The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by a print article in The Sunday Mail on 16 October 2016 headed “KNOCKERS COME OUT”.
The article appeared during the 2016 United States presidential campaign and reported that, in addition to six women who had already made complaints about sexual misconduct by then candidate Mr Donald Trump, two further women had come forward to make complaints.
The article was set out over two pages with the headline running across both. The left page featured a large photograph of Mr Trump and a sub-headline “NUMBER OF TRUMP ACCUSERS SWELLS”. It reported on the two most recent allegations, a denial of one of them by Mr Trump’s campaign office, and Mr Trump’s statement that they were “phony accusers” making allegations “for a little fame”. The right-hand page included photographs of the eight female accusers and a summary of their allegations.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice that require reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest, in light of a complaint that the article trivialised sexual harassment.
The publication said the headline meant the word “knocker” in the sense of “critic”, and that this was the primary meaning of the word ahead of a vulgar meaning, such as women’s breasts. It said the headline was not intended to refer to women’s breasts and conveyed only that more and more critics of Mr Trump were speaking out against him, which was the substance of the report. It also said the tenor of the article was not favourable to Mr Trump, as it included the allegations made by the women and some controversial comments allegedly made by Mr Trump about women, along with his denials.
The Council considered that the headline “KNOCKERS COME OUT” had two meanings and could be taken by an ordinary reader to refer to women’s breasts being revealed, particularly given that the article made clear all of the complainants were women, its content concerned sexual harassment and the headline was accompanied by the suggestive wording of the sub-headline. The vulgar use of the word “knockers” in such a context could be read as mocking women who raise allegations of being sexually harassed, in focusing on a physical characteristic of women, and trivialising their complaints.
The Council considered that the alternative meaning of the word “knockers” as in ‘critics’, in the context of an article on multiple sexual harassment complaints, also had the effect of trivialising the seriousness of the complaints as mere criticisms. This meaning could also cause or contribute materially to substantial offence, distress and prejudice to people who have experienced sexual harassment or made sexual harassment complaints, or to women generally.
The Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, and there was no sufficient public interest in doing so. Accordingly, General Principle 6 was breached in this respect.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to
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.