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The Independent Media Council was formed in 2012 to handle complaints by readers against funding bodies.

FINDINGS 2012

 

NOVEMBER 2012

 

Reference: Complaint of Professor Donovan and Dr Anwar-McHenry regarding The West Australian newspaper, 6/11/12

 

Professor Robert Donovan and Dr Julia Anwar-McHenry are members of the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer Control forming part of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University. They have made a complaint against The West Australian newspaper relating to the publication of the Beyond the Black Stump comic strip, which features a group of animals in the Australian outback.

 

In May 2009, academic staff at Curtin University published an article in the Drug and Alcohol Review which found that, during the year 2006/2007, the Black Stump comic strip repeatedly (on average, once every fortnight) depicted alcohol abuse in a way which was said to trivialise and normalise binge drinking and even to have ridiculed moderate drinking. By letter, dated 14 May 2008, one of the authors of the article informed The West Australian of the findings. Notwithstanding this, the newspaper continued to publish the comic strip containing similar depictions of alcohol abuse.

 

An editorial published in The West Australian on 13 July 2012 expressed concern at the damage occasioned by alcohol abuse. It mentioned the problem, particularly affecting young people, arising out of receipt of mixed messages about the acceptability and safety of drinking alcohol.

 

On 27 September 2012, the complainants wrote to the newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief, directing attention to the editorial and suggesting that the publication of Beyond the Black Stump comic strips trivialising alcohol abuse was itself a major source of mixed messages, more especially in circumstances in which depictions of that kind had been published adjacent to pages likely to attract the attention of high school students.

The complainants went on to say:

 

Given The West’s decision to continue publishing the Beyond the Black Stump comic in full knowledge that it regularly trivialises and normalises harmful alcohol consumption, (the) editorial statements appear insincere and hypocritical, if not blatantly dishonest, and hence inconsistent with the Board of Seven West’s Editorial Policy with respect to the principle of integrity.

 

We ask that The West discontinue the Beyond the Black Stump comic or cease showing episodes such as those that appeared on 18 and 20 September (each of which was said to have normalised and trivialised drunkenness and binge drinking).

 

The newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief did not respond to the letter. The complainants have consequently written to the Independent Media Council, reiterating their contention that the publication of the editorial reveals a lack of sincerity and integrity such as to diminish the public’s faith in the media as fair, honest and reliable sources of information and saying that conduct of that kind does not encourage the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of community life.

 

We do not accept that publication of the Beyond the Black Stump comic strip renders the editorial comments referred to insincere, hypocritical or dishonest.

 

Comic strips trivialise and normalise many forms of bad behaviour. Cartoonists use stereotyping, satire, exaggeration, lampoon and other techniques to make the reader smile. They rarely mean to be taken seriously. The use of these tools often offends some people. Humour, by its very nature, will appeal more to some than to others.

 

Although cartoon humour is highly subjective, there will be a point at which it undoubtedly goes too far. We are not persuaded that the Beyond the Black Stump cartoon strip has reached that point. The cartoonist uses an old-fashioned sense of humour that will not appeal to all and that may not be consistent with contemporary public health messages. However, we do not believe that it can fairly be said that the cartoon strip is so likely to have an adverse influence on the behaviour of young readers as to make a decision to publish it inconsistent with a genuinely held concern (expressed in an editorial in that part of the newspaper that is intended to be taken seriously) about the damage caused by alcohol abuse or about the mixed messages given to young people (for example, by advertising or sponsorship) about the acceptability and safety of drinking alcohol.

 

We accordingly do not accept that anything in the newspaper’s conduct shows a lack of integrity or that its actions otherwise breach the code of conduct binding it.

 

Christopher Steytler, chairman,

Independent Media Council

 

 

Newspapers - West Australian Newspapers Ltd
The West Australian | The Weekend West
Countryman, Bunbury Herald, South Western Times, Busselton Dunsborough Times, Augusta Margaret River Times, Manjimup-Bridgetown Times, Great Southern Herald, Albany Advertiser, The Extra, Harvey-Waroona Reporter, Narrogin Observer, Great Southern Herald, Kalgoorlie Miner, Goldfields Express, Sound Telegraph, Southern Telegraph, Geraldton Guardian, Midwest Times, Northern Guardian, Pilbara News, North West Telegraph, Broome Advertiser,
The Kimberley Echo
Online - West Australian Newspapers Ltd
thewest.com.au, health.thewest.com.au
Magazines - Pacific Magazines Pty Limited
Better Homes and Gardens, Bike, Bride To Be, Diabetic Living, family circle, Famous, Girlfriend, Home Beautiful, In Style, K-Zone, Lexus, marie claire,
Men’s Health, New Idea, Practical Parenting, Prevention, SBS Feast, Take One, that’s life, Total Girl, Voyeur, Who, Women’s Health, Your Garden

