The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by the Herald Sun on 24 and 25 June 2020 headed “Why we need to probe if tribalism is behind new coronavirus spike” and “VICTORIA'S CORONAVIRUS CRISIS: MADE BY MULTICULTURALISM” online and ‘Is Tribalism behind spike?’ in print (the June article). It also considered an article published online by the Herald Sun on 12 and 13 July headed “Andrew Bolt: Multiculturalism made Victoria vulnerable to coronavirus” and “VIRUS THRIVES IN MULTICULTURALISM” respectively (the July article).
The June article stated “Victoria’s coronavirus outbreak exposes the stupidity of that multicultural slogan ‘diversity makes us stronger… It’s exactly that diversity — taken to extremes — that’s helped to create this fear of a ‘second wave’.” It went on to say “…check where most new infections are breaking out — in six poor, outer-suburban areas in Melbourne’s north and south-east. In five, more than a third of residents were born overseas, in countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Iraq, China and Vietnam”, and “…it seems there’s not just a language barrier. There may also be a cultural one.”
The July article stated “Is it coincidence that the three worst virus hot spots in Victoria have been seven public housing commission towers (145 cases), the Al-Taqwa College (134) and the Cedar Meats abattoir (111)? Many of the people in those towers are immigrants, often from Africa; the al-Taqwa community is Muslim, many immigrants; and Cedar Meats, is a Labor-donating company that employs many immigrants.” It said “What’s more, the virus slipped out this time from Victoria’s ‘quarantine’ hotels, thanks to the slackness of private security guards, often from immigrant families.” The article stated “Be calm. I am not ‘blaming immigrants’… But multiculturalism has made Victoria more vulnerable not just because we’re increasingly a nation of tribes, less likely to make sacrifices for people outside our ‘own’. There’s also ‘language and cultural problems’ that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews admitted the virus fighters faced.”
In response to complaints received, the Press Council asked the publication to comment on whether the articles complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice, which require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1); to 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 (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 noted complaints had expressed concern that attributing the spread of the coronavirus to ‘multiculturalism’ is not only inaccurate and unfair, it is offensive and prejudicial to those who are from culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds.
In response, the publication said it took seriously its responsibility to report on coronavirus and its reporting had been informative if sometimes uncomfortable. It denied any breach of the Standards of Practice and defended the writer’s right to question whether multiculturalism has played a part and whether governments have failed to communicate to migrant groups. It said the articles were based on indisputable facts.
In relation to the June article, the publication said five of the six outer Melbourne suburbs referenced in the article have more than a third of their residents born overseas and all six are among the most infected areas, according to the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services. The publication referred to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics verifying the ethnic breakdown of those suburbs, and said the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria also identified the six “hot spots” as being suburbs with a high proportion of residents born overseas and warned of language and cultural barriers to the coronavirus safety message. The publication said that for this reason ethnicity was relevant rather than for example population density. It said multiculturalism is, by definition, the presence or support for the presence of several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society. This is exactly the status of these six suburbs, according to the ABS, and the writer has simply stated his opinion based on factual data and definitions. The publication said the articles do not suggest racial and ethnic minority groups are responsible for Victoria’s coronavirus crisis, but rather rely on ABS data to identify the mix of ethnic groups living in suburbs with the highest infection rates, which is in the public interest to debate. The publication referred to comments made by Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer, that “we know that there are some migrant communities, recent migrants or culturally and linguistically diverse communities, who are overrepresented now with some of our new cases”. As to the headline the publication noted it did not identify particular groups.
In relation to the July article, the publication said it relied on factual material, much of which has already been debated in the Victorian community and some of which has been put forward in evidence to the Hotel Quarantine inquiry in Victoria. The publication said the article merely points out indisputable facts concerning the ethnicity of residents of the Flemington towers, members of the Al-Taqwa school, and Cedar Meats workforce. It also said the inquiry has heard that many of the security guards were employed because of their immigrant background due to socially inclusive policies enacted by public servants. The publication said the writer’s opinion was based on factual and publicly available material and, that although his opinion may offend certain readers, no evidence has been put forward that the articles contributed to substantial prejudice to immigrant communities in Victoria. The headline did not identify particular groups.
The publication noted that the articles were opinion pieces rather than news reports; it was not necessary or appropriate for the article to investigate in detail the range of additional or specific circumstances which might be relevant to the second outbreak of coronavirus in Victoria but which are not central to the author’s opinion. It noted that the outbreak had been a life and death issue and that the public interest justified the words used in the article.
The Council is satisfied that reasonable steps were taken to present factual material in the June and July articles concerning the ethnic makeup of suburbs, places of residence and workplace accurately. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principle 1 in relation to either article.
The June article identified “where most new infections are breaking out” and referred to the five suburbs where more than a third of residents were born overseas, from India, Sri Lanka, Iraq, China and Vietnam. In doing so, the Council considers the article unfairly links individuals from those named groups who may have inadvertently spread the virus, to all people from those groups. The Council notes the article refers to the Victorian Chief Medical Officer’s statement that migrant communities were “overrepresented in new cases”. However, the Council considers that neither this, nor the other material in the article, establishes that the migrants from these countries collectively were the cause of the second outbreak.
The July article linked the three worst virus hotspots in Victoria to the immigrants involved in each one. It noted many in the towers were “immigrants, often from Africa” and emphasised the “many” immigrants involved in the other two hotspots. Although the article went on to state the writer was not “blaming immigrants”, the Council considers the article links these immigrants with the second outbreak and unfairly implied that they were the cause of it.
The Council notes that opinion articles by their nature make an argument. However, the articles each associated immigrants with the hotspots, and implied immigrants were the cause without any qualification. Under General Principle 3, the publication was obliged, even in an opinion article, to take reasonable steps to present that link and causal connection with reasonable fairness and balance. While some members of those immigrant communities were involved in the transmission of the virus, the Council considers the articles unfairly suggested that the named groups were collectively responsible. In the absence of presenting a more balanced range of reasons behind the transmission, such as population density and insecure employment, the Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material was presented with reasonable fairness and balance in breach of General Principle 3.
The June and July articles also attributed the coronavirus outbreak to multiculturalism, referring to difficulty in communicating quickly and effectively with a wide range of cultural groups making up the relevant population and cultural factors. The Council acknowledges that some readers may have inferred that the reference to multiculturalism included an implicit reference to immigrants. However, the Council considers a reasonable meaning of multiculturalism is support for the presence of several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society. The Council considers the references to multiculturalism causing the outbreak were expressions of the writer’s opinion and was identified as based on difficulties in communication in multiple languages and cultural factors and accordingly did not breach General Principle 3.
In attributing the second outbreak to immigrants without any qualification the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence and prejudice. Although the Council notes the very substantial public interest in reporting and commenting on the second Victorian coronavirus outbreak, the public interest did not justify the level of offence and prejudice, and General Principle 6 was breached in this respect. As to the argument that multiculturalism policy had caused the second outbreak, the Council notes the writer identified the argument’s basis as difficulties in communication and cultural differences. The Council acknowledges that some readers may have found the argument offensive and prejudicial, however the Council considers such offence or prejudice as was caused was justified in the public interest in debate on the issue and General Principle 6 was not breached in this respect.
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
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.