The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on 22 February 2016 headed “The horrifying untold story of Louise” in print and “The story of Louise: we’ll never know the scale of the rape epidemic in Sydney” online. The article reported on the graphic account of the alleged rape of “Louise” by a number of men whom she said were Arabic-speaking and whom she described as “MERCs. Middle Eastern raping c----”. The article also stated that the NSW Police took no action when Louise reported the rape.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice, which require it to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or unfair or unbalanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4). The Standards also require that publications take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6).
In response, The Sydney Morning Herald acknowledged that publication of the article “represented unacceptable breaches of fundamental journalistic practice”, and “expressed its regret.” The publication said that a subsequent article, “The story of Louise: police have no case to answer, but I do” by the same author, attempted to publicly address some of the failings that occurred in the article complained about. The publication said that on 24 February it redacted the most contentious allegations – including aspersions cast about the Middle Eastern community and allegations of inaction against the NSW Police - which was noted on the article, and on 1 March the article was retracted in its entirety. The publication also pointed out that it had published apologies in print and online and through its social media channels on 29 February, and also published additional articles and letters which were highly critical of its original decision to publish the article and its content. The publication added that it has implemented and undertaken editorial safeguards to avoid, or at least minimise, the risk of such unacceptable practice occurring in the future.
The publication conceded that the article breached fundamental standards of journalistic practice. The article concerned serious and distressing allegations that would likely cause substantial offence, distress and/or prejudice to the Middle Eastern community in Australia, the NSW Police, victims of sexual assault and the wider community. Accordingly, it was necessary to be especially rigorous in determining the veracity of the claims made by Louise that she had been raped by Arabic-speaking men and of the subsequent police inaction and indifference. All of these claims would have been readily dismissed with some further interviews and basic fact-checking, but this was not done. The Council concludes that reasonable steps were not taken to verify or justify the report and that its Standard of Practice relating to accuracy and fairness was clearly breached in this respect. The Council also concludes that reasonable steps were not taken to avoid substantial offence, distress and prejudice and without sufficient justification in the public interest, especially in reporting Louise’s description of the Arabic-speaking men as “MERCs. Middle Eastern raping c----”.
The Council’s Standards also require that reasonable steps be taken to publish a correction or take other adequate remedial action where published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading. Although the original decision to publish the article was deeply regrettable, given the subsequent steps taken by the publication, including its publication of critical articles and letters, the Council does not consider that there was a failure to provide adequate remedial action. Accordingly, there was no breach in this respect.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.”
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.
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.”
View Relevant Council Standards