The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article published on the news.com.au website on 23 November 2012, titled “Autistic man convicted of murdering WA mum”. It concerned the conviction on that day of a man for the murder of his mother.
The first sentence read: “An autistic Perth man has been convicted of murdering his mother whose body has never been found”. A later passage stated that he “stood in the dock and kept his head down during the proceedings, as he has done during most of his trial and court appearances. Justice McKechnie described [the man] as ‘unusual’ and ordered both a psychiatric and psychological report ahead of sentencing.” The judge made no reference on that day to the man’s autism but seven months earlier his autism had been discussed in a separate hearing on the man’s fitness for trial and been mentioned in the judgment.
The complainant said identification of the man as autistic in the headline and first paragraph of the article was gratuitous and implied that his condition was a contributing factor to the murder. His complaint was about the prominence of the references to autism, especially as it had not been mentioned in the judgment. The complainant said that he was autistic and after the article was published, people had spoken to him as if they thought it meant he was also capable of the kind of act described.
The publication said the man’s autism had been discussed extensively at the pre-trial hearing and been the subject of earlier media reports. It had also been mentioned by the defence counsel in his closing submission and the judgment had referred to the man as “an unusual person”. The publication said it accepted that the man’s autism was not a contributing factor in his conviction, but that it was nonetheless a significant element in the overall issue, including in the question of whether he had been fit to stand trial.
Taking into account the judge’s earlier decision on the man’s fitness to stand trial and the references to autism at that time, the Council considers that it was justifiable to make some mention of autism when reporting the outcome of the trial itself. However, the headline and the first sentence were likely to have led many readers to conclude that autism had been found to be the main cause of the murder, or at least one of the causes. Nothing in the remainder of the article would have corrected this misunderstanding.
Accordingly, the complaint is upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies General Principle 8: “Publications should not place any gratuitous emphasis on the race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness, or age of an individual or group. Where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report and express opinions in these areas.”