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

FINDINGS 2016

 

DATE 13th SEPTEMBER 2016

 

Determination: Peter Robertson v The West Australian

 

On 25 August 2016, ‘The West Australian’ newspaper published a letter to the Editor under the heading “Green zealots threaten agriculture”. The subject of the letter was Government policy concerning clearing bans and the writer’s claim that “overzealous environmental regulation” threatened to “bring agriculture to a halt”.

 

Peter Robertson of The Wilderness Society WA Inc. complains that the words “green zealots” were derogatory and went beyond what the letter writer claimed. The words also unfairly smeared ‘an entire class of people’ who care about ‘the ongoing loss of south-west WA’s once spectacular biodiversity’ and want to see ‘degraded agricultural regions put on a more sustainable footing’.

 

We do not agree that the words “green zealots” were derogatory, but even if they were this was not a reason for them not to have been used. The heading had to be short and it had to accurately encapsulate what the letter writer had to say. In this instance we consider that the heading succinctly summarized exactly what the letter writer was asserting.

 

We also disagree that the words were a smear. A ‘zealot’ is someone who feels zeal or passion for a particular cause, and the words ‘green zealots’ would seem to reasonably describe many (if not most) people who genuinely believe clearing bans are necessary for the protection of threatened biodiversity in Western Australia’s agricultural regions.

 

For these reasons we do not uphold the complaint.

 

DATE 1st AUGUST 2016

 

Determination: SKERRITT v “THE WEST AUSTRALIAN”

 

On 7 July 2016 (five days after the recent Federal poll) “The West Australian” (WAN) published an online report about Perth lawyer Andrew Skerritt who stood for election to the Senate as a candidate for the Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers Party (SFF). The report revealed that Mr Skerritt had been convicted of stalking in 1999 after repeatedly telephoning a female lawyer and slashing the tyres of her boyfriend’s car. As a result he was fined and given a violence restraining order; and his later appeal against the conviction had been dismissed.

 

It was also reported that Mr Skerritt had disclosed this matter to the SFF, but the party considered him a worthy candidate because “the Legal Practice Board found he was a fit and proper person to practise law in the mid 2000’s”. The report quoted Mr Skerritt’s continuing denial that he had ever stalked or slashed tyres, but noted that the Judge who dismissed the appeal in 1999 had found the evidence against him to be “irresistible”.

 

Mr Skerritt complains that the report had no probative value, was heavily biased and sensationalist, that it ‘cherry–picked’ aspects of the case, and served no purpose other than to damage his reputation. It also failed to mention irregularities in the case against him which were highlighted in previous articles published by WAN in 2003 and 2005 (when the Legal Practice Board was considering whether or not to allow him to practise). Mr Skerritt also claims that WAN breached his copyright in an image of himself which was published with the report.

 

The IMC is required to determine these complaints in accordance with its Code of Conduct which relevantly provides:

 

“Publications must take all reasonable steps to ensure reports are honest, accurate, balanced and fair and disclose all essential facts. Reports must not suppress relevant available facts or give distorting emphasis.”

 

Importantly (and with reference to Mr Skerritt’s first complaint), the Code of Conduct does not require that reports have some ‘probative value’ or relevance to the issues of the day. This is consistent with the fundamental principle of freedom of speech which allows newspapers and other publications to publish stories and reports on whatever subjects or topics that they wish (provided that there is no legal constraint in respect of any particular subject). In the present instance it seems obvious that any story concerning the background and suitability for office of a current Senate candidate was highly topical and likely to be of considerable interest to the public. We do not accept that the report had the purpose of damaging Mr Skerritt’s reputation.

 

As to the remaining issues, Mr Skerritt does not claim that there were any inaccuracies in the report, and (the question of copyright aside) his essential complaints are that it was unbalanced, unfair, and failed to disclose the facts available in the reports published in 2003 and 2005.

 

In our view there was no obligation on WAN to disclose those other facts. The anomalies in the evidence identified in the previous reports were of a type that juries and courts frequently have to grapple with when coming to their verdicts. It is only in a small minority of cases that all relevant facts and assertions end up perfectly aligned. In the present case all that matters is that the anomalies or ‘irregularities’ referred to by Mr Skerritt had no impact on his conviction or on that conviction being upheld on appeal.

