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

LATEST FINDINGS

 

DATE 23rd JUNE 2017

 

Determination: Morris v Perth Now

 

In April and May 2017 the Sunday Times and its online arm Perth Now published a series of articles about cyber bullying and abuse.

 

A significant focus of those articles was Fremantle blogger Constance Hall and criticism of her by a Group of women called ‘The Abdication of Constance Hall’.

 

Amanda Morris, a member of that Group, complains about a 23 April publication by Perth Now, entitled ‘Secret Facebook hate group about Perth blogger Constance Hall’.

 

The complaint essentially raises four issues.

 

First, it was alleged that the journalist used a falsified social media identity to access the Group.

 

This is categorically denied by the journalist, Belle Taylor, and the complainant has failed to provide any evidence to support the assertion.

 

Second, whether, having been highly critical of the Group, Perth Now failed to provide them with a contemporaneous right of reply.

 

The journalist claims that she did contact several members of the Group via Facebook, but received no reply.

 

Further, the Group’s security settings were ‘closed’ and frequently changed to ‘secret’. This made contacting the Group’s members and administration more difficult.

 

In a subsequent article, published in the Sunday Times three weeks after the impugned article, the journalist did quote an administrator of the Group on the condition of confidentiality. The journalist seems to have done all she reasonably could to provide a right of reply.

 

Third, did the articles meet the requirement that reports be ‘honest, accurate, balanced and fair and disclose all essential facts. Reports must not suppress relevant available facts or give distorting emphasis’?

 

Amanda Morris claims that the article was unfair and unbalanced, particularly in describing the Group as a ‘hate group’.

 

To assist in resolving the issues in dispute, the Independent Media Council asked the parties to answer several questions and provide evidence to support their contentions.

 

From the information provided we can conclude that some of the material posted on the Group’s site was extreme, personally vicious, nasty, cruel and harassing.

 

We cannot conclude about the extent of these critical posts, but it was not suggested that there were any posts supportive of Constance Hall.

 

Amanda Morris pointed out that Group administrators asked that members desist from personal attacks and that Group rules did not permit harassment or comments on the personal life of Constance Hall.

 

The very name of the Group ‘The Abdication of Constance Hall’ suggests that the Group was not established for beneficial purposes, but aimed to attract negative comments.

 

Amanda Morris also complains that the removal or reprimanding of Group members who made inappropriate posts was not disclosed to readers.

 

However, articles in the Sunday Times on 23 April and 14 May reported on actions taken to shut down the Group following publicity and public reaction to inappropriate posts.

 

Fourth, privacy.

 

It was contended that naming the Group in the media would easily lead to the identification of the Group’s administration team, thereby breaching their privacy.

 

Amanda Morris says that this happened, resulting in on-line harassment and ‘naming and shaming’.

 

Further, it was argued that the group’s security settings gave rise to an expectation that the material on the Group site would remain confidential.

 

It is hard to envisage that the actions of a Group of 2,000 people could remain confidential for long. This is particularly so when, as reported, members of the Group took to expressing their views about Constance Hall outside the Group, including to their target, Constance Hall. Accordingly, there could be no reasonable expectation of privacy.

 

For these reasons the complaint is not upheld.

 

DATE 13th JUNE 2017

 

Determination: Pavel Kalinov v “The West Australian”

 

On 15 May 2017 “The West Australian” published a report headed “Parents warned on Perth screening of anti-vaccination film Vaxxed”. It included comments that the film was promoted by “propaganda”, that its director Andrew Wakefield was “a former doctor whose debunked study played a key role in the anti-vaccine movement” and that it “reignites false claims about a link between the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine and autism”.

 

The report also quoted strong criticism of the film by the National President of the Australian Medical Association including that Andrew Wakefield had “fraudulently produced evidence around the original MMR scare in Britain which led to him being deregistered as a doctor”.

 

Pavel Kalinov complains that Andrew Wakefield was not given any right of reply. He also complains that the report was inaccurate because Dr Wakefield’s findings have never been “debunked”, but are supported by an extensive list of studies compiled by the award winning journalist Sharyl Attkinsson, along with a decision by an English court after a thorough investigation. (Mr Kalinov has provided on-line references for these assertions).

 

The background to these matters is that in 1998 ‘The Lancet’ medical journal published a paper by the then Dr Wakefield and 11 co-authors which suggested a possible link between the MMR vaccine and the onset of autism in young children. This paper generated great public controversy and is said to have reduced the rates of MMR vaccination of British children by more than 10%.

