The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by Steve Foy about a comment he submitted under the pseudonym “Wake Up” for The Sydney Morning Herald website on 21 March 2011.
Mr Foy complained that the meaning of his comment was unfairly changed by deleting the opening sentences about an article in the newspaper by Paul Sheehan. After initially being unable to provide a copy of the original comment, he later said that he had retrieved it from his computer's back-up facility and the omitted sentences read: “Time to retire Paul Sheehan. You seem to have forgotten the basics of journalism and you and the SMH should be held to account for this piece of garbage masquerading as a relevant news article. This is nothing more than a ‘Puff Piece’ which unashamedly endorses a Liberal MP before a State election.” He said the omission, and the addition of an opening line “What a cheap shot at Labor”, occurred without consulting him or notifying readers.
The newspaper said its system retained a record of comments in the form published on the website but not in the form submitted by readers. Accordingly, it said it could not verify what, if any, omissions or additions had occurred. The moderator who considered Mr Foy’s comment before posting it to the website could not recall what action she took but said that if the opening sentences were as claimed by Mr Foy she would have deleted them as “an inappropriate personal attack on Paul Sheehan” which contravened its site rules against “abusive, defamatory or in any way questionable” comments. She said that she would not have added anything to the comment.
The Press Council is unable to determine with reasonable certainty the wording of any sentences which were omitted from the comment or whether anything was added. Accordingly, it is also unable to consider whether any such change breached its Standards of Practice.
The Council notes, however, that the complaint raised important issues of general significance. They include whether: publishers should ensure that records are kept of comments in the form submitted by readers; material should be deleted when it is clearly abusive as opposed to just robustly critical; it is especially appropriate to delete abuse which is anonymous; perceived abuse should be omitted more readily if it relates to a journalist; all changes to a comment should be checked with the contributor and/or signified on the website. These and related issues will be addressed as a priority in the Council’s current Standards Project.