 

We consider that the report was a relatively sober summary of the essential facts surrounding the conviction and was not in any way sensational. These uncontroversial facts were balanced by the quoted comments from Mr Skerritt and the SFF official, which left no room for the suggested unfairness.

 

With regard to the question of copyright we understand that the published image came from a video publically released by the SFF in the course of the Senate campaign. Accordingly, we see no basis for the claimed breach of copyright (which in any event is an issue to be determined by the courts rather than the IMC).

 

For these reasons the complaint is not upheld.

 

DATE 2nd JUNE 2016

 

Determination: Stephen Beaumont v “The West Australian”

 

On 24 February 2016 ‘The West Australian’ (WAN) reported on a decision by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal of Australia (AATA) which confirmed that Stephen Beaumont owed a debt of $7,504.50 to the Commonwealth. The debt was for Disability Support Pension payments received by Mr Beaumont during periods when he was not entitled to them because he was employed.

 

Mr Beaumont complains that the report was inaccurate because by the time it was published he had reduced the debt to $6794.40. It also incorrectly stated that he had asked to have the debt waived, and that he had told the WAN that he had a brain injury

 

In response the WAN contends that the report was a fair and accurate report of the judgment of the AATA.

 

We have read the AATA’s decision and agree that the report on it in the WAN was fair and accurate. The decision was made only three weeks prior to publication of the report, and at that time the AATA found that the full amount of $7,504.50 was owing. If Mr Beaumont later made a payment in reduction of the debt then that was irrelevant to the report on what the AATA had found.

 

The AATA stated in its decision that Mr Beaumont did not dispute the existence of the debt, but was raising three grounds as to why it should be waived. The decision then went on to consider each of those three grounds and to reject them as a basis for the debt to be waived. In these circumstances there is simply no basis for Mr Beaumont to now claim that he did not ask for the debt to be waived.

 

The AATA’s decision also referred to evidence by Mr Beaumont that he had a brain injury. The reference in the WAN’s report was simply a summary of what was said by the AATA on this subject. It can provide no basis for any complaint.

 

For these reasons Mr Beaumont’s complaints are not upheld.

 

DATE 21st MAY 2016

 

Determination: Ms Beth Levine v. The West Australian

 

Ms Beth Levine complains that an article published in The West Australian on March 22 misgendered the person named in the article and did not respect her gender identity.

 

The article was published under the headline “Bail bid by transgender sex worker held in men’s prison”.

 

Clayton James Palmer, who identifies as a woman and works under the name Sienna Fox, is charged with causing grievous bodily harm by transmitting HIV to a client.

 

The impugned article, at times, strained the use of the English language in accurately reporting what happened in court.

 

Police referred to the accused as Mr Palmer. The defence referred to Palmer as “she” and “her”. The article accurately reported these usages.

 

The article, in attempting to recognise Palmer’s gender identity, stated at one point “Mr Palmer claims she had never….”

 

In our view the article was a fair and accurate report of what happened in court.

 

DATE 18th MAY 2016

 

Determination: Michael Southwell v Manjimup–Bridgetown Times

 

Michael Southwell is a director of the company operating the Freemasons Hotel in Bridgetown, and he complains about two stories in the Manjimup – Bridgetown Times which made adverse mention of that business.

 

The first story (on 23 March 2016 headed “Brawl prompts apology and enforcement of dress code”) reported on a disorderly incident at the hotel involving members of an outlaw motor cycle gang. It quoted Mr Southwell apologising to other patrons for the incident. It also reported comments by a Police Officer who was investigating alleged ‘potential breaches of the Liquor Control Act and the hotel’s failure to adhere to a code barring entry to outlaw motor cycle gangs’. The officer was further quoted as saying that police were ‘disappointed that the hotel didn’t adhere to the WA Police code in regards to these particular groups coming into the premises…”.

 

These quoted comments clearly implied that the hotel had breached the law by failing to adhere to a “code” or “dress code” (as per the headline) requiring it to bar outlaw motorcycle gang (OMCG) members from its premises. However Mr Southwell contends that there is no code or any other law imposing such an obligation.

