The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by Daily Mail Australia on 3 January 2017, headed “Horrific moment a dog is BOILED ALIVE and Chinese villagers rip out its fur in clumps before incredibly it gets up and runs away”.
Below the headline were several bullet point sub-headlines, the first of which read “WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT”. The article began: “This is the disturbing moment villagers in China filmed themselves boiling a tied-up dog in a huge pot of water.” It included and reported on a video sourced from another website published a day earlier. The video had a warning which read “GRAPHIC CONTENT: Dog being boiled alive in steamer”. A preview of the video played automatically, showing a very large wok steaming from beneath a moving lid.
The full video only ran when readers clicked on it. In the full video, a small dog apparently being cooked alive in the wok kicks off the lid of the wok and is barking in apparent agony. The lid is again placed over the dog. The dog falls out of the wok about a metre into another large pan where it lies apparently unconscious as villagers remove a large amount of fur from its body. The dog regains consciousness and runs away as the villagers laugh. The article also included four stills from the video and described the footage in detail.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice, in particular General Principle 6, requiring publications to take reasonable steps to ensure they avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice or risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The publication said it became aware of the video after it attracted considerable attention online on another website. It said it had no intention to cause offence or distress to its readers, and carefully considered whether and how to publish it. It decided to do so, acknowledging the disturbing nature of the content by including the warnings in the article. It said there was significant public interest in raising awareness in Australia about the substantial dog meat trade in China and elsewhere, and an apparent practice in China of torturing animals before death to produce tougher meat, which is erroneously believed to have more health benefits, including increasing male libido.
The publication said it recognised there might be different views about its decision to publish the video. It said it had directly received only three complaints about the article on the day of publication, in contrast with the significant number of readers. It said that following the complaints, it updated the article to make clearer the public interest aspects of the story, such as by adding quotes from an animal welfare campaigner.
The Council recognises that the level of offence and distress caused by published material can be reduced by the extent to which the reader has a real choice about whether to view it, and the nature of the warnings given prior to any decision to view the material. In this case, there were warnings provided and the article itself alerted readers to what was contained on the video. However, the Council considers the warnings and the text did not adequately prepare readers for the full effect of the video or eliminate its likely distressing effects.
The video showed the cooking of a small dog while alive, the removal of a large part of its fur, its apparent agony and attempt to flee. The Council considers that even with the warnings and text,
it was substantially offensive and distressing.
While the Council considers there may be a public interest in promoting awareness of China’s dog meat trade and the inhumane means used to slaughter animals, such a public interest did not justify the level of offence and distress caused by this video.
As the publication could have, for instance, presented selected extracts of the video to reduce the level of offence and distress, the Council concludes it failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence distress, and without sufficient justification in the public interest. Accordingly, it breached General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principle of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
6. Avoid causing or contributing materiality to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.