The Independent Media Council was formed in 2012 to handle complaints by readers against funding bodies.
27 NOVEMBER 2014
COMPLAINT OF RICHMOND FELLOWSHIP WA REGARDING THE WEST AUSTRALIAN NEWSPAPER ARTICLE OF 8 OCTOBER 2014
Richmond Fellowship WA, one of the State’s largest providers of mental health recovery services, complains about The West Australian Newspaper’s coverage of events surrounding the disappearance of Enoch Samuel Walsh, otherwise known as Sam Walsh, from his accommodation at Romily House, a private psychiatric hostel in Claremont.
On Wednesday October 8, 2014, on its front page, the newspaper ran the headline “KILLER FLEES – SCHIZOPHRENIC MAN MISSING FROM HOSTEL.”
The story, apart from the headline and accompanying photograph, is accepted as fair, balanced and reasonably unobjectionable.
In 2005, Sam Walsh killed his mother by cutting her throat, but at trial was found not guilty on account of unsoundness of mind. He was detained in Graylands hospital until 2008 and then released under a conditional release order which required him to reside at Romily House and to comply with numerous conditions.
On Sunday October 5 Mr Walsh breached those conditions by leaving Romily House and failing to return. His disappearance coincided with the approaching anniversary of his mother’s killing at Kalgoorlie, and a vehicle he was driving stopped for fuel at Merredin at 12.07pm on the day he went missing.
On Tuesday October 7, WA police issued a press release seeking information on the whereabouts of Sam Walsh and his car. The press release stated that “Mr Walsh should not be approached as he is unpredictable”. Police also arranged for the occupants of Mr Walsh’s former Kalgoorlie home to move out in case he returned there. Another cause for concern was that Mr Walsh had not taken with him any medications required for treatment of his schizophrenia.
The Independent Media Council’s Code of Conduct requires that “publications take all reasonable steps to ensure reports are honest, accurate, balanced and fair”.
Mindframe, a national body, provides guidelines for media reporting of mental health issues. These guidelines are accepted industry standards which can assist in determining whether a report is “honest, accurate, balanced and fair”
Richmond Fellowship WA complains generally about the ‘sensationalist’ effect of the headline as a whole, but more specifically about three of its elements: – the photograph, the phrase “killer flees” and the word “schizophrenic”.
The photograph is said to have unfavourably portrayed Sam Walsh as a dishevelled young man. However this was the same photograph as provided by WA police in their news release and it was the most recent one available. Accordingly we find little substance in this aspect of the complaint.
As to the phrase “killer flees”, there is no doubt that Sam Walsh had killed his mother. While his departure from Romily House was seemingly quiet and uneventful and lacked some of the popularly understood elements of fleeing, he was under a legal duty to remain there. We consider that in this sense, his unlawful departure can reasonably be described as fleeing. To the extent that the word “flees” tended to be sensational it was counterbalanced by the more temperate language in the body of the article (namely “missing”, “failed to return”, “disappearance”).
The headline description of Sam Walsh as a “schizophrenic man”, did contravene the Mindframe guidelines, which regard any labelling of a person by their mental illness as problematic. (Because it stigmatises people living with mental illness and leads to public misunderstandings about mental illness and mental health care).
The newspaper has acknowledged this breach but contends that in light of the police advice and actions, it had a duty to inform the public of the risks associated with Sam Walsh. The language used in the headline had that purpose in mind.
We have no doubt that the wording of the headline caused considerable disquiet and upset in some sections of the community (particularly those with a mental health diagnosis and their families and friends).In that regard, Richmond fellowship WA has raised some valid concerns.
However these concerns were outweighed by the need for the public to be informed of risks to safety in the unusual circumstances that prevailed at the time of publication.
For these reasons we find that on balance the report did not breach the Code of Conduct.
2 SEPTEMBER 2014
RE: COMPLAINT OF MS MARILYN BYRA AND THE WEST AUSTRALIAN NEWSPAPER
On 12 August 2014, the West Australian published a photograph of an Australian boy, aged about 6 or 7, holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier. The accompanying article was headed “shock waves over boy holding head”.
The article appeared on page 7 and described the image as deeply disturbing. The photograph was taken and posted online by the boy’s father with the caption “that’s my boy”. The father is a convicted terrorist, having spent 4 years in jail for a foiled terror plot.
