The Press Council considered a complaint from Bayside Council about an article published by The Sydney Morning Herald in print on 31 October 2020 headed “$1b lost in council merger failures” and online headed “‘Rates will have to rise’: Council mergers in crisis as losses mount”.
The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by a reader’s letter published in the Byron Bay Echo headed “Midwife quits” on 17 April 2021. The letter stated “… Work with lies and deceit at all levels has led me to despair. I am very good at my job as midwife. You would want me to take care of you. You would be very safe in my care. ‘The jab’ cannot be called a vaccine. It will kill and it will make people very sick with autoimmune disease, which will manifest in many types of diseases. Please do not acquiesce.”
The Council notes that while letters to the editor are very much an expression of the letter writer’s opinion, publications must nonetheless comply with the Council’s Standards of Practice in relation to letters they select and edit for publication. While the Council accepts that there have been reported cases of deaths associated with a particular type of vaccine, on the information available to it, there is no evidence to support the writer’s emphatic comment that vaccines “…will kill and it will make people very sick with autoimmune disease” is accurate. Accordingly, the Council finds the publication failed to take reasonable steps to comply with General Principles 1 and 3.
The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by The Australian Financial Review online on 9 May 2021 headed “Apollo Global MD contracts COVID-19 in Sydney”, and in print on 10 May 2021 headed “Apollo Global MD Pizzey contracts COVID-19 in Sydney”.
The article reported “Investment giant Apollo Global Management managing director” is the “Sydney person that has been diagnosed with COVID-19”. The article reported that the person, “who is one of only two full-time employees at Apollo in Australia, is still suffering COVID-19 symptoms and is suspected of catching the virus from a returned US traveller.” It also said the person “is understood to be the mystery shopper who ducked into two Sydney-based Barbeques Galore stores on Saturday, May 1, and then his local butcher, in a shopping trip that has since been documented by NSW Health as part of its contact tracing protocols. It is understood the person went to Barbeques Galore looking for a new barbecue, but also as part of his firm’s due diligence on the retailer.”
The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by readers’ letters published in the Great Southern Weekender headed “Still infectious” on 22 July 2021 and “Lockdowns not the answer” 29 July 2021. The 22 July letter stated “The drug Ivermectin has been passed for use in treating COVID-19 infection…” and the 29 July letter stated “…the most prestigious medical journal in the world, “The Lancet”, has published a study indicating that the COVID-19 vaccines are only 0.84 per cent effective.”
The Council notes that while letters to the editor are very much an expression of the letter writer’s opinion, publications must nonetheless comply with the Council’s Standards of Practice in relation to letters they select and edit for publication. The Council considers that, on the information available to it, the letter writers’ comments concerning Ivermectin and vaccine efficacy rates are inaccurate and based on an omission of key facts. Accordingly, the Council finds the publication failed to take reasonable steps to comply with General Principles 1 and 3.
The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in The Daily Telegraph online headed “Retired porn star sparks Surry Hills apartment block controversy” on 11 November 2020.
The sub-headline of the article stated “A noisy retired gay porn star has been told to behave and show respect to his neighbours after police were called four times, causing angst in his apartment building”. The article went on to report that “[r]esidents at a landmark apartment block in Sydney’s gay heartland have been told to show more respect after reports a retired US porn star was sparking conflict by working from home”. The article reported that police “had been called four times this year to the same apartment” and that “[i]t is understood the calls have all involved ‘concern for welfare’” and “[o]ne involved an argument between the porn star and the boyfriend he is staying with”. The article also included an embedded video of Mardi Gras 2020 and an image of the rainbow flag flying over “Sydney’s gay community in Darlinghurst”
The Press Council has considered a complaint from Jared Owens on behalf of Hon Kevin Rudd about an article published by The Australian headed “New Chinese era of living dangerously” online on 29 November 2019; and “Radical new Chinese era signals years of living dangerously” in print on 30 November 2019.
The article commented on Australia-China relations and the scale of Chinese foreign intelligence activities. It stated that “The development of the Quadrilateral Dialogue — involving the US, Japan, India and Australia — is one of many important developments. That the Quad recently held its first meeting at foreign minister level is encouraging. The decision by Rudd and his then foreign minister, Stephen Smith, to unilaterally kill the Quad in 2008, to please Beijing, was one of the most foolish and counter-productive foreign policy moves of any modern Australian government. It did immense harm to the Canberra-New Delhi relationship. It was a decision that had to be reversed and the Quad now enjoys bipartisan support in Australia.”
