The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in The Australian on 10 November 2018, headed “Violent Islam Strikes Bourke Street” on the front page and continuing on page six, headed “Violent Islam hits at heart of Bourke St”. The article was also published online headed “Violent Islam terror attack strikes Melbourne’s Bourke St.”
The article reported that a “terrorist who drove a burning ute into the heart of Melbourne’s Bourke Street yesterday and stabbed three people, killing one, had links to Islamic terrorist, was a person of interest to Victoria Police and was known to federal intelligence agencies.”
In response to complaints received by the Council, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether in using the words “Violent Islam” in its headline, the publication complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice. These require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is presented with fairness and balance (General Principle 3) and to take reasonable steps 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 Council noted that complaints had concerned the use of “Violent” as a descriptor for Islam and that the headline may imply that Islam is responsible for the actions of a minority among the faith.
The publication said the reference to “Violent Islam” was not intended to imply that the whole religion was “violent”. It said that the word “violent” was used to make it clear that they were referring to a violent arm of an otherwise peaceful religion. It said the word “violent” is used as a qualifier to clarify that Islam as a whole is not responsible for this attack. The publication said the headline did not infer that Islam is universally violent or inherently responsible for the attack.
The Council acknowledged that the headline can be read in a way that does not attribute responsibility for the attack to the religion of Islam as a whole and that the contents of the article report specifically about the individual who perpetrated the attack. However, readers could also infer from the headline that “violent” is being used a descriptor for Islam generally and as such, the headline may give an impression that the religion of Islam as a whole is responsible for the Bourke Street attack.
The Council considered that in not making it sufficiently clear that the “violent” descriptor referred to the conduct of the attacker and not Islam as a whole, the publication did not take reasonable steps to present factual material in the headline with reasonable fairness and balance. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 3.
Given it was not made sufficiently clear that the religion of Islam as a whole was not responsible for the attack, the Council also considered the publication did not take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial prejudice which was not justified by the public interest. Accordingly, the Council concluded that the publication also breached General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards
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.