The Independent Media Council was formed in 2012 to handle complaints by readers against funding bodies.
DATE 5TH NOVEMBER 2018
Determination: Sarah Quinton v ‘The West Australian’.
On 20 September 2018 the Alston cartoon in ‘The West Australian” (WAN) depicted two householders protesting against loud music from a neighbouring hotel and telling the media that “It’s like ‘Me Too’…. we knew what we were buying into, but we decided to complain later”.
Sarah Quinton complains that the cartoon was grossly offensive to victims of sexual assault or harassment because it suggests it was their own fault that this happened, that their complaints are trivial, and that that they should not be believed. She asserts that the cartoon is not a joke, and is a ‘dangerous opinion’.
WAN responds that the cartoon was about a proposed government crackdown on ‘whingers who moved close to pubs and nightclubs, then complained about the noise’, and based on that premise also commented on current controversies surrounding the ‘Me Too’ movement. It was intended as a ‘broad-brush cartoon’ and was not a comment on individual cases.
The IMC’s Code of Conduct does not expressly deal with cartoons, and the usual reporting standards of honesty, accuracy, balance, and lack of distorting emphasis do not apply. In this regard, cartoons are not intended as a medium for reporting facts, but often (not always) express opinions.
In the present instance the cartoon clearly expressed an opinion about the ‘Me-Too’ movement. However, there was nothing in the cartoon to suggest that the comment about “Me-Too” (in the speech balloon from the householder) should be construed as applying to victims of sexual abuse generally.
Cartoonists tend to use exaggeration, hyperbole, sarcasm, stereotyping, provocation and other tools in projecting humour or making a point. In this case, the “Me-Too” analogy may not have been a fair one, but it was an analogy the cartoonist was at liberty to draw.
Although some might agree with the cartoonist, many would not and many would find this analogy offensive – but that is what cartoonists do.
For these reasons the complaint is not upheld.
DATE 5TH SEPTEMBER 2018
Determination:Anna Gleeson v ‘The West Australian’
On 11 August 2018 ‘The West Australian’ (WAN) published an Alston four panel cartoon headed “Origins of the Species…Perth 2040”. It depicted a future football match at the ‘Beijing Noodle-House Stadium’ with spectators in various forms of multi-cultural dress. The scenes caricatured included a muslim State Premier addressing the crowd as well as a half time ‘entertainment stoning’. The final panel had the Premier reminding the crowd that ‘invasion day will be celebrated in Freo tomorrow…There will be no fireworks’.
Anna Gleeson complains that the cartoon is racist because “it suggests that muslims will take over Perth sporting events in future…The images are without basis and amount to hate speech.”
WAN’s response is that the cartoon appeared at a time of intense media focus on an episode of AFL football violence. It commented satirically on this violence by suggesting that events such as public stonings would become common place at future football matches.
The IMC’s Code of Conduct does not expressly set standards for cartoons. The usual reporting standards of honesty, accuracy,balance and lack of distorting emphasis cannot apply because cartoons by their very nature are the opposite of these things. Accordingly the present Code does not provide any guideposts as to how complaints against cartoons should be assessed.
The key to interpreting cartoons is that they are mostly meant to be taken humorously and not seriously. The problem in our modern diversified society is that increasing numbers of people fail to see the humour in particular cartoons and treat them as literal rather than satirical comment. It may be that general community standards are changing in this regard.
In the present instance, readers who do not share the cartoonist’s sense of humour might at first glance regard the cartoon as an attack on muslims. However on closer analysis they would see that the great majority of spectators who join the stoning are in casual Australian dress. Similarly dressed people of mixed appearance line up at a food station which sells “pies – noodles- curries- biltong’. Those readers who understand the satirical intent of the cartoon would regard this as a wry comment on the changing nature of Australian cultural values, and even perhaps as a positive prediction of the future blending of our society.
Irrespective of the author’s intent, a cartoon will always be interpreted subjectively by its individual readers. On occasions many will be amused but others may be offended by what it contains. The question is whether a cartoonist’s freedom of expression should be restricted whenever there is a risk of offence to some readers.
Although there are now Federal laws which might intrude in this way, the fundamental principle underlying the IMC Code of Conduct is freedom of speech. Cartoonists and journalists are free to express their opinions unless the Code in some way restricts that freedom or they are otherwise prevented by law.
As the cartoon does not breach the Code of Conduct the complaint cannot be upheld. However given that there is presently a void in the Code in respect of cartoons, the IMC intends to consult with its funding bodies as to whether or not some standards should apply.
DATE 3RD SEPTEMBER 2018
Determination: Financial Planning Association v ‘The West Australian’
On 9 July 2018 ‘The West Australian’ (WAN) in its ‘Your Money’ section published an opinion piece by Neale Prior headed “FPA must accept the new rules”.
Mr Prior criticized financial planners for their ‘fight’ against new laws which require them to have upgraded qualifications, and likened their stance to that of Serbia during its confrontation with NATO. His article also criticized the Financial Planning Association of Australia Ltd (FPA) and its current certification program known as the ‘CFP designation’ (CFP).