The Council is satisfied, based on all the submissions before it, that Foreign Minister Smith’s announcement in Tokyo on 1 February 2008 that “we are not proposing to add to the trilateral by including India…and that view is shared by the Japanese government” affirmed the Rudd Government was effectively continuing the Howard government’s position on the Quad as reflected in 2007 statements by Defence Minister Brendan Nelson. The position was consistent with the previous Howard government’s position and therefore not “unilateral”.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in The Herald Sun on 12 November 2020 headed “Islam butchers slaughter women and kids” in print on page 19.
The article reported that “Heavily armed Islamic militants have killed dozens of unarmed villagers in a campaign to establish a caliphate in southern Africa… Up to 50 people, including women and children, were murdered, with some beheaded and dismembered in a three-day rampage in north Mozambique.” The Council noted that prominent references to religious or ethnic groups in headlines can imply that a group, as a whole, is responsible for the actions of a minority among that group.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in print by The Sunday Telegraph on 14 June 2020 headed “Where’s the real justice?”.
The article commented on the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in Australia in June 2020 concerning police behaviour and black deaths in custody. The article said: “The reality in this country – and the US – is that the greatest danger to aboriginals and negroes – is themselves” and that until “we address this issue, protests damning white police officers are nebulous”. In support of this view, the article said that the “protests are facile and irrelevant because police and indigenous deaths in custody are a small part of the complex jigsaw that goes into making black lives matter.”
The article referred to the death of four Aboriginal teenagers in a stolen car and asked “Where was the protection for four innocent children? Police say they knew the car was stolen and decided not to pursue”.
The Press Council has considered a complaint from Dr Michelle Telfer, the Head of Department of Adolescent Medicine at the Royal Children’s Hospital and Director of the Royal Children’s Hospital Gender Service (RCHGS), concerning 45 articles published in The Australian which appeared online and some in print. The complainant expressed concern that the articles contained inaccurate information, were unfair and caused her and others considerable distress. The first article complained about was published on 9 August 2019 and the last on 29 June 2020. The articles concerned the role of gender affirming healthcare and its application by the RCHGS; transgender children and adolescents; the safety and ethics of giving hormone treatment to young people experiencing gender dysphoria; what the articles referred to as social contagion amongst young girls identifying as transgender; rates of de-transitioning in transgender young people; and a call for an inquiry into a gender affirming model of healthcare for transgender young people.
The Council noted that it is unable to resolve the apparent conflict in research material relating to issues such as regret rates for hormone therapy, high rates of de-transition and social contagion. The Council also noted that while the Royal Australian College of Physicians was not undertaking a statutory inquiry, it was undertaking enquiries and is a national body. Accordingly, it finds no breach in this respect.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by The Courier-Mail in print on 30 July 2020 headed “ENEMIES OF THE STATE: Outrage as deceptive teens cause COVID chaos”.
The article reported “[T]wo 19-year-old girls with COVID-19 have been fined $4000 each after travelling to Melbourne and lying to authorities about where they’d been”. The article reported “Olivia Winnie Muranga… a cleaner at the now-closed Parklands Christian College – called in sick on Friday after days of feeling ill. Despite this she continued to socialise, visiting restaurants and bars in Ipswich and Brisbane, according to authorities. It is believed she even went shopping after she took a COVID test on Monday.” It also stated “[h]er travel companion Diana Lasu… has also tested positive”. The article appeared on the front page and included photos of Ms Muranga and Ms Lasu underneath the headline “ENEMIES OF THE STATE”.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by NT News in print on 14 September 2019 headed “Man granted hospital leave killed himself”.
The article reported on a coronial inquest of a young man who committed suicide “after being granted leave from the mental health ward at the Alice Springs Hospital despite showing symptoms of psychosis.” The article included information heard at the inquest, including details of the man’s history with mental health services, his discharge from a hospital’s mental health ward while apparently delusional, a prior suicide attempt and his subsequent suicide. Amongst the information included in the article was the location of the suicide and the method used in a suicide attempt, expressed in thoughts about suicide and in the subsequent article.