Marilyn Byra complained the image was offensive at several levels – distress to children; the emotional neglect and abuse by the father; editorial standards desensitising the public to wars and accidents by showing photographs of deceased persons; encouraging the offensive behaviour by giving it publicity.
Marilyn Byra also complained that other media outlets had blocked out the entire head whereas “The West” decided to show the outline of the head with only the face pixilated.
Further, Ms Byra complains that the decision to publish was consciously taken after internal discussion.
It is appropriate that the newspaper internally discuss proposed publication of the offending image as its Code of Conduct prohibits publication unless there is an identifiable public interest reason for doing so. We note that an exciting, salacious or extreme image, which the public might be interested in seeing, does not of itself satisfy that public interest test.
Marilyn Byra’s complaints about the offensive nature of the image are views with which most members of the community would agree. However the question is whether the newspaper should have published such offensive material.
There are a number of reasons why we think the public interest in publication overrode the offensive, confronting and shocking nature of the image.
Firstly, the father and son were Australian. Second, the Islamic State activities in Syria and Iraq are a major international concern. Third, the image has been justification for a variety of Government responses – US Secretary of State John Kerry described the image as one of the most grotesque photographs ever displayed and said the image had been the genesis of a joint US/Australian proposal to a UN forum to tackle home grown terrorism; Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the photo showed how serious a threat the Islamic State was, and justified tougher counter terrorism laws.
Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint.
28 MARCH 2014
RE: COMPLAINT OF MR JOSHUA CHARTERIS REGARDING THE WEST AUSTRALIAN NEWSPAPER
Joshua Charteris is a shareholder in the public listed company BURU ENERGY which has tenements prospective for shale gas in the Canning basin. On 20 June 2013 WAN published an article on its website reporting on State Parliament’s passage of a bill allowing BURU to develop the tenements.
Referring to comments by the Premier about the Canning Basin’s gas potential the article stated:
“While he has pointed to the US shale gas boom, industry experts say the Canning Basin has a different geology and is unlikely to replicate the same level of success”.
In an e-mail to the Readers Editor of WAN later that day Mr Charteris complained of unbalanced reporting, and asked that the newspaper identify the sources of the expert commentary. The Readers Editor did not respond to that e-mail, and a follow up e-mail from Mr Charteris on 6 January
2014 also went unanswered.
On 18 February 2014 Mr Charteris complained to the IMC about the WAN’s lack of response to his emails, and its failure to reveal the sources of the negative views expressed by ‘industry experts’. He also states that other experts held positive views about the Canning Basin’s gas potential, and that the publication by WAN of entirely negative “ASX market sensitive information” came at a time when BURU’s share price was under sustained downward selling pressure.
In response, WAN acknowledges that there is no reasonable excuse for the Readers Editor’s failure to reply to Mr Charteris’ e-mails. WAN also advises that it does not know the sources of the expert information in the article because the story was filed by AAP and lifted from its wire feed.
WAN contends that in these circumstances it simply has to rely upon the integrity of the AAP journalists.
We disagree. WAN remains responsible for articles it publishes and to ensure their compliance with the Code of Conduct.
The IMC’s Code of Conduct requires publications to take all reasonable steps to ensure that reports are honest, accurate, balanced and fair.
Where practicable, they must also attribute published information to its source (unless it is received in confidence).
In the present instance the article made no reference to the contrary opinions of other experts, nor attributed the “industry experts” opinions. As the assertions were entirely negative and damaging to BURU, the journalist should at the very least have contacted the company to provide it with an opportunity to comment.
For these reasons we find that the article breached the Code of Conduct by failing to attribute the sources of information, and by publishing material which was unbalanced, and also unfair to BURU.
7 FEBRUARY 2014
RE: MARIE CLAIRE MAGAZINE – JANUARY 2014 ISSUE
The January 2014 issue of “Marie Claire” magazine published an article featuring the stories of some Australian survivors of the 2008 Mumbai bombings. One of those survivors complains to the Independent Media Council (IMC) that:
(1) Marie Claire failed to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the article was honest, accurate, balanced and fair, and that it disclosed all essential facts.
(2) The reports in the article had a ‘distorting emphasis’.
