The Press Council considered a complaint by a candidate for Bendigo in the Victorian Local Government Elections, about publication in the Bendigo Weekly in print and online on 10 June 2016 of a letter to the editor written by her. The letter was headed “THE POWER OF VOTING” and argued the benefits of compulsory voting. Although it did not refer to any election or any matter that could influence the way a vote might be cast by a voter, it was published with her name, residential address and the ward for which she was a candidate.
The complainant said she had written letters to the editor for publication in the Bendigo Weekly for many years, had always included her name, telephone number and residential address but she had never expected her address or telephone number to be published, and they never had been. She said she had taken care to avoid her residential address becoming public knowledge.
The complainant said when she saw that the letter had been published with her address, she was concerned that local members of certain groups opposed to positions she had taken publicly would know her home address. She said she complained to the publication, and while it immediately changed the address on its online version to her office address, it maintained that it was required and reasonable for it to publish an address. A few weeks later the complainant saw a letter from another local government candidate published without an address. When the complainant contacted the publication, it said its policy had been in error, which was then changed such that it no longer published candidates’ addresses on letters to the editor. It apologised for earlier publication of the complainant’s home address. The complainant told the Council she appreciated the apology and acknowledgement of fault but said there needed to be a formal guarantee the problem would not reoccur.
The publication said that following an internal review of Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) guidelines regarding electoral advertising, it introduced a new policy for publication of contributors’ addresses on letters to the editor, effective 10 June 2016. The policy required a contributor’s name and address to be published in letters to the editor making election-related comment which it said was to ensure no room for error in complying with its legal obligations to publish a contact address in material containing electoral matter.
However, the publication said the change in policy was based on an incorrect interpretation of the AEC guidelines and also that in implementing the policy on 10 June, it should have checked with the complainant that she was willing to proceed with publication of her letter, given it would be published with her address. It said it was not aware the complainant had taken care to avoid her home address being public knowledge and when the complainant raised her concerns, it immediately removed her residential address from its online outlet. It said that within a week it altered the policy, offered an apology to the complainant and assured her the incident would have no effect on their future relationship, and circulated a memorandum to staff and had a staff meeting directing that private email addresses not be published. The publication also indicated it was happy to write an apology to the complainant and intended to hold further staff training in anticipation of upcoming local elections.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, or contributing to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety – unless doing so is sufficiently justified in the public interest (General Principle 5 and 6).
On the information available, the Council considers it likely that either the policy put in place from 10 June or its implementation in this case was not required by law. However, the Council is unable to conclude whether or not the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on reasonable expectations of privacy or contributing to substantial distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety in these respects.
However, the Council considers that the publication could have contacted the complainant prior to publishing the letter and advised her of the new policy. It also could have advised that it proposed to publish the letter with her address and given her an opportunity to withdraw the letter or seek a different outcome. The Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy or contributing to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety in this respect. Any public interest in the complainant’s address was not sufficient to justify the intrusion and the risk and General Principles 5 and 6 were breached. Accordingly, the complaint is upheld.
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.
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.