The FPA (by its CEO Dante De Gori) complains that the article is ‘riddled with unsubstantiated derogatory claims and flagrantly incorrect statements’. He particularly objects to Mr Prior’s following assertions:
These assertions need to be judged against the IMC’s 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”.
“Publications are entitled to express opinions or publish the opinions of others but news and comment must be clearly delineated. Comment detrimental to a person should follow reasonably and fairly from the facts”.
In the present instance it is important to note that the article was not an isolated opinion but part of a longstanding and ongoing media debate about ethics and conflicts of interest within the financial planning industry. The facts surrounding these issues are of great public interest and likely to be well known to readers of the article.
These facts include:
These matters should all be taken into account in deciding whether Mr Prior’s opinions followed reasonably and fairly from the facts. In our view, although his opinions are at the extreme of a reasonable and fair debate, they can be justified by the totality of information now in the public domain. We also consider that the FPA’s submission to the FASEA standards authority provides reasonable grounds for Mr Prior’s comment about what it seeks in relation to the CFP. As to the Serbian analogy we consider that readers would have understood it to be hyperbole, and that it did not breach the Code.
For these reasons we do not uphold the complaint. However we note that FPA has been offered an opportunity to rebut Mr Prior’s opinions in the WAN, and suggest that it do so as a way of advancing the arguments it wishes to place before the public.
DATE 10TH JULY 2018
Determination: Boranga v The West Australian Newspaper
On 31 January 2018 “The West Australian” reported on the Supreme Court sentencing of Lawrence Evans, a 20 year old footballer who pleaded guilty to manslaughter and related offences, and was imprisoned for five years nine months.
These offences occurred while Mr Evans was driving a vehicle along Roe St Perth. He stopped to talk to some girls outside a nightclub, and this caused congestion to following traffic including a police car which flashed its lights and sounded its siren. Mr Evans then accelerated away at a very high speed, veered into a median strip and lost control of his vehicle. As a result, a garbage truck driver was run down and later died of his injuries. Mr Evans initially fled from the scene but returned approximately two minutes later. He was a probationary driver, and had been drinking alcohol beforehand.
Caroline Boranga claims that the report breached the IMC’s Code of Conduct by failing to give an honest, accurate, fair and balanced account of all essential facts; suppressing some relevant available facts; and giving a distorting emphasis.
Ms Boranga has outlined these claims in considerable detail, but essentially contends that the report gave a selective and distorted version of the facts, and blackened Mr Evans’ character to an extent that was unfair and unreasonable in the circumstances. As to some of her particular objections we comment as follows:
The headline: “Over-limit Death Driver Jailed”: This fairly reflected both the content of the report and the facts as disclosed in Court. The words “over-limit” were accurate given Mr Evan’s blood alcohol reading of 0.036% and his legal limit of zero alcohol as a probationary driver.
“Evans wept in the dock as he was sentenced”: We accept that Mr Evans wept while footage of the scene was played back and when the deceased’s injuries were described. He did not weep as sentence was passed.
While Mr Evans was accelerating along Roe St “his cousin in the passenger seat (was) urging him to relax and slow down”: Mr Evans had no memory of this happening, but his counsel did not challenge this allegation nor seek to cross-examine the cousin.
Mr Evans drove to the nightclub “to chat up some girls”: Although Mr Evans spoke to the girls, this assertion was an assumption rather than a fact.
Mr Evans was known to his football teammates “by his nickname-killer”: His nickname is more correctly spelt “killa”, but the spelling in the report came from the Claremont Football Club’s website. The newspaper was entitled to include background information from external sources as part of its Court report.
Although there were flaws in the report (in relation to ‘weeping’ and ‘chatting up’ of girls), we consider that there were no other inaccuracies, nor suppression of relevant facts, nor any distorting emphasis.
As to the question of balance, the case was one where Mr Evans’ serious error of misjudgement had had devastating consequences not only for him but more importantly for the victim and his family. The report had to succinctly summarize a wide range of facts in a fair and balanced way.
In our view the report was fair and balanced in its account of Mr Evans’ offences and his background circumstances. It also offset the inevitable impact of the offences on Mr Evan’s character by quoting defence counsel’s statement that his client had:“… emerged from a childhood of alcohol and violence in Wyndham to earn himself a scholarship to Christ Church Grammar School, and the admiration of almost everyone he met”.
We consider that the flaws in the report are of a minor nature and insufficient to justify any remedial action. Accordingly we do not uphold the complaint.
DATE 11TH MAY 2018
Determination: Helsby v. West Australian Newspaper
On 24 January 2018 The West Australian, in the Commercial Property section, published an article headed “Eco Plan Stymied by Bureaucracy”.
The story was about a three year saga over a proposed energy efficient, medium density development (13 units and two offices and shared community space) on a 1476sqm block in Swanbourne.
Mr Ken Helsby complains that the article lacks balance and failed to tell “the other side of the story”. Particularly, there was no mention of the reporter having spoken to adversely affected neighbours or others opposed to the project. Mr Helsby claims that the land is not zoned for what the developer wants to build.
