The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in news.com.au on 7 March 2017, which began: “A WOMAN has died and two others seriously injured in a head-on crash on the Hume Highway at Wilton, south of Sydney.” It continued: “Emergency crews are also working to release another woman trapped in a second vehicle in the south bound lanes of the Hume Highway, about 1km south of Picton Rd. The two vehicles collided just before 8am today.”
The article, which was published within half an hour of the accident, followed with images of the scene of the accident, the first of which depicted a heavily damaged vehicle with its doors open and roof peeled back, and emergency crew members including police surrounding and leaning into the car. In the centre of the frame was a face of a person whose head appears tilted back on a stretcher. The image, which included a television station’s logo, was captioned: “Pheasants Nest: Fatal crash Hume Motorway closed in both directions after serious two-car crash. MUST CREDIT [the television station] NewsSource: [the television station]”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice, in particular, whether the publication took reasonable steps to ensure it avoided breaching a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy (General Principle 5) and causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice or risk to health or safety (General Principle 6), unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The publication said the image was taken in a public place, from a helicopter at least 30 metres above the scene, and that at such a distance, the person in the image was not readily identifiable. It said the article identified the person as a woman though it was not possible from the image to identify her gender, age, ethnicity or any distinguishable features of her face or hair. It said there was no blood shown or visible signs of injury. It said the image demonstrated the admirable efforts of rescue personnel and their difficult task of freeing the person, as well as the magnitude of the accident.
The publication said the image was published for only approximately an hour and it received only one complaint, to which it responded by removing the image. It said it is regular and longstanding journalistic practice to publish images of road accidents, which are often graphic, and similar images were published on other major media in this instance, including websites and television.
It also said the public interest in this instance outweighed any issues of privacy or distress. The accident was a major public event causing significant traffic disruption. It occurred on one of the busiest roads in Australia, in which southbound traffic was closed and banked up for five kilometres from 7.50am until past noon on the day. Given this, it was in the public interest to report on the accident and update the story regularly with developments in rescue efforts and traffic mobility. It said the issue of road fatalities is also one of significant public interest and reporting on an accident, such as this one, provides access to reliable information on matters of public health and safety.
The Press Council considers that while the accident occurred on a public road and the injured person would not have been easily identifiable by the public at large, nevertheless the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy and the image of the injured person and the car would be sufficiently clear for relatives and friends to identify the person. The image was of person involved in a fatal car accident, seriously injured, and in a crash site which police had apparently taken steps to cordon off from the public. Given these factors, the Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid breaching the injured person’s reasonable expectations of privacy.
Considering the nature of the image, in which a person is shown amongst the wreckage of a car accident with the caption referring to the “[f]atal crash”, and the rapid timing of its publication, the Council also concludes that the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure the material avoided causing or contributing materially to substantial distress.
The Council recognises the reporting of road accidents is commonplace and is often in the public interest, particularly to ensure readers have access to reliable information on driving conditions and matters of road safety. However, the magnitude of the accident and resulting traffic disruption could have been captured visually without showing the injured person, for instance, with a long shot of the scene of the accident. In the circumstances, there was no sufficient justification in the public interest for publishing the image in the manner it did. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principles 5 and 6.
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.