 

In 2004, ten of Dr Wakefield’s co-authors publicly ‘retracted’ the paper because they no longer accepted the reliability of the research on which it was based. That same year a panel of the British Medical Council commenced an inquiry against Dr Wakefield and two of his co-authors which in 2010 resulted in him being struck off the Medical Register (on grounds including that he had acted dishonestly and unethically when carrying out the research). Following those findings “The Lancet” ‘fully retracted’ the paper from its public record.

 

Another co-author who was also struck off (Professor Walker-Smith) successfully appealed to the High Court of Justice and was reinstated onto the Medical Register in 2014. That appeal was allowed because of factors entirely personal to Professor Walker-Smith which had nothing to do with the validity of the research findings (on which the Court did not venture any opinion).

 

Since then and around the world, there has been a continuing controversy about these matters, and Andrew Wakefield remains an active participant. On 27th November 2016 the respected Emmy award winning investigative journalist Sharyll Attkinsson summarized the various conflicting opinions in her blog and concluded: “To be clear: no study to date conclusively proves or disproves a causal link between vaccines and autism – and, despite the misreporting - none has claimed to do so”.

 

Against this background the truth about the benefits or perils of MMR vaccinations clearly lies within the realm of experts. All that a lay person or journalist can do is to choose which expert or experts should be believed.

 

In the present instance “The West Australian” chose to accept the honesty and accuracy of majority expert medical opinion as expressed by the President of the Australian Medical Association. Obviously the newspaper was entitled to do this, and in our view it also was justified in not giving oxygen to views which would undermine public confidence in MMR vaccinations. Given that most experts say that any decline in such vaccinations would increase the risks to future health of all children, the newspaper acted responsibly in not publishing a report likely to have that effect.

 

The word “debunked” accurately described what ultimately happened to the paper co-authored by Andrew Wakefield. As noted above Sharyl Attkinsson’s blog and the decision of the English High Court of Justice do support Mr Kalinov’s contentions.

 

For these reasons we do not uphold the complaint.

 

DATE 13th JUNE 2017

 

Determination: Gianni Parri v ‘The West Australian”

 

On 15 May 2017 “The West Australian” reported that the controversial anti-vaccination documentary ‘Vaxxed’ would soon be screened in Perth, and that parents were being warned to ignore “propaganda” promoting the film.

 

The quoted sources of that warning were Catherine Hughes, a WA immunisation campaigner, and Dr Michael Gannon, the National President of the Australian Medical Association. Ms Hughes urged that parents “not be swayed by the hype of Vaxxed” because “no child should unnecessarily suffer from a vaccine preventable disease”. Dr Gannon stated that the film’s director (Andrew Wakefield) had “fraudulently produced evidence” resulting in his de-registration as a doctor, and that he felt sad “for those vulnerable parents who have been conned into believing there is a link between autism and vaccines”.

 

Giannni Parri complains that this report was a disgraceful attack on “freedom of speech and freedom of medical choice” and was also inaccurate and biased. He seeks an apology from the newspaper and publication of a report showing the results of a certain “vaccinated v unvaccinated” study. Although Mr Parri does not identify this study, it is obviously the paper by Dr Andrew Wakefield and 11 other co- authors published in 1998 in the UK medical journal “The Lancet” which first suggested a causal link between the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the onset of autism in children.

 

In 2004 that paper was retracted by 10 of its co-authors because they had by then re-considered its research and no longer believed it to be reliable. “The Lancet” also retracted the paper from the public record, and in 2010 a Panel of the British Medical Council struck Dr Wakefield off the Medical Register for dishonest and unethical conduct when carrying out the research. (The full details of this conduct were described in the British Medical Journal on 6 January 2011 under the heading: “Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent”).

 

Accordingly Andrew Wakefield’s study has been comprehensively discredited by reputable authorities in Britain and is also condemned by Australia’s peak medical body.

 

It follows that The West Australian’s report on the warning about Andrew Wakefield’s film was not only factually correct and unbiased, but was also a responsible action on its part. Far from being an intrusion on freedom of speech or freedom of medical choice the report informed parents about a vital matter which in the interests of their children’s health they needed to know.

 

For these reasons the complaint is not upheld.

