The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published online by news.com.au titled “‘Freak of Nature’: The child killer the world has forgotten” on 27 February 2018.
The article reported on Robert Thompson who, along with Jon Venables, was convicted of murdering two-year-old James Bulger in a high profile case in the United Kingdom in 1993, when both Robert Thompson and John Venables were ten years old. The article reported on several details of Thompson’s life including his role in James Bulger’s murder, his incarceration, and his life after being released on licence at the age of eighteen. The article contained the subheading “WHEN DID HE COME OUT AS GAY?” and reported that “In 2006, reports claimed Robert Thompson was in a stable gay relationship…”. It also stated “It is believed Thompson remains in a long-term relationship with a man who knows his real identity.”
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether, given the prominent references to Robert Thompson’s sexuality, it took reasonable steps to comply with the Council’s Standards of Practice. These require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material was presented with fairness and balance (General Principle 3) and to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The publication said that the article aimed to tell readers what has happened to Robert Thompson and John Venables since their arrest and conviction given both are now adults and described the article as a ‘Where are they now?’ piece.
The publication said at no stage did the article suggest that Robert Thompson committed the murder because he was homosexual and that it merely stated he is now living in a gay relationship which is known commonly around the world and is neither offensive nor unfair.
The publication said that the subheading is relevant given the extraordinary secrecy that has been imposed by the British Government around the lives of Robert Thompson and John Venables including a worldwide injunction on Robert Thompson’s new identity.
The publication also said that there is a very strong public interest in reporting on Robert Thompson, because although one of the most famous convicted killers of the past century, he has been granted such unusual protection by a government at taxpayers’ expense.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual information is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3) and to 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 (General Principle 6).
The Council has for a long period considered that publications should exercise great care to not place unwarranted emphasis on characteristics of individuals such as race, religion, nationality, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age, particularly when reporting on crime.
The Council however considers that, while the sub heading prominently refers to Thompson’s sexuality, Robert Thompson’s personal relationship is one of very few details actually known about him due to Court orders concealing his identity. The Council considers on balance that the publication took reasonable steps to ensure the presentation of factual material in the article was reasonably fair and balanced, and concludes the publication complied with General Principle 3.
The Council also considers that given the considerable expanse of time between the crime committed by Robert Thompson and the publication of the article, there was no implicit connection between his reported sexuality and his crime. The Council considers it unlikely that readers would infer an association between Thompson’s reported relationship as an adult and the crime that he committed as a ten-year-old based on the article. Accordingly, the Council concludes the publication complied with General Principle 6.
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
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.