The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by the Geelong Advertiser in print and online on 16 February 2017, headed “SKULL CLUE TWIST”.
The article included a large image on the front page. The left side of the image showed half of a missing man’s face, while the right side of the image was half of a generic human skull, with the two parts digitally altered to form a face. A sub-headline at the top of the front page read: “REVEALED: Police suspect grim beach find could be missing man believed murdered”, and the words “IS IT PAUL KINGSBURY?” appeared over the bottom of the image. There was a smaller image of what appeared to be officials searching a beach in the bottom right corner of the front page. The article continued on page five with the headline “SKULL TWIST”, including an image of the missing man’s face without digital alteration.
The Press Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materialIy to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The complainant, the mother of the missing man’s child, said the image was offensive and distressing and had the potential to affect the mental health and safety of her child. The complainant said she feared her child might see the image as the newspaper is accessible to her in many ways that the complainant cannot control. She felt the publication did not act in a responsible way to avoid distress or offence to her child. The complainant said there was nothing scientific about the image.
The publication said the article related to a high-profile case that had received significant publicity across media—that of the mystery of a skull that had washed up in Corio Bay. It said there were no inaccuracies raised, and in the telling of this story, generic images of skulls were used across media, which was a routine scientific-style display. The publication also said by illustrating the story with a digitally altered image of the missing man, an illustration of a skull and the headline employed, it was conveying that this was a development in the ‘skull case’—that, essentially, the two stories the readers were aware of could possibly come together.
On the issue of distress the publication believed it was important to consider the context of this story. The publication said the missing man had links to a bikie club and a series of convictions involving assault and criminal damage. Having regard to this, the publication thought it was not unreasonable to focus attention on his disappearance by using the image on the front page.
The publication said the story and its presentation—text and images—were sufficiently in the public interest, conveying an important development in a highly publicised criminal saga. It said there was a broader public interest in the sense that it was an unsolved case, and the compelling presentation of the story would afford the greatest chance of a member of the public contacting the publication or the authorities with an important piece of information on the case.
The publication added that a relative of a person who has been the subject of ongoing crime reporting had less right to complain about the use of images of the person or about possible access of the children to such images. The publication noted that it had removed the image online in response to concerns raised.
The Press Council considers that it is unlikely that an image of the missing man or an image of a skull, by themselves, would have breached the Press Council’s Standards. However, as the image of a skull is an image of human remains, the graphic blending of the two on the front page of the publication was likely to cause substantial offence and distress to the family of the missing man and to the community.
The Council considers that the publication of the image was unlikely to assist in the investigation into the circumstances in which the man went missing. It does not consider that his criminal record justified publication of the image. The Council considers there was no sufficient public interest justifying the offence and distress caused by the image. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 6.
Relevant Press Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principle of the Press Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
6. Avoid causing or contributing materialIy to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.