 

DATE 19th MAY 2017

 

Determination: The City Of Perth v West Australian Newspaper

 

On 18 March 2017 under the headline “Council axes theatre’s rescue” The Weekend West reported on the Perth City Council’s decision not to commit to a $1.7 million sponsorship of a proposed scheme to rejuvenate the Piccadilly Theatre.

 

Prior to publication the journalist asked certain questions of Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi, and the report stated that: “Ms Scaffidi would not respond to questions from The Weekend West but instead issued a short statement explaining the decision-making process”.

 

The City of Perth complains that this statement was inaccurate because Ms Scaffidi in fact answered the questions, and that in any event she was not provided with sufficient reasonable time to provide those answers.

 

It further complains that the report was not fair or balanced because the article implied that ‘Ms Scaffidi as an individual was solely responsible’ for the refusal of sponsorship.

 

The questions from the journalist were sent in two separate e-mails, and the first (containing five specific questions) was answered two days later only indirectly, and in the manner described in the report. The second email (with a single further question) was sent on the day before publication and was specifically answered by Ms Scaffidi within a few hours of receipt. In these circumstances there was no breach of the IMC’s Code of Conduct in either the manner of questioning or in the way in which this issue was reported.

 

DATE 19th MAY 2017

 

Determination: The City Of Perth v West Australian Newspaper

 

On 17 March 2017 The West Australian published a front page headline – “outrageous new gag attempt – WELCOME TO NORTH KOREA” with a photomontage depicting Perth Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi with a Kim Jong-Un bad hairdo, in front of the city skyline with a barrier of barbed wire.

 

This was followed by an article inside the newspaper under the headline “Scaffidi bars councillors speaking to The West”, along with a critical editorial accompanied by a cartoon featuring Lord Mayor Scaffidi and “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Un with the same hairdo.

 

The essential story was that the Lord Mayor had demanded each Councillor sign a statutory declaration to the effect that they had not spoken to a journalist from The West Australian about a particular matter; that this constituted a gag on elected Councillors, and denied them the freedom to publicly express their views on Council matters.

 

An IMC hearing on 18 May established that it was Councillor Judy McEvoy who instigated the statutory declarations – not Lord Mayor Scaffidi. These declarations were signed by a majority of Councillors, but not all of them, and at least one of the latter considered it to be a bullying tactic designed to intimidate.

 

Although the Lord Mayor concurred with this procedure, she denied any knowledge that the statutory declarations would be presented prior to entering the meeting room./p>

 

These events occurred in the context of a longstanding written policy of the Council that Councillors are not authorised to comment to the media on Council decisions and activities. Clearly it is this policy which creates the ‘gag’ on Councillors, and it is hard to see that the events reported on in any way added to this.

 

It is the headline “Scaffidi bars councilors speaking to The West” that breaches the IMC Code of Conduct requirement that reports be “honest, accurate, balanced and fair and disclose all essential facts”.

 

The article itself, with the possible exception of one word, is unobjectionable. However, the events described were not the action of the Lord Mayor Scaffidi but of another Councillor, and while the use of the statutory declarations might be considered a crude political tactic, it strains the english language to say that this constituted a bar or gag on Councillors.

 

As to the front page photomontage depicting Lord Mayor Scaffidi as a North Korean dictator – it was a sarcastic depiction which, although offensive, could not be impugned if it had followed reasonably from the facts. But it did not.

 

Accordingly, the complaints relating to the front page photomontage and the following article are upheld.

 

DATE 25th MARCH 2017

 

Determination: Deborah Botica v The Kalgoorlie Miner

 

On 28 February and 1 March 2017 the Kalgoorlie Miner reported on the Supreme Court trial of a man charged with an armed robbery. The prosecution case was that the accused man stole money from a young couple after threatening them with a machete. The accused’s defence was that he met the young couple under an arrangement to sell them drugs, but ran off (without committing a robbery) when their “demeanour changed”. At the end of the two day trial the jury accepted the prosecution version of events and convicted the accused of armed assault with intent to rob.

 

Deborah Botica is the mother of one of the two victims and she complains that the newspaper’s first report was not clear, fair or balanced as it “gave a lot of attention and credence” to the accused’s version of events, and failed to balance this with her daughter’s repeated and strenuous denials which were later found to be an honest and truthful account of what happened. In this regard: “We do not understand how the public interest was served by publishing an interim report on day 1 of a 2 day trial that was so inconsistent with the final verdict and outcome of the trial that it portrayed a totally false and unfair account of the crime committed against my daughter and caused harm to her and my family reputation, as well as (her friend’s) reputation and future job prospects”.