The Press Council has considered a complaint from John Nagle, the former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NSW workers compensation scheme, icare NSW, concerning 25 articles published in The Sydney Morning Herald. The articles complained of were published between 27 July 2020 and 1 October 2020. The articles, which included opinion pieces, concerned the performance of icare and its financial position, and reported criticism of the system by injured workers, referencing a NSW treasury document that said 52,000 injured workers had been underpaid $80 million. The articles also reported on a NSW Government Parliamentary inquiry into the workers’ compensation scheme. In this context, it was initially reported in August 2020 during the parliamentary inquiry that the complainant “had quit after it had emerged he was stripped of a bonus for failing to properly declare his wife had been given a contract with the agency”. It was reported that the inquiry heard that the complainant’s wife was “paid $750 a day for contract work performed between 2016 and 2019, totaling more than $800,000.” It was also reported that the complainant failed to declare in icare’s annual report, “business class flights to Las Vegas to speak at a conference organised by a software company” which the inquiry heard had received “millions of dollars in contracts from icare to provide claims management software” and that the complainant had appeared in a promotional video for the company. It was also reported that the complainant had “refused” to disclose his pay details to the inquiry.
The Council noted the complainant’s concerns that the volume and tenor of articles concerning icare were intended to discredit him personally. However, the Council was not provided with any material that is consistent with this view. The Council noted that it is legitimate journalistic practice to comment on parliamentary inquiries and accepts that the publication’s reporting was based on an accurate record of comments made at the NSW parliamentary inquiry, including by the complainant. This includes reporting on the complainant’s failure to properly declare a conflict of interest; that his business trip ought to have been included in icare’s annual report; and comments concerning his response to questions about his salary. In relation to the estimated $80 million reportedly owed by icare to injured workers, the Council accepted this figure is based on information on the public record referred to at the inquiry, which is of significant public interest. The Council noted that the complainant was given a fair opportunity to respond to the matters concerning him but did not pursue it. Accordingly, the Council found no breach of its General Principles.
The Council acknowledged the publication’s offer to publish a footnote clarifying that the inquiry was subsequently informed that the value of the relevant contract was $772,524. The Council also acknowledged that the publication has amended its original article which stated the complainant had refused to disclose his salary.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of a cartoon in The Australian on 14 August 2020. The cartoon depicts a scene of the then United States Presidential candidate Joe Biden giving a speech congratulating Kamala Harris on being the Vice-Presidential candidate. Joe Biden is depicted saying “It’s time to heal a nation divided by racism” followed by “So I’ll hand you over to this little brown girl while I go for a lie down”.
The Council acknowledged that the cartoon is a comment on what the cartoonist considers a hypocritical choice by Joe Biden to secure votes from people of colour rather than out of any genuine concern to address racial inequality. The Council did not dispute the public interest in dissecting politicians’ statements and the words and actions of US Presidential candidates in particular. Nor did the Council dispute a publication’s right to publish its and its cartoonist’s partisan views. The question is whether, in doing so, the publication took reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or whether such offence, distress or prejudice was sufficiently justified by the public interest involved.
The Council noted that, by rearranging Joe Biden’s words, the cartoon not only attacks Joe Biden’s alleged hypocrisy but could also be interpreted as demeaning Kamala Harris and other women, particularly those of colour, by referring to her specifically as a ‘little brown girl’. This is far from what Joe Biden was doing when using the words ‘little black and brown girls’ in his tweet to reference the role modelling aspect of having a Vice-Presidential nominee who is both female and of colour. While many readers might see the cartoon as a criticism of Joe Biden and of ‘identity politics’, the Council did not accept the publication’s view that readers would see it is anti-racist or anti-misogynist. Rather, in appearing to demean Kamala Harris, and other women, by referring to her as a ‘little brown girl’, it could be seen to contribute to prejudice and to undermining measures to overcome the obstacles facing women, particularly those of colour.
While the Council noted that the publication and the cartoonist have strongly stated that there was no intention to cause offence, distress or prejudice, the Council considered the prejudice to women and particularly women of colour which the cartoon contributes to is substantial and that it offended a wide range of people, in particular women. The Council considered the public interest in questioning Joe Biden’s words and actions was not sufficient to justify the substantial offence and prejudice caused, and that criticism of identity politics could have been achieved without such offence and prejudice. Accordingly, the Council concluded that the publication breached General Principle 6.
The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by a reader’s letter published in print by The Daily Telegraph headed “Briefly” on 14 November 2020. The letter read “With reference to the serial murderer Reginald Arthurell wanting taxpayers to fork out for his sex change operation, my husband said he’d perform this procedure absolutely free!”.
