The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by the Courier Mail on 17 November 2021, headed “Only the parents can fix youth crime curse” in print and “Bill Leak’s controversial cartoon still sadly relevant today” online.
The article is an opinion piece in which the columnist stated that “It was revealed by Police Minister Mark Ryan in response to a parliamentary Question on Notice, figures provided by the Queensland Police Service showing that of the 3689 youths aged 10-17 years who spent between an hour to more than a week in the watch-house, 2635 or 71.42 per cent were Indigenous.”
The article went on to comment that the “inconvenient conclusion to be drawn is many Indigenous parents routinely abandon their responsibilities and do little to instil in their children respect for our laws and the property of others” and “People are quick to take to the streets and declare black lives matter while happily ignoring the cold, hard, irrefutable figures show far too many Indigenous parents do not think the futures of their children matter.”
The columnist said: “They have a democratically guaranteed right to do these things, but while they march up and down the street waving flags, their children are stealing cars, robbing houses and being hauled off to the watch-house.” The online article republished a Bill Leak cartoon from 2016 which showed a police officer holding an Indigenous boy and saying to the boy’s father: “You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.” “Yeah. Righto,” replies the father. “What’s his name then?”.
In response to complaints received, the Press 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 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 the article unfairly omits to refer to the well documented societal factors such as unemployment, poverty and poor education that are contributing factors in the incarceration rates of Indigenous youths and adults. The complaints also expressed concern that the inclusion of the cartoon is used to further perpetuate a racist stereotype that Indigenous parents, and in particular Indigenous fathers, are potentially drunkards and poor parents.
The publication said the columnist wrote the opinion piece following a statement by the Queensland Police Minister to the Queensland Legislative Assembly which noted that the incarceration rates of Indigenous youths were significantly higher than those of non-Indigenous youth. The publication said the columnist is entitled to draw conclusions and express opinions based on the data referred to by the Police Minister and on his own observations.
The publication said opinion pieces can be controversial and provocative and the columnist was attempting to reignite debate concerning a matter of significant public importance. The publication said that the column takes up the cause of Indigenous children in the hope that in highlighting the issues, some progress will be made towards resolving them. The publication said that while it recognises the cartoon is controversial, the columnist was making the point that nothing has changed since the cartoon was first published. The publication said that given the debate surrounding such issues, it is willing to publish alternative views.
The Council is satisfied that reasonable steps were taken to present factual material concerning the incarceration rates of Indigenous youth accurately. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principle 1.
The Council notes that opinion articles by their nature make an argument and recognises the columnist’s comments concerning the role Indigenous parents may have on the incarceration rate of Indigenous youths were clearly presented as expressions of opinion and not statements of fact.
Nonetheless, even in an opinion piece, the publication was obliged to ensure expressions of opinion are not based on an omission of key facts. In the absence of presenting a more balanced range of reasons behind the high incarceration rates of Indigenous youths, such as poverty, poor education and intergenerational trauma, and instead attributing the incarceration solely on an absence of parental guidance, the Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure expressions of opinion were not based on an omission of key facts. Accordingly, General Principle 3 was breached.
In attributing the high incarceration rates on Indigenous youths solely on an absence of parental guidance and extrapolating from the data that the parents of indigenous youths are not concerned with instilling in their children a respect for the law, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence and prejudice. The Council also considers the level of offence and prejudice was compounded by the inclusion in the online article of the cartoon with no evidence of it representing the situation in any particular case let alone as a general portrayal of Indigenous fathers. Although the Council notes the very substantial public interest in reporting and commenting on the incarceration rates of Indigenous youths and the potential causes, the public interest did not justify the level of offence and prejudice, and General Principle 6 was breached in this respect.
The Council welcomes the publication’s offer to publish alternative views on the issues affecting the incarceration rates Indigenous youths.
Relevant Council Standards
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.
- 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.
- 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.