 

Deborah Botica is the mother of one of the two victims and she complains that the newspaper’s first report was not clear, fair or balanced as it “gave a lot of attention and credence” to the accused’s version of events, and failed to balance this with her daughter’s repeated and strenuous denials which were later found to be an honest and truthful account of what happened. In this regard: “We do not understand how the public interest was served by publishing an interim report on day 1 of a 2 day trial that was so inconsistent with the final verdict and outcome of the trial that it portrayed a totally false and unfair account of the crime committed against my daughter and caused harm to her and my family reputation, as well as (her friend’s) reputation and future job prospects”.

 

We have closely examined the Kalgoorlie Miner’s report of 28 February with these principles in mind, but cannot find any fault in it. The report after noting that conflicting accounts had been presented, went on to summarise each version of events as given in evidence. These summaries were entirely factual in content and did not contain anything by way of comment or distorting emphasis. In our view there is simply no basis for the claim that the report gave more “attention and credence” to the (then) accused’s version of events. Importantly, the newspaper’s report on the following day made it clear that the two young victims’ accounts had been accepted. It also reported the Trial Judge’s finding that the offender had not known the two victims prior to threatening them with the machete.

 

For these reasons we do not uphold the complaint.

 

DATE 6th MARCH 2017

 

Determination: TAMARA BURGESS v THE WEST AUSTRALIAN

 

In a number of articles in late January 2017 ‘The West Australian’ reported that State Government Minister Albert Jacob was on the Board of the Globalheart Church which “expels members who develop a mental illness”. The newspaper later reported Mr Jacob’s response that the Church’s mental capacity rule “would only ever apply to those on the leadership group and not the congregation”.

 

Tamara Burgess complains that the initial reports were factually incorrect because the rule in question refers to the governing body and not to the general population of the Church. She believes that this was either a deliberate misrepresentation or the journalist ‘wasn’t doing his job properly’. As a result there was unnecessary harm to the reputation of the Church as well as “hurt and confusion to many people”.

 

Globalheart Church Inc is an incorporated association registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC). Its rules as published on the ACNC website show that each person in the congregation is a “Member of the Association” and that the affairs of the Church are governed by a committee known as the “Visionary Team”. Under Rule 6.1 a person ceases to be a Member of the Association if that person: “(d) becomes of unsound mind within the meaning of the Mental Health Act 1958 or if in the opinion of the Visionary Team the person is incapable of continuing to perform the role of Member due to a temporary incapacity of mental health”. Rule 21.1 separately provides that a casual vacancy occurs in the office of a member of the Visionary Team if that member “(f) becomes of unsound mind….”.

 

Ms Burgess has provided material which suggests that the Globalheart Church does not in fact expel mentally ill members.

 

Nevertheless as the rules require automatic expulsion of such members the newspaper’s reports were entirely accurate. Accordingly we do not uphold the complaint.

 

DATE 19th JANUARY 2017

 

Determination: CHRIS DUDLEY v THE WEST AUSTRALIAN

 

On 13 January 2017 the Editor of ‘The West Australian’ newspaper published an editorial in support of the Roe 8 project including a statement that:

 

“The completed Perth Freight Link will reduce congestion, improve our trading infrastructure, be helping get products to market faster cheaper and more safely, and improve the amenity across the south metropolitan area”.

 

Chris Dudley complains that the editorial did not provide evidence to substantiate these claims, did not acknowledge the views of people opposed to the Roe 8 project, and did not specify whether or not the opinions expressed were those of all shareholders and employees of The West Australian. Mr Dudley also claims that the editorial breached the IMC’s Code of Conduct which requires reports to be honest, accurate, balanced and fair, and that information be attributed to its source.

 

As always, the editorial in question appeared under the heading of “OPINION”. The facts it asserted were clearly not part of a news report but were merely the opinions of a particular individual, namely the Editor. The editorial was not the only opinion to be published, and by ‘letters to the Editor’ and other means the newspaper has allowed expression of the full range of public views for and against the Roe 8 project.

 

In this regard the fundamental principle underlying the IMC’s Code of Conduct is freedom of speech. The provisions referred to by Mr Dudley apply to ‘reports’ and not to expressions of opinion which the Code does not in any way suppress.

 

For these reasons Mr Dudley’s complaint is not upheld.

 

© Independent Media Council 2012