The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article in The Weekend Australian on 2-3 January 2016, headed “The minister, the texts and the Stormies night” in print, with a similar headline online. The article reported allegations made against the then federal Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, Jamie Briggs MP, who was in Hong Kong on official business, and which led to Mr Briggs’ resignation from his Ministry. The allegations were made by a junior official employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in the Hong Kong consulate, suggesting Mr Briggs had engaged in inappropriate conduct. Although the woman did not make a formal complaint, reports of the allegations came to the attention of the Minister and the Secretary of DFAT, and an investigator was appointed.
The article expressly said the woman’s name had not been published “to protect her privacy”.
An accompanying photograph of the woman pictured with Mr Briggs on the night in question was pixilated to obscure her face. However, the article did go on to detail her exact age, specific position in DFAT, academic qualifications, that she was on her first posting overseas and the other meetings she attended in her official capacity on the day in question.
The Council received a complaint expressing concern about whether the article intruded upon the woman’s privacy by offering such identifying information. The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached the applicable Standards of Practice requiring publications to take reasonable steps to “avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest” (General Principle 5).
The publication noted that the article reported on a matter of significant public interest, which resulted in the resignation of a minister. The publication restated its intention to protect the woman’s privacy, and to this end suppressed her name and pixilated her image. The publication said it had done this not only to protect the specific individual, but also to ensure others are not deterred from reporting inappropriate or unlawful conduct for fear of public exposure in circumstances that might threaten their safety or career. The publication contended that even with the details published about the woman, there was no evidence that her identity could be discovered through an Internet search.The publication indicated that the reporting of the woman’s age and that it was her first posting was meant to convey her relative inexperience, and so her greater vulnerability.
The Council notes that reporting on the conduct of the Minister was in the public interest, involving a serious question of acceptable ministerial standards of behaviour. However, the identity of the woman was not a matter of public interest.
The Council accepts the publication intended in good faith to protect the privacy of the woman concerned by withholding her name and pixilating her image, recognising both her own sensitive situation and the general policy not to discourage reporting inappropriate or unlawful conduct in future.
However, the Council considers the question is not whether there was specific evidence that the woman’s identity could be discovered through an Internet search or that any particular person in fact identified the woman as a result of the article, but whether the publication took sufficient steps to minimise the risk that she would be identified by some means.
The Council does not consider that sufficient reasonable steps were taken to protect the woman’s reasonable expectation of privacy in this instance, given the amount of identifying information supplied in the article. The Council considers that the information provided in the article would quickly narrow the field, allowing friends, professional colleagues or others to identify the woman. The conduct of the Minister – which it was in the public interest to report on – could have been reported without disclosure of so much personal information, such as the woman’s age, specific position, academic qualifications, that it was her first posting and her other appointments on the day. Accordingly, the Council concludes that General Principle 5 had been breached and upholds the complaint in this respect.
This matter highlights for all publications the need to exercise care with respect to protecting the anonymity of individuals where this is appropriate. Where it once may have been sufficient simply to suppress a name or pixilate an image, greater care must now be taken in an era of powerful search engine capability.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”