The article was clearly written from a developer’s perspective of the lengthy time it took to gain approval for the project. Those opposed to the project were dismissively described as a “vocal minority” and “some councilors” who caused the loss of bonuses applied to sustainable projects and a reduction in the number of units to 9. The article did not refer to their reasons for opposing the development.
The newspaper defends the story saying the Commercial Property section of the paper has the purpose of telling readers what is happening in that sector and the article was not about the pros and cons of the development, but the length of time taken and issues in getting the project to that point.
The Code of Conduct requires that “Publications must take all reasonable steps to ensure reports are honest, accurate, balanced and fair and disclose all essential facts”.
Although the article did not tell “the other side of the story”, a reasonable reader would understand that the Council had taken account of those objections when requiring that the project be significantly modified. The story was not about the details of those objections, it was about the developer’s journey particularly as it related to government planning policies and red tape.
For these reasons we do not consider that there was any lack of balance, and the complaint is not upheld.
DATE 15TH MARCH 2018
Determination: Richard Titelius v “The West Australian”
Richard Titelius complains about headlines, articles and advertisements in The West Australian in early March 2018 dealing with alcohol.
“PRICE CALL ON BOOZE TO CUT BINGE HARM’ and “WAs BOOZE CULTURE FILLS HOSPITAL EDs” were two headlines and articles juxtaposed with a half page Liquor Stax advertisement for cheap alcohol.
Mr Titelius complains that the use of the terms “booze” and “grog” together with alcohol advertising debase the seriousness of articles about the devastating effects of alcohol abuse.
He also claims hypocrisy and lack of credibility in relation to the proposed banned drinkers register and the views of the Australian Hotels Association.
Whilst we understand Mr Titelius’s sentiment, we cannot find any breach of the Independent Media Council Code of Conduct, nor do we agree that the use of the vernacular imports any greater or lesser meaning or significance to the word alcohol.
For these reasons the complaint is dismissed.
DATE 15TH JANUARY 2018
Determination: ‘’An Anonymous Mother” v. The West Australian
On 23 November 2016 ‘The West Australian’ (WAN) published a frontpage headline “15-year-old alleged ‘Mr Big’ of Perth’s meth trade” with the spill over story on page 7. The story concerned a 15 year old boy arrested by police for allegedly selling 100gms of methamphetamine. Colour photographs of the boy appeared on both pages of the report and these were pixelated to obliterate his face.
The WAN denies any responsibility for this situation and queries whether the boy’s identity was revealed on the internet in the manner claimed. However it acknowledges that the photos it published came from his facebook page.
Although the published photos obliterated the boy’s facial features, his lengthy hair and the background details remained untouched. His hair was fairly distinctive, and in our opinion could well have been recognized by people familiar with his facebook photos. In the event of this happening a simple comparison of the published photos with the facebook photos would have confirmed his identity.
Although we are unable to verify that the boy’s identity was in fact revealed in this way, the risk that this might happen was forseeable at the time of publication. For this reason we find that the WAN failed to take ‘special care’ to ensure that publication of the edited facebook photos would not result in revelation of his identity.
For these reasons the complaint is upheld.
DATE 8TH JANUARY 2018
Determination: Glenn Scott v. The West Australian
On 27 November 2017 The West Australian published a 3 page feature on Azerbaijan under the headline “Baku to the future”.
Glen Scott complains that the article, in relation to corruption in Azerbaijan, breached Media Council guidelines in that it was not honest, accurate and balanced, did not disclose all relevant facts and therefore gave a distorting emphasis.
The article arose out of a trade mission by 28 business people to Azerbaijan,including a journalist, who conducted interviews with participants.
The journalist’s trip was paid for by the Azerbaijan Consulate. This was declared, in the usual way, at the end of the article.
As a result of credible reports in reputable international journals, Azerbaijan has an unenviable reputation as a corrupt dictatorship.
In 2013, the government reportedly declared the election result before voting had started.
Azerbaijan ranks 162 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, no doubt because of it’s jailing of journalists, activists and civil rights lawyers.
Azerbaijan ranked 119 out of 168 countries in the 2015 World Bank Corruption Perception Index. Since then a scandal involving $2.9 billion money laundering into offshore accounts of Azerbaijan’s leaders, to be used to buy political influence, has been exposed.”
Some of this was reported in the article, but in a manner favourable to the Azerbaijan government. Generally, the tenor of the article is one of glowing praise for Azerbaijan.
One businessman was quoted as saying that he believes the government has made a concerted effort to address perceptions of corruption.
The article opined “current allegations appear to be political rather than corporate”.
In our opinion, the article was an opinion piece and therefore not subject to the more rigorous requirements of news reporting.
Regardless of whether there was any credible basis for some of the opinions expressed, opinion pieces are about what people think.
The dangers inherent in journalists accepting “freebies” are well illustrated by this article. However, no breach of the Code of Conduct has occurred.
© Independent Media Council 2012