The Press Council considered a complaint about a front page article in NT News on 20 April 2017 in print, headed “FALCONIO ‘CUT UP, DUMPED’”, with a large photograph of “Slain British backpacker Peter Falconio with … girlfriend Joanne Lees”. Above the headline was a sub-headline, which read: “Police investigating shock new claims murdered backpacker’s missing body was transported across three states”. The full report was on pages six and seven, headed “Falconio ‘cut and dumped’: letter”. The article was also published online, headed “NT Police investigating claims by letter writer that Peter Falconio's body was 'cut up and dumped”.
The article concerned an anonymous letter received by the publication, which reportedly contained “compelling new claims surrounding the whereabouts of … Peter Falconio’s body”. It reported the anonymous letter writer claimed to have been informed by an associate of Bradley John Murdoch, the man convicted of Mr Falconio’s murder, that he assisted in disposing of Mr Falconio’s body. The article described in detail the letter’s claims about how Mr Murdoch wanted Mr Falconio’s body disposed of and its treatment during this disposal, including how the associate buried Mr Falconio. It also included a vague description of the place where the body was allegedly buried.
The complainant, the mother of Peter Falconio, said the article was published without any regard to the likely distress it would cause her and her family, and which was substantially felt both emotionally and physically. She said anyone can send a letter anonymously to newspapers about anything, fact or fiction, and given this and the distressing nature of the unsubstantiated content, the publication should have simply referred the letter to the police; it was not in the public interest to publish the anonymous letter.
The publication said the disappearance of Mr Falconio and the conviction of Mr Murdoch for his murder are matters of public record and of major public interest. It said the most pertinent outstanding issue from the crime and Mr Murdoch’s conviction is what happened to Mr Falconio’s body, and the letter contained new allegations related to this specific point. It said prior to publication it presented the letter to a most senior officer in the Northern Territory Police Force who said the letter may be authentic, and police confirmed in a public statement that they were—and still are—investigating the letter and its claims. It said it also made some enquiries before the article was published. It said it delayed publication of the story to allow police to first contact the complainant’s family and make it aware of the letter. Police made that contact.
The publication acknowledged and apologised for the distress the article caused the complainant and her family. It said given the significant coverage given to the murder over the years and the lapse of time, it was of the view that the presentation given to the story at the time was appropriate.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or an omission of key facts (General Principle 3). The Standards of Practice also require that publications take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or to a substantial risk to health or safety (General Principle 6), unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The Council accepts that the publication sought confirmation from police that the letter’s claims had a sufficient degree of credibility and that it did undertake some, albeit inconclusive, enquiries concerning the veracity of the letter writer’s claims. On the information available, the Council is not satisfied the publication failed to take reasonable steps to present the letter with accuracy, fairness and balance. Accordingly, it did not breach General Principles 1 and 3.
However, given the article’s prominent and graphic description of the alleged treatment of Mr Falconio’s body after his murder, especially in the headlines, the Council considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence and distress to the complainant’s family. The Council accepts there is a public interest in reporting of the crime, however in this instance—particularly one concerning anonymous and unverified allegations—this did not justify such detailed and graphic descriptions. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts
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.