FUNDING BODIES / PUBLISHERS / PUBLICATIONS

OCTOBER 2012

 

Reference: Complaint of Mr Ilino Paggi, 16/10/12

 

Mr Ilino Paggi has made a complaint against The West Australian newspaper. It was provoked by the publication by the newspaper of two letters to the Editor (July letters). The first, published on July 5, 2011, described then Senator Bob Brown as a “smiling assassin”.

 

The second, published a few days later, similarly described the Australian Prime Minister.

 

In response to each publication, Mr Paggi wrote to the newspaper, taking issue with the use of the term “smiling assassin”. Neither of his letters was published.

 

Mr Paggi repeatedly telephoned the newspaper and resubmitted his letters. When the newspaper maintained its decision not to publish Mr Paggi’s letters, he complained to the Australian Press Council, which rejected his complaint.

 

On October 1, 2012, Mr Paggi wrote to the newspaper, complaining again about the July letters. However, he also complained about the fact that none of his letters to the editor had “been published of recent times”. He said that the point of his letter was that he had ‘been victimised for (his) freedom of speech…because (he had) dared to criticise the July letters. He asked the newspaper to forward his complaint to the Independent Media Council (Council).

 

In response to a letter from the Council concerning his complaint, Mr Paggi informed us that his complaint is not restricted to the non-publication of his letters (a letter written by him to the Editor on October 10, 2012, has been published). He said that his main complaint is directed to the publication by the newspaper of the July letters when each had used the term “smiling assassin”, which he regards as offensive. He says that the publication of these letters (the second of which was published after he had complained about the first) reveals a lack of balance on the part of the newspaper, of which he provided other examples. We have determined that Mr Paggi’s complaint should not be upheld.

 

The term “smiling assassin” in each of the July letters was plainly not intended to be read literally. Nor would it be understood literally by the ordinary reader. The expression is commonly used to describe a person whose smile might conceal an inner toughness or even ruthlessness. Its use in relation to politicians of all persuasions is not uncommon.

 

It seems to us that freedom of speech supports publication of comments of this kind, even though some might regard them as offensive.

Nor do we consider that the publication of the July letters reveals a lack of balance justifying intervention by the Council, even when taken together with the non-publication of Mr Paggi’s responses. The editor of a newspaper has a broad discretion concerning the letters he or she chooses to publish. The newspaper informs us that its Letters Editor tries to give a voice to the widest possible cross-section of readers and expression to the widely divergent views they express.

 

He publishes letters concerning a particular topic or issue so as to reflect, proportionately, the views expressed (for example, if 20 letters were in favour of a particular issue and 10 against, he might publish four of those in favour and two of those against).

 

Our inquiries reveal that, over the preceding 12 months, The West Australian received more than 27,000 letters to the Editor. Of these, only 4660 were published.

AUGUST 2012

 

Reference: Complaint survivor recalls the nightmare, 28/6, by Kate Bastians.

 

This determination concerns a complaint made by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in respect of a newspaper article published by The West Australian newspaper on 28 June 2012 incorporating an interview with an asylum seeker who had survived the shipwreck of a boat carrying refugees to Christmas Island. The article identified the refugee by name and published a photograph of him. The complaint is that this potentially endangered him and his family and interfered in the asylum process. The complaint also raised the issue of whether, in the circumstances of his recent trauma, there was informed consent by the refugee.

 

Three principles were accepted by the complainant and by the newspaper. The first is that there is an important public interest in publishing articles covering refugees. The second is that there should be no identification of any refugee without informed consent. The third is that informed consent means consent given by someone with all of the relevant information in its cultural context and whose mental health permits him or her adequately to understand it.

 

Even with informed consent, personal identification should be avoided if there is a strong public interest to be served in not identifying.

The article told a personal story which emphasised the humanity behind an issue of national political significance — enhanced by the identification and family circumstances of the survivor of the shipwreck.

 

In this case there was no dispute that the journalist identified herself as such. We are not satisfied that her assessment (in the course of a lengthy interview), that the refugee understood that she was a journalist and that she proposed to publish details concerning him was unreasonable.

 

Our determination is consequently that the complaint has not been substantiated.

 

 

© Independent Media Council 2012