The Press Council considered a complaint from Dr Fiona Martin about three articles published in The Daily Telegraph on 8 August 2018. The first article was headed “The Nutty Professor” on the front page, with the full report continued on pages four and five with articles headed “Degrees of Hilarity” and “Bizarre rants of a class clown”. The third article was also published online under the headline “Sydney University lecturer shocks students with internet search advice on ‘committing suicide’”.
The front page article reported that students in universities in Sydney were being subjected to “absurdly dark humour” and “excessive political correctness”. It reported that “…the most shocking example was modern media lecturer Fiona Martin…, who described the late legendary artist Bill Leak as ‘vile’ and added ‘may he not rest in peace’” and “…flippantly taught [students] how to cover their digital tracks if contemplating suicide or murder”. The article also referred to Dr Martin as “a former ABC reporter”, and included a photo of her with the headline, “The Nutty Professor” capitalised in large letters below it, and the caption “University Life 2018: Class clowns, vile rants, fluffy dogs & cotton wool” on top.
The article headed “Degrees of Hilarity” focused on the content of lectures delivered at the universities visited. It included a quote from “Dr Martin” which said, “If you’re planning suicide or murder, I recommend [a private search engine]”. The article headed “Bizarre rants of a class clown” exclusively concerned Dr Martin’s lectures. The article said that the lectures were attended as part of an investigation into modern-day university teaching and culture. It included several quotes from Dr Martin as well as her comment in response to questions from the publication.
The complainant said that “The Nutty Professor” headline inaccurately referred to her as a professor and misleadingly implied that she has a mental illness. She said the article contained several other inaccuracies. She said she lectures in Online and Convergent Media, not Modern Media, a title which fails to convey her expertise in internet studies. She said she was a radio producer and documentary maker for the ABC over 20 years ago and has not worked as an “ABC reporter”. Finally, the complainant noted that she referred to Bill Leak’s cartoon as “vile”, as opposed to the artist himself.
The complainant said that the article “Bizarre rants of a class clown” and its online version placed “unnecessary weight” on what students recognised as a “passing joke”. She said that along with the accompanying article “Degrees of Hilarity”, the article reported in a way that was misleading by suggesting her lecture practice was “shocking” and “weird”. The complainant further said that she was not given a right of reply to these comments despite writing to the publication requesting it.
The complainant said that the coverage caused her and her family significant distress. Her work was impacted by abusive messages and a complaint was made against her to the university. The complainant further said that the published material was obtained by deceptive means as the journalist attended her second lecture without introduction or permission, and she did not believe he actually attended her first lecture. The complainant said that the publication did not approach her for a comment or photo after class, and that a paparazzi shot was taken of her leaving the second lecture.
In response, the publication said that “The Nutty Professor” is a play on two widely known films of the same name involving an academic with an unusual approach and that the headline was simply a device to engage readers and was not meant to be read literally. The publication noted that it otherwise referred to the complainant as “Dr Martin” throughout the articles, and never implied that she had a mental illness.
The publication said that the “ABC reporter” reference served as background information to help readers understand who the complainant is. It noted that Dr Martin’s biography refers to her as a broadcaster and cross-media journalist, which it considered comparable. The publication further said that it did not suggest the complainant’s formal title was “modern media lecturer” since this was written in lower case, and accurately describes her work in a manner appropriate for non-academic readership.
The publication said that the journalist attended two lectures by Dr Martin and did not require permission as universities are public institutions. The publication explained that the story formed part of an investigation into university teaching and culture in Sydney as they had received information highlighting concerns about current teaching practice. The publication said that the media has a right and obligation to report on matters of public interest such as our education system, including what university students are being taught.
On the topic of distress, the publication pointed to an email received from the complainant on 22 August 2018, in which she indicated that overall the story had a positive outcome for her. Notably, the email said that she received hundreds of messages of support, and only seven troll messages, and she had personal support from the Vice Chancellor and the university community.
The publication said that the complainant was given a right of reply, as the journalist sought comment from her in an email after the second lecture, but she chose to respond to selected questions only, despite the publication following-up. With regards to the photograph, the publication said it was taken in a public place and therefore the complainant’s consent was not required. The publication also noted that it published a lead story the following day featuring the university’s Vice-Chancellor defending current teaching practice and Dr Martin.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure published material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or not reasonably fair and balanced, the publication must provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4). The Standards of Practice also require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial distress, and to avoid publishing material gathered by unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principles 6 and 7).
The Council considers that readers would recognise “The Nutty Professor” as a popular reference to unconventionality, and not as suggesting that the complainant had a mental illness. Given that the publication otherwise accurately referred to the complainant as “Dr Martin” throughout the articles, readers were unlikely to be misled about her title.
The Council accepts that it is a legitimate journalistic practice to provide background information when writing on matters of public interest and is not satisfied that references to “ABC reporter” and “modern media” were significantly inaccurate or misleading having regard to the complainant’s university profile and her course description.
The publication was inaccurate in reporting that Dr Martin referred to Bill Leak as vile. As the publication itself reported, she said that a particular cartoon of his was vile. In some circumstances, the distinction might be significant. But in the present case, and bearing in mind her comment “may he rest not in peace”, the Council considers that the ordinary reader is likely to read her remarks as descriptive of Bill Leak, and not as limited to the particular cartoon. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principles 1 and 2.
The Council is satisfied that the publication provided the complainant with an adequate opportunity to respond, in addition to publishing a balancing article in the next print edition and online. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication took reasonable steps to ensure fairness and balance and did not breach General Principles 3 and 4.
The Council considers that the reporting on university teaching is in the public interest and notes that opinion pieces are entitled to express robust and at times provocative views. The Council is not satisfied that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing materially to substantial offence or distress. Accordingly, the publication did not breach General Principle 6.
As universities are public institutions, the Council does not consider that the reporter acted deceptively or unfairly in attending the lectures or photographing the complainant leaving the second lecture. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principle 7.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication)
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
- Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
- 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
- Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3
- 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.
- Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.