(3) Marie Claire did not use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain the material used in the article.
Events prior to publication
In September 2013 Marie Claire commissioned two UK based award winning journalists, who had recently written a book on the subject of the Mumbai bombings, to write a ‘commemorative piece’ for Marie Claire based on interviews with Australian survivors.
The journalist spoke to the complainant’s parents and then provided a draft article to Marie Claire.
He subsequently asked questions of the complainant, who provided comprehensive written answers. The draft article was amended to incorporate the responses of the complainant and her partner.
The draft article was subjected to fact checking by a sub-editing team. This involved cross referencing and verification of details against previously published media materials, police reports, and other eyewitness accounts. This was a standard process at Marie Claire and considered to be “fundamental to the magazine’s integrity”.
It is common ground that the journalist told the complainant and her mother that they would be shown copies of what was to be printed about them. In his e-mail of 20 October he said: ”I’ll send you the paragraphs that relate to you from the pieces we write.” and later, “I appreciate your help and will show you what I write”.
However the complainant did not receive any of this material prior to publication of the article in Marie Claire. The journalist acknowledges that he had intended to send a draft of the Marie Claire piece to them.
This would have been “quotes and not the entire piece” because of editorial policy common to most newspapers and magazines (including Marie Claire) that disclosure of the full copy would undermine the publication’s independence and objectivity. The journalist regrets this failure, and attributes this oversight to a heavy travel schedule while launching his book.
It also seems to be common ground that the journalist made known (at least to the complainant’s parents) that the Marie Claire article would be a “dramatized non-fiction” version of what had happened during the terrorist attacks.
The issues to be determined
The complainant contends that there are numerous factual inaccuracies and misattributed quotes in the article which were contradicted by the written interviews or by previous media materials. She identifies more than ten examples of these claimed inaccuracies, all of which can be fairly described as relatively minor and in no way casting negative aspersions on the complainant or her partner.
Nevertheless, the complainant maintains that the number of alleged inaccuracies shows that there was inadequate cross-checking of the facts by Marie Claire. She also maintains that the inaccuracies rendered the article a fictionalised or semi-fictionalised account rather than the ‘dramatised nonfictional” version it was supposed to be. For this reason it had a distorting emphasis.
The complainant further claims that Marie Claire did not use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain the material used in the article. She contends that the journalist “only ever indicated that my responses would be used for the purposes of his book(s)”, and that he also stated that the Marie Claire article “would only mention our families (sic) stoicism”.
In response, Marie Claire states that when publishing commissioned articles it has to rely on the integrity of the journalists, who, in this case came with particularly strong credentials. Nevertheless the sub-editing team cross checks all facts that can be cross-referenced from external sources. When it came to the complainant’s personal account of the attacks the magazine had no reason to doubt the veracity of the material supplied by the journalist, particularly as “he kept coming back to us to make alterations to the copy after checking details” with the family.
Marie Claire attributes some of the alleged inaccuracies to the fact that the journalist carried out a comprehensive re-construction of the story from the telephone interviews with the complainant’s parents (who spoke to him at length) combined with the written answers from the complainant and her partner, as well as information from other sources (such as Bombay hospital). However the words “panic stricken” were inserted during the sub-editing process.
Marie Claire denies that unfair, irresponsible or dishonest means were used to obtain the material from the complainant. The journalist made it clear that he was writing an article for Marie Claire, the family agreed to be interviewed, and it appeared to the magazine at the time that “everyone was happy to be involved”.
The e-mails sent by the journalist verify the fact that he at all times made it known to the complainant and her parents that he was seeking to include their story in the article for Marie Claire as well as in the second edition of his book. Accordingly we do not accept that he in some way
indicated that the complainant’s responses would only be used in the book.
Nor do we accept that the article in Marie Claire would “only” mention the family’s stoicism. The word “only” does not appear in any communication and as was expressly stated, the Marie Claire article was to be a ‘slimmed down version’ of what would appear in the book.
It is a natural instinct and quite understandable that an individual, the subject of a media article, will want it to contain only those comments and assertions that the individual agrees with. However the media is entitled to rely on multiple sources of information when publishing stories, and very often those sources will be in conflict. In such circumstances journalists must make judgments as to the most accurate version, and as to the facts which should be printed. Sometimes a journalist might also draw an inference as to what happened based on the known facts. Yet again, it is a matter of judgment whether or not that inference should be printed as a fact.