In response to a complaint noting the letter appeared to be threatening genital mutilation of a person on the basis of their transgender status, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the letter complied with General Principle 6. This requires the publication to take reasonable steps 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.
The Council noted that publications must comply with the Council’s Standards of Practice in relation to letters they select and edit for publication, while also acknowledging that letters to the editor are very much an expression of the letter writer’s opinion. The Council did however recognise that passive or incidental promotion of violence and prejudice against transgender persons, including in the guise of humour, could breach the Council’s Standards of Practice and those choosing and editing letters for publication should be aware of the need for care.
The Council considered that in this instance, rather than being a serious call to violence, the letter very much reflects the strong disapproval of the writer at the crimes of the convicted person and what the letter writer considers in the circumstances to be an unjust use of community money to fund the person’s transition. The Council also considered that the letter was intended as morbid humour and most readers would recognise this. While some readers would regard the letter as offensive, distressing and prejudicial, the Council considered that in context it did not reach the level of the publication failing to take reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence, distress and prejudice.
Accordingly, the Council considered that General Principle 6 was not breached.
The Press Council has considered a complaint from Professor David Lindenmayer concerning articles published by The Weekly Times headed “Chipping away at the facts” in print and “Native forest logging: ANU academic’s claims on timber industry scrutinised” online on 10 June 2020 (“the June article”); and “Loggers can expect classic action: academic” in print and “Academic says forest industry face class action over bushfires” online on 1 July 2020 (“the July article”).
The June article reported the “academic who first called for an end to native forest logging across Victoria’s Central Highlands to create a new 355,000ha Great Forest National Park, has been accused of distorting facts to further his arguments. Evidence has emerged which appears to show Australian National University Professor David Lindenmayer is feeding environment groups and the media information on logging, fire harvesting and threatened species that contradicts critical facts.” The article set out several of Professor Lindenmayer’s comments on a range of issues including fire-damaged trees and salvage logging, employment figures in the East Gippsland forestry area, plantation forestry, and trends in the size of the Leadbeater’s Possum population. The article then set out counterpoints on each of these topics, including statements attributed to forestry industry representatives, consultants and other academics, and data from sources such as the Victorian Government which it said contradicted Professor Lindenmayer’s claims.
The July article reported “ANTI-logging academic David Lindenmayer claims legal action is about to be taken against the forestry industry for loss of property in this summer’s fires.” The article included various comments made by Professor Lindenmayer at a recent zoom seminar, and quoted him as saying “I’m quite surprised there hasn’t been a class action around the issue (logging near urban areas)… I’m sure there will be fairly soon” and “[w]e need to rethink logging of forests, that are becoming more fire prone, particularly near human settlements”. The article then reported an opposing view attributed to a “professional forester” as well as comments from a bushfire scientist.
In relation to the June article, the Council considered its definition of the East Gippsland forestry area to be misleading, noting in particular that information provided to the publication by the complainant made it clear he was utilising the relevant VicForests’ definition. The Council considered that the article misleadingly conflated sightings of the Leadbeater’s Possum with trends in the possum’s population. The Council also considered the article should have made clear that the “professional forester” referred to is also a forestry industry consultant. The Council accepted that the information contained in Professor Lindenmayer’s email, which gave rise to the article, was provided to the media. However, it considered the statement “…Lindenmayer is feeding environmental groups and the media information…” unfairly implies a political motivation on the part of the complainant. On the issue of “contracting crews” in the East Gippsland area, the Council noted the complainant’s original statement was relayed accurately, but considered the publication should have sought a response from the complainant to the criticism in the article. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 3 were breached in these respects.
In relation to the July article, the Council considered the references to Professor Lindenmayer as “anti-logging” were unfair and misleading, given the evidence of the complainant’s extensive, ongoing involvement in sustainable logging. The Council also considered that the article did not accurately report the complainant’s statement regarding possible legal action, and the publication failed to seek a response from the complainant on this issue. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 3 were breached in these respects.
As the claims in the articles called into question the validity of statements made by the complainant as an expert, the Council’s Standards of Practice required the publication to put such adverse claims to the complainant in their entirety. It was not reasonable in the circumstances to simply criticise comments the complainant may have made in the past, without giving him a fair opportunity to respond to those criticisms in the article. As such, the publication breached GP4.