The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint about a photograph and caption published on page 3 of the Namoi Valley Independent on 31 January 2013.
The photograph showed a naked man standing on a traffic island in the main street of Gunnedah with a police officer and a woman. The caption read: “Police were called to the traffic lights in Condilly Street this morning to remove a naked man carrying a Bible. The man was removed without incident and is now being assessed in Tamworth. No charges are expected to be laid”.
The man’s sister complained that despite the man’s face being blacked out, he was easily identifiable in the small town in which he resides. She said that the newspaper should have been aware from the information provided to it by police that the man had been taken to Tamworth hospital and might have been affected by a mental health condition. In any event, she said, the newspaper should have inquired further into such a possibility. She said there was no ground for saying that publishing the photograph was in the public interest.
The newspaper said it had no reason to suspect the man was suffering from a mental health condition but that if it had known it would not have published the photograph. It said that the incident occurred in a public place and thus would already be known to many people. The photograph had been taken from a considerable distance and the publication had partially obscured his face with a black bar and blurred his genitals and a distinguishable tattoo. It said the caption did not seek to sensationalise the incident, but merely reported an unusual event that delayed traffic in the main street of Gunnedah, was witnessed by many people, and therefore was of public interest. It said that it had reported on traffic congestion at other times.
The Council considers that the location and impact of the incident justified it being reported. The photograph was not entirely necessary for that purpose, but it had been modified so that the man could not be readily identified. On this basis, the complaint is not upheld. Nevertheless, the Council is concerned that the newspaper did not do more to inquire into the reasons for the man’s actions before deciding whether to publish the photograph. It had grounds to suspect that he might have a mental health problem, and there was no compelling need to use the photograph if his status could not be checked before publication. The risks involved in publishing photographs of this kind of a mentally ill person can be very grave indeed and publishers should take great care.
The Council considers that the newspaper should have published some of the letters it received criticising its decision to publish.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies General Principle 4: “News and comment should be presented honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy is not to be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest. Rumour and unconfirmed reports should be identified as such.”