The Press Council considered a complaint from Gary Ebeyan about an article published in The Age online via the Domain section on 6 December 2018, headed “Toorak mansion to sell for $52 million, in Victoria’s second-most expensive sale”.
The article reported that the property at 53-55 Irving Road was “set to change hands” for a record $52 million, the second-highest price ever paid for a property in Victoria. It stated that multiple industry sources confirmed the deal. The article referenced the names of the owners, provided details regarding the past transfer of the property and included a photo of the property above the headline.
The complainant, one of the owners of the property, said the article inaccurately reported that the property was being sold for $52 million. The complainant said there was no sale or transfer, they had not been in any negotiations for its sale, and that they do not intend to sell the property. The complainant also said it took the publication around six days to remove the article, despite repeatedly informing it that the article was wrong. The complainant also noted that information about the property has remained accessible because other articles based on the Domain story have been published online.
The complainant said that the article has caused his family significant distress as they have been inundated with personal queries regarding their finances, health, and marriage. The complainant said that the article breached their privacy by publishing his and his wife’s names, details of their residence including its address, the alleged value of the property, and by undertaking searches regarding the transfer of its ownership. The complainant further said that in publishing the inflated figure $52 million which was significantly beyond the local council property valuation, the article brought significant unwanted publicity to their property and family, thereby exposing them to danger.
In response, the publication said that the information regarding the sale was provided by three separate real estate agents and that the reporter made several unsuccessful attempts to independently verify the information with documentary evidence. The publication said, however, that conclusive documentary evidence regarding a sale price is rarely available until after the sale is completed.
The publication also said that the language used in the headline and body of the story made clear that the sale had not yet settled, that the exact sale price was unknown, and indicated that the information was obtained via word of mouth. The publication said that the sale price was obtained from three independent sources, and that publishing a property’s expected sale price is not an uncommon practice. The publication, however, acknowledged that it had an obligation to take reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of the report by seeking corroboration from the property owner, purchaser, or their representatives before publication and this was not done. The publication said that it has taken proactive steps to prevent recurrence of these matters through investigation, debriefing, and meetings with involved team members to review journalistic obligations.
The publication said that it never refused to remove the article but conceded there was a delay in removing it due to staff leave and confirmation from the sources that supporting documents would soon be available. The publication said it removed the article from circulation shortly after it determined the sale had not proceeded. It published a correction and apology in print and online two months after the article was published.
On the issue of privacy the publication said that, with the exception of the $52 million figure, the details were publicly available by undertaking a search. The publication said that publishing a property’s expected sale price is not an uncommon practice, and therefore does not breach a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy.
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 if the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading to provide adequate remedial action (General Principle 2). The Standards of Practice also require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy (General Principle 5).
The Council considered that the absence of documentation corroborating a sale and a sale price should have prompted the publication to take further steps to confirm the existence of a possible sale before publishing the article. Accordingly, the Council concluded that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material was accurate and not misleading, in breach of General Principle 1.
The Council recognised the publication’s acknowledgement that despite its confidence in its sources, it did not take reasonable steps to check the accuracy of the sources’ claims. The Council further noted that the publication ultimately removed the article and published an appropriate correction and apology in a prominent and highly circulated position. However, the Council considered that the publication ought to have taken prompt remedial action as soon as it was brought to its attention that the article was inaccurate shortly following publication. Given that the material was significantly inaccurate, the Council considered that the lengthy delay in taking remedial action was a failure to take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action in breach of General Principle 2.
The Council considered that the complainant had a reasonable expectation that the details regarding his property and family would not be published as it was not accurate. The exceptionally high sale price referred to in the article drew significant attention to the complainant and his family. There was no such sale price and the stated sale price was inconsistent with the property’s market value. The publication could have sought prior comment from the complainant but did not. The Council concluded that the publication did not take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on the complainant’s reasonable expectations of privacy, and there was no public interest in publishing the information. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 5.
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.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.