 

A simple website search reveals that the so called ‘code’ is in fact a policy document issued by the Department of Racing, Gaming and Liquor recommending that licensees set dress standards which bar entry to anyone wearing OMCG insignia. Compliance with this policy is entirely voluntary, and even when implemented the licensee is not legally obliged to bar entry to members of outlaw motorcycle gangs. The licensee merely has power to do so in respect of anyone wearing OCMG insignia.

 

Although the police are understandably disappointed with licensees who do not set these dress standards, this does not mean that those licensees are breaking the law. This is a distinction which the story failed to make, and it incorrectly stated that there was a code which required the Freemasons hotel to bar entry to outlaw motorcycle gangs. The IMC’s Code of Conduct requires publications to take all reasonable steps to ensure that their reports are accurate, and the story obviously breached this provision.

 

The second story was published on 20 April 2016 under the heading “Drunken spree leads young men to court”. It reported on court proceedings against three young men who had damaged public street signs, and then trespassed and defecated in a community swimming pool, after drinking at the Freemasons Hotel.

 

Mr Southwell complains that the naming of his hotel was irrelevant to the story, and unfair (given that the three offenders were not named). He also contends that the facts did not show that the men were ‘drunken’, and that the story was ‘just another attempt by this reporter to smear our business’.

 

In our view the name of the hotel was relevant to the story because it was one of the facts that had been stated in Court. It is also clear that the Magistrate considered the consumption of alcohol to be a major factor in what the three men had done, and in that regard the offending behaviour was very much in the nature of a ‘drunken spree’.

 

As to the unfairness issue, it was a matter of editorial discretion whether, if so which, names to suppress. As this is not a matter that falls within the IMC’s Code of Conduct we do not express a view on whether or not it was unfair to name the hotel but not the three offenders.

 

As to the last issue, there is simply no material to substantiate the claim that the report was an ‘attempted smear’ of Mr Southwell’s hotel business.

 

For these reasons we uphold the complaint against the first story but not the complaint against the second.

 

15th MAY 2016

 

Determination: Deepak Rangila v The Kalgoorlie Miner

 

On 19th April 2016 the “Kalgoorlie Miner” published photographs of young children engaging in school activities under the heading “Celebration of St Joseph”. One of the photographs was of a group including the complainant’s 5 year old daughter with a caption giving her the wrong name.

 

The complainant’s wife requested that the newspaper republish the photograph with the right name, but it instead printed an apology which corrected the error. The complainant now asks the IMC to direct the newspaper to publish a correctly captioned photograph.

 

In response to the complaint, the newspaper has supplied the IMC with the materials it received from the childrens’ school prior to publication. These show that the error in naming the complainant’s daughter originated with the school.

 

The IMC’s Code of Conduct required that the Kalgoorlie Miner “take all reasonable steps” to ensure the accuracy of its reports. In the present instance the newspaper published the photographs as a community service to the school, and it was reasonable for it to accept the accuracy of the captions as sent by the school. It follows that the error did not result from any breach of the Code.

 

It also follows that the complaint is not upheld.

18th APRIL 2016

 

Determination: BARRY HUMFREY v. ‘GERALDTON GUARDIAN’

 

On 3 March 2016 Barry Humfrey complained about two reports published in the Geraldton Guardian in 2014. The first report (on 19 February 2014) summarised allegations made in a civil court action against Mr Humfrey, and the second report (on 3 December 2014) outlined the judge’s findings in another action against him.

 

As Mr Humfrey was not specific about the matters complained of, he was twice asked to clarify the way(s) in which the IMC’s Code of Conduct may have been breached. In the end he does not claim any factual inaccuracies or other breaches, and his only complaint is that the reports are still available on the internet. In his words: “These are old stories now and…..nobody has given a reason why they cannot be removed”.

 

The fact that old reports can be viewed on the internet is an inevitable consequence of the advent of electronic media. This is not a matter covered by the Code of Conduct or which falls within the remit of the Independent Media Council. Accordingly the complaint is not upheld.

