The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article in The Age on 4 March 2013. It was headed “Union secretary asked to cover tab”, above which was a smaller heading “Debt case: Sex worker to get money owed under court’s ruling”. The complaint also related to a tweet on the previous day which read, “New Health Services Union state secretary asked to help cover $15,000 debt owed to West Australian sex worker” and provided a link to the article.
The article reported that in January 2013 a court ordered Luke Walladge to pay $15,000 that he owed to a Perth woman, Joanna Soucek. It described Ms Soucek as a “sex worker” and also referred to an amount Mr Walladge said in court was owed to him by Diana Asmar, Secretary of the Health Services Union in Victoria, for work he had performed in the previous year for her successful campaign to be elected as Secretary. It said the court ordered that any debt owed by Ms Asmar to him be “appropriated” to pay Ms Soucek. Towards the end, it mentioned that Ms Soucek had acknowledged she and Mr Walladge had been in an “intimate relationship” but both of them denied the money was owed for her sexual services.
Mr Walladge complained that the headline, article and tweet were inaccurate because there was no court order requiring a debt by Ms Asmar to be appropriated to pay Ms Soucek. He said that in the period between the court hearing and the article being published, it had been established that no money was owed to him by Ms Asmar, her campaign or the union.
He also complained that the headlines and first paragraph as well as the tweet unfairly drew attention to Ms Soucek being a sex worker and inaccurately implied that his debt to her was for her sexual services. They also focussed unfairly on the HSU and inaccurately implied that the debt to him was owed by the union, rather than Ms Asmar or her campaign. He said his privacy had been unfairly breached by the references to sex work, especially as neither he nor Ms Soucek was a public figure.
The Age said Mr Walladge himself referred in court to an amount of $12,800 as being owed to him by Ms Asmar and/or her campaign. It said he had made a number of unreliable comments to it on this and other matters concerning the HSU in the months before publication. Accordingly, it had relied on the court transcript, rather than his later comments. It said the article accurately and fairly reflected the proceedings recorded in the transcript, and that it was standard practice in such an article to mention the occupation of any significant figure in the story. It said Mr Walladge’s history of work for Ms Asmar, the HSU and the ALP justified reporting on his activities, and it denied any unfairness in its dealings with him.
The Council’s Standards of Practice state that publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. The Council notes that the court transcript records the Registrar as saying he “will make a determination that there is an available debt that might be appropriated to satisfy the judgement debt”. But the transcript does not indicate that he actually ordered that a particular debt be appropriated for the benefit of Ms Soucek or that he even decided whether Ms Asmar or some other person was a debtor who would be the subject of such an order. Accordingly, the newspaper’s assertions were not justified by the transcript on which it relied and, especially in light of Mr Walladge’s denial, it should have made further inquiries before publishing them. The complaint on these aspects is upheld.
The Council considers it was reasonable for the article to refer to Ms Soucek’s occupation as a sex worker, even though it was not mentioned in the transcript. However, the way in which it was mentioned in the tweet, the headline and the first sentence, including the reference to a “tab”, unfairly implied that the debt was for her sexual services. The reference late in the article to the denial by her and Mr Walladge was not sufficient to offset the unfairness in these earlier and very prominent references. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is also upheld.
The Council considers that the references to Ms Soucek’s occupation as a sex worker did breach Mr Walladge’s privacy but his involvement with a prominent union that had become embroiled in allegations of payment for sexual services meant that, on balance, mention of her occupation was sufficiently justifiable in the public interest. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint was not upheld.
(not required for publication by the newspaper)
Mr Walladge also complained that the journalist had acted unfairly in not warning him the article would mention Ms Soucek and her occupation. The Council had insufficient information to resolve conflicting accounts of what was said about the content of the article prior to publication.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”; 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.”; and General Principle 5: “Information obtained by dishonest or unfair means, or the publication of which would involve a breach of confidence, should not be published unless there is an over-riding public interest.”