Should a Q&A audience member be subjected to media scrutiny?

Should a studio audience member be subjected to media articles simply for asking a question of a Q&A panelist?

Not if a new finding by the Press Council is anything to go by.

Yesterday the Sunday Telegraph posted a finding that ruled a February article “Sack ABC board and end the warped bias” by Piers Akerman went too far in referring to Ms. Fred Thorpe’s political allegiances, superannuation and scrutinising her personal life.

The article claimed she was a  “Labor-Greens supporter who despite her disability found the stamina to aggressively campaign for former Australian Idol host James Mathison”. The article also mentioned her appearance on an episode of Backyard Blitz, referring to her as “the beneficiary of one of their home makeovers and [who] had a rooftop garden constructed atop the family’s Manly beachside apartment”.

It suggested, “She might have chilled a little if she had sat by her designer ‘glazed water bowl and fountain’ which ‘provide the calming sounds of trickling water’. Impossible not to feel sympathetic for anyone finding it difficult to cope, but surely Ms Thorpe has nothing to worry about?”

But the Press Council ruled references to her superannuation, political allegiances, and the extent of her campaigning were based upon speculation and a small selection of comments made on social media.

It ruled that while her reasonable expectation to privacy was diminished by appearing on Q&A she was not a public figure who warranted the level of scrutiny applied to her personal life. It determined the article caused Ms. Thorpe and her family considerable distress.

However this contrasts with previous media attention give to Zaky Mallah in 2015 and 2016 coverage of Duncan Storrer, in a story headlined “ABC Hero a Villain.”

Akerman as himself been a panelist on the ABC show.

The Press Council considered a complaint by Fred Thorpe about an article in The Sunday Telegraph on 26 February 2017, headed “Sack ABC board and end the warped bias” in print and online. The article referred to the opinion writer’s appearance as a panel member on the ABC Television’s Q&A program and, among other matters, commented on a question posed by the complainant to the Attorney-General, George Brandis, about an impending review of her pension entitlement.

Appearing as an audience member on the program, the complainant asked: “Can George Brandis explain why politicians’ expenses are extravagant and go unchecked, while I am having my Disability Support Pension reviewed, despite a 28-year exemplary career as a teacher then having to resign because of ill health? My $22,000 yearly pension with which I am raising three exceptional children, would be less than most pollies spend in a month.” In responding to a question from the host of the program, the complainant said she had spent most of her “weekend throwing up from absolute fear” that her pension might

be removed.

In commenting on the complainant’s appearance on the program, the article referred to her as “aggrieved at being selected for review by Centrelink’s current automated data-matching program”, and as a “Labor-Greens supporter who despite her disability found the stamina to aggressively campaign for former Australian Idol host James Mathison”. The article also mentioned the complainant’s appearance on an episode of “the Backyard Blitz television program”, referring to her as “the beneficiary of one of their home makeovers and [who] had a rooftop garden constructed atop the family’s Manly beachside apartment”.

It added: “She might have chilled a little if she had sat by her designer ‘glazed water bowl and fountain’ which ‘provide the calming sounds of trickling water’. Impossible not to feel sympathetic for anyone finding it difficult to cope, but surely Ms Thorpe has nothing to worry about?” The article also speculated about the superannuation of the complainant, identified as “a former teacher of 28 years”: “No mention of her superannuation, which, if she were a member of the uber-generous defined benefit scheme under the old teachers plan, almost bankrupted NSW.”

The complainant said the article was misleading and unfair in a number of respects, intruded on her reasonable expectation of privacy, and caused her substantial distress. The complainant said it was misleading and unfair to refer to her as a “Labor-Greens supporter” who had “aggressively campaign[ed] for … James Mathison”. The complainant said she does not support any one party or person. Her Twitter profile, from which the publication apparently sourced its information, and which was since deactivated, reflected that she had previously voted for an Independent and a Liberal candidate. Her campaigning for James Mathison extended only to letter-boxing leaflets in a few streets with her children. The complainant also said she was not a member of the “uber-generous” superannuation fund to which the article referred, and her comments on the program did not concern the issue of “data-matching program” raised in the article.

The complainant said she had been humiliated by the article’s comments and that her name had been maligned and her honesty and integrity brought into question. The complainant said by simply asking a question of an elected representative, she did not make herself a public figure that enabled the publication to publicly ransack her life.

The publication responded that the opinion column did not state what, if any, superannuation scheme the complainant was or is a member of, nor did it claim the complainant was a member of any teachers’ superannuation scheme. In relation to political affiliations, it said the complainant is on the public record as supporting James Mathison, her Twitter profile photo showed a picture of former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, she has commented publicly that she did not vote for Malcolm Turnbull, and publicly urged people to vote against former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott. In relation to the reference to the complainant’s appearance on Backyard Blitz, the publication said this contributed to the complainant’s public profile and helped the reader understand who she is. The publication said by appearing on Q&A, the complainant had chosen to take part in a public debate before more than a million people, and it is legitimate journalistic practice to scrutinise such people, particularly when the issue of audience selection of the program is a matter of public record, public debate and public interest.

Conclusion

The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or an omission of key facts (General Principle 3). The Standards of Practice also require that publications take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy (General Principle 5) or causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or to a substantial risk to health or safety (General Principle 6), unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.

The Council considers the article’s references to the complainant’s superannuation, her appearance on the television program Backyard Blitz, her having “found the stamina to aggressively campaign” for a political candidate “despite her disability”, and that she “surely has nothing to worry about”, collectively implied she is an undeserving welfare recipient. The references to her superannuation, political allegiances, and the extent of her campaigning were based upon speculation and a small selection of comments made by the complainant on social media. The Council considers that the publication failed to ensure factual material was presented with reasonable fairness and balance, especially given the complainant is not a public figure but simply a member of the public. Accordingly, the Council concludes that General Principle 3 was breached. As the complainant did not seek a right of reply, the Council concludes that General Principle 4 was not breached.

The Council considers that given the complainant appeared on the Q&A program and commented on her personal circumstances, her reasonable expectation to privacy was diminished as it related to such commentary. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication did not breach General Principle 5 or Privacy Principle 7.

 

The Council accepts that the article caused the complainant and her family considerable distress.

The Council also accepts that it is legitimate journalistic practice to provide background to scrutinise people involved in public debate. However, in this instance, the Council does not accept the complainant was a public figure who warranted the level of scrutiny applied by the publication to her personal life.

The Council notes that the complainant merely asked a question, albeit on live television, and could not be reasonably described as either being a public figure or being involved in the broader debate about the government’s data-matching program. There was no public interest in scrutinising the complainant’s background to the extent the publication did, and there is a strong countervailing public interest in ensuring the public is free to participate in public debate without unwarranted scrutiny. Given this, the Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing materially to substantial distress which was not sufficiently in the public interest. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 6 in this respect.

Press Council of Australia

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