The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald headed “Rebel starts spreading the news” in print and online on 11 June 2022.
The article, published in the Herald’s “Private Sydney” (PS) gossip column, reported that Australian actress Rebel Wilson had posted on Instagram to announce she was in a relationship with American-based fashion designer Ramona Agruma.
In response to complaints received, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice, which require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy without sufficient justification in the public interest; and to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, without sufficient justification in the public interest.
The Council noted the complaints raised concerns that the columnist’s request for a response for information about Ms Wilson’s same-sex relationship could be perceived as a threat to “out” her as gay. The complaints also raised concerns that Ms Wilson was forced to out herself on social media due to the request and that the article criticised her for not responding to the request.
In response, the publication conceded that it breached the Council’s General Principles relating to privacy and avoidance of harm.
The publication said that to address readers’ concerns with the article, it promptly retracted it from its website and replaced it with a prominent apology by the columnist and also published an editor’s note apologising to its readers.
The Council notes the steps the publication took at its own behest to address the concerns raised with the article, including retracting the article and publishing two apologies. The Council also notes the publication’s concession that it failed to take reasonable steps to comply with the Council’s Standards of Practice concerning privacy and avoidance of harm.
The Council accepts that public figures, such as Ms Wilson, can have a reduced expectation of privacy and there can also be a public interest sufficient to justify intruding on their reasonable expectations of privacy. However, in this instance, the Council considers that the tenor of the publication’s communications with Ms Wilson concerning a deeply personal matter and the associated commentary on a matter which had no apparent connection to her public activities, intruded on her reasonable expectations of privacy. The Council does not consider there was sufficient public interest to justify such an intrusion. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 5.
The Council considers that, taken collectively, the article’s reference to “outing” same-sex celebrity couples, its reference to giving Ms Wilson two days to respond to information concerning her relationship, and its forthright criticism of her for not responding, was likely to cause substantial offence and distress. The Council does not consider there was a sufficient public interest justification in doing so. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication breached General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
- 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.