 

25 FEBRUARY 2016

 

Determination: HENDERSON v ‘WEST AUSTRALIAN NEWSPAPERS’

 

On 18 February 2016 The West Australian published a report under the heading: “Transgender hooker accused of spreading HIV”. The report concerned a prostitute diagnosed with HIV who had allegedly passed on the disease by having unprotected sex with a client. The police had laid a charge of grievous bodily harm, and authorities were warning anyone who had had unprotected sex in similar circumstances to seek medical advice.

 

Nicholas Henderson complains that the report’s reference to the prostitute’s gender identity was irrelevant, that it included deliberately sensational use of the words “hooker” “prostitute” and “escort”, and that it described the prostitute as “a 38 year old man who identifies as a woman” (which was ‘deliberately mis-gendering the subject in a pejorative way’).

 

The IMC’s Code of Conduct requires that there be no reference in any report to personal characteristics such as gender or sexual orientation unless these matters are relevant. In the present instance these matters were highly relevant because they were key facts of the matter being reported on. In this regard it was particularly important to report the prostitute’s transgender identity because it was only in this way that any other clients might be able to identify the possible danger they faced and be prompted to seek medical advice.

 

The words “hooker”, “prostitute” and “escort” are in common use, and we see nothing objectionable about the way in which these descriptors were used. The reference to a “man who identifies as a woman” was one way of describing the particular transgender status of the prostitute, and in our view an ordinary reasonable reader would not have regarded these words as being pejorative. The report was simply a succinct summary of the relevant facts which we consider to have been sober rather than sensational in tone.

 

For these reasons the complaint is not upheld.

 

11 JANUARY 2016

 

Determination: PATRICIA BOURKE v “NEW IDEA”

 

Patricia Bourke complains that the weekly magazine: "New Idea" often publishes stories which bear little resemblance to the ‘hook headlines’ on its covers. Her complaint dated 17 December 2015 cites three specific examples where she says this occurred. Ms Bourke also complains of factual errors in a particular story published on 22 June 2015 under the headline "MARRIED AT FIRST SIGHT … MEET OUR BABY".

 

This latter story concerned a young couple who had met and ‘married’ on a reality TV program. The substance of the story was their joy upon the arrival of their first baby, and it pictured them holding their new arrival (in a photograph they were said to have "shared" on social media).

 

The sad truth is that not only did the couple not have a baby, but they had suffered a miscarriage. The fact of the miscarriage was publicly disclosed by them in TV and newspaper interviews about the time that New Idea published the false story.

 

New Idea's response to the complaint is that it accepted the story in good faith from a reputable freelance journalist, and became aware only after publication that the baby in the photograph was not the couple’s. The magazine also defends its use of "hook headlines" as a reasonable way to 'entice' people into reading its publications. It claims that this is a valid 'journalistic device' which is widely used throughout the print and electronic media.

 

The IMC's Code of Conduct requires that publications "take all reasonable steps to ensure reports are honest, accurate, balanced and fair”. Quite obviously, this requirement must be applied very rigorously to any report which will intrude into private lives. In our view, the journalist compiling the “Meet Our Baby“ story breached the Code by failing to take the reasonable step of contacting the young couple to confirm the accuracy of the published facts. This was a breach of the Code for which the magazine must also answer given its responsibility for the conduct of its journalists (including contracted journalists).

 

The Code further requires that "headlines should fairly reflect the terms of an article". In the present instance we consider that two of the three headlines Ms Bourke complains of complied with the Code, but that the third did not.

 

This third headline (on the cover of “New Idea” of 22 June 2015) was a photograph of a well- known female actor along with her first name followed by the words “……’S SECRET DRUG SCANDAL”. Most people seeing this headline would have interpreted it to mean that the actor had been secretly taking drugs. It was only by turning to the story inside the magazine that the reader would have discovered that it was the actor’s boyfriend who had a “self-confessed” drug problem (with no suggestion of it being any secret).

 

“New Idea” belongs to a genre of magazine which delves into the lives of the rich and the famous, and especially those of movie and TV stars. Readers expect to be entertained by stories which sensationalize the facts, engage in hyperbole, and make provocative statements. However a line is crossed and the Code is breached when what is written is untruthful. For these reasons we uphold some (but not all) of Ms Bourke’s complaints

© Independent Media Council 2012