In the present instance the published version of the complainant’s story was compiled from multiple sources and not just from her own interview and previously published materials. Therefore it is not surprising that there were numerous matters of minor detail which were inconsistent with the complainant’s own version or with previously published facts.
Some of these inconsistencies are quite explicable, as they came from other sources or were reasonable inferences as to what occurred. In our view these are not matters that can reasonably be the subject of complaint.
With regard to the inconsistencies or inaccuracies overall we are not satisfied that they show a failure by the journalist or the magazine to take all reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of what was published. The position might have been different if the inaccuracies had been significant or if they had impugned the complainant’s character, but in our view their minor nature justifies a finding that they were not caused by any breach of the IMC’s Code of Conduct. For the same reasons we do not consider that there was any distorting emphasis in the article.
In our view there is no justification for a finding that the magazine or journalist obtained information from the complainant by dishonest or irresponsible means. However we consider it was unfair to obtain that material on the basis that she would be shown what would be written, and then to publish it without affording her that opportunity.
We accept that Marie Claire was completely unaware that the journalist had told the complainant that he would “show you what I write”. Nevertheless in the context of the IMC Code of Conduct the magazine must answer for the actions of its journalists (including contracted journalists) in respect of the reports that it publishes.
For these reasons, and to the extent that we have indicated, the complaint is upheld.
At the request of the complainant, we direct that the substantive determination or any information which might disclose her identity are not to be published.
This is an edited and de-personalised summary of the determination to appear on the IMC website, and may be published by Marie Claire if it so desires.
Newspapers - West Australian Newspapers Ltd
The West Australian | The Weekend West
The Sunday Times
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, perthnow.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
FEBRUARY 5, 2014
RE: COMPLAINT OF MR ALAN QUINN AND THE SOUND TELEGRAPH NEWSPAPER
On 8 January 2014 the Sound Telegraph published a front page story concerning complaints about the closure (in mid-December) of Emma’s Restaurant on the Rockingham foreshore. It reported that the Department of Commerce was investigating one complaint, and that another customer had made a separate complaint claiming to be out of pocket after purchasing a $150 voucher on the day the restaurant closed.
The newspaper also reported that it had “contacted proprietors Alcol Pty Ltd and Manager Alan Quinn for comment but did not receive a response at the time of going to press”.
Alan Quinn complains to the Independent Media Council that:
(1) The newspaper did not contact him concerning the complaint about the voucher. All that the journalist did was to attempt a telephone call to the restaurant on a disconnected line.
(2) The newspaper should have known where to contact him because his wife Louise was one of its former employees.
(3) He and his wife had ceased to be active partners in the restaurant on 1 October 2013, and he had told an employee of the newspaper that when telephoned about the closure on 17 December 2013.
(4) He understands that the Department of Commerce is not investigating any complaint against the restaurant.
(5) If he had known of the unredeemed gift voucher following closure he would have arranged for the customer to be reimbursed.
(6) The nature of the story did not warrant front page treatment.
In response, the Sound Telegraph acknowledges that it should have made a greater effort to contact Mr Quinn, but points out that:
(1) Mr and Mrs Quinn were still silent partners in the restaurant when it closed.
(2) The staff member who spoke to Mr Quinn on 17 December 2013 was not a journalist and telephoned him in a personal capacity. The Editor and the journalist were both unaware of that conversation when the story was published.
(3) The journalist had been informed by an officer at the Department of Commerce that it was inquiring into a complaint (and the newspaper has produced a transcript of that conversation to verify this fact).
The Independent Media Council’s Code of Conduct required that the newspaper take all reasonable steps to ensure that its report was accurate, balanced and fair. As the report contained disparaging implications against Mr Quinn, there was also an obligation to take all reasonable steps to provide him with a contemporaneous right of reply. It was particularly important that the newspaper take all of these steps given the front page treatment of the story.
However the newspaper failed to do so: It inaccurately reported that it had contacted Mr Quinn, and it also failed to take reasonable steps to provide him with a right of reply.
For these reasons the complaint is upheld.
© Independent Media Council 2012