on the publication of material which suggests homosexuality is ”unhealthy and abnormal”, that “gay marriage would be encouraging homosexuality”, that “HIV and AIDS” are “consequences of homosexual sex”, and refers to “the plight of adopted children, and those needing foster care, being sent to a homosexual home”.
The publication said it was regrettable that the letter caused offence. However, it said the risk of causing offence to some readers must be balanced with its duty to frame the debate around issues of public importance. It said both items were published in the context of the national debate on same-sex marriage, and had been part of a number of letters and articles published on the issue over the course of several months.
The publication said it had taken a “robust pro-gay marriage” stance and “published a number of stories on the issue… written solely from the perspective of local gay couples”. It said it supports comment from those opposed because to censor such views “would be an affront to free speech”. The publication said whilst such views may be “objectionable for some” these comments reflect the views of some of the “deeply conservative electorate” in which the newspaper circulates.
The publication noted it received no complaints in relation to the letter and that the Wheelers’ Wisdom column had only appeared in print, but due to an image of the column being made available on social media a large critical response had been registered outside of the column’s immediate circulation area. It said in the interests of addressing this criticism, the publication had taken remedial steps since 14 July, such as dedicating several letters pages wholly to critics of Mr Wheeler, and said it would “continue to run these letters until they are exhausted”. It said it had also published a story “from the perspective of the gay community and their criticism of Mr Wheeler”, more prominently in the front news section and also online (even though the original column was not online). A further article was also published with the assistance of HIV awareness group Positive Life, giving more context around Mr Wheeler's comments on HIV and AIDS and alerting readers to the availability of HIV testing in the local community. The publication also said that despite the Editor being on leave he had taken the time to respond personally to each email received about the column to explain the newspaper’s position.
Although the Council accepts that some of the views expressed in both the letter and the column may have caused significant offence to a number of people, it considers that the publication clearly treated the overall material as part of a long-running series of articles presenting a broad range of views (some strongly expressed and controversial) within a responsible and balanced debate. It has also published a number of critical responses subsequent to the publication of the column.
The Council concludes that the articles were not so offensive as to outweigh the public interest in allowing robust expressions of opinion on issues of national debate. Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of its Standards 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.”