The Press Council has considered complaints about two articles published by the Herald Sun on 10 and 11 August 2013. They were lodged by Geoff Lake, then ALP candidate for Hotham in the impending federal election.
The articles were headed "RUDD’S BULLY BOY/Revealed – Star Victorian recruit’s vile abuse of wheelchair-bound woman" and "Rudd dumps bully/Two Labor candidates cop one for the team". Both appeared in print and, with a different heading, online.
The first article focussed mainly on an incident in 2002 involving Mr Lake and a fellow Monash councillor, Kathy Magee. The second article reported the decision of the ALP to dis-endorse him as a candidate for the 2013 election, and in doing so referred to the incident with Ms Magee.
Amongst other things, the articles reported that “Kevin Rudd’s star recruit for a safe seat in Victoria has admitted he abused a woman in a wheelchair” and that “Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has dumped two Labor candidates, including a man who abused a woman in a wheelchair”. They said Mr Lake called Ms Magee a “f------ bitch” and a “slut”.
The articles also reported that Mr Lake “admitted he had been accused of stalking a political rival”, that there were “allegations that ALP campaign officials had improperly used retiring member Simon Crean’s printing entitlement to distribute election material in the seat”, and that Mr Lake resigned after the publication approached the ALP on the previous evening about these allegations.
The incident with Ms Magee
Mr Lake complained that some aspects of the reports of the incident in relation to Ms Magee were unfair. He said the events occurred more than eleven years ago, he had acknowledged at that time his behaviour had been inappropriate, and he had apologised to Ms Magee on three occasions, including on the night of the incident. He also said unnecessary emphasis was put on her disability and it was misleading to state the issue had been “revealed” by the publication, when in fact the incident had been reported in local media at the time and since.
While acknowledging his behaviour towards Ms Magee at that time was inappropriate, he said the other incidents reported in the article did not show a pattern of behaviour either at the time of the incident with Ms Magee in 2002 or since that deserved characterisation of him in general terms as a “bully”. He said they did not support the characterisation of him as abusive or the label of “bully” used in the headlines to both articles, the first of which appeared very prominently on the first page of the newspaper. He said he had since held senior, professional positions and was held in high regard by a wide range of people.
The Herald Sun responded that it was reasonable to report the incident with Ms Magee as Mr Lake was now a federal election candidate, previous reports had been largely confined to suburban publications, and some of the most senior figures in the ALP were apparently unaware of the matter. Also, some aspects had not been reported before (for example, that he had called Ms Magee a “f...ing slut” and a “f...ing bitch”).
It said the substance of the incident with Ms Magee was not in dispute. It also said reporting on his being “forced” to apologise was reasonable because Mr Lake’s most far-reaching apology was in the settlement of a complaint by Ms Magee to the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC). It added that her disability had been mentioned in her complaint about his behaviour to the EOC.
The publication said Mr Lake was asked for comment prior to publication and several quotes were included.
The Council’s Principles state: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.” Although there was disagreement about some aspects of the incident with Ms Magee and it may have been more accurate to describe Mr Lake as having bullied Ms Magee, rather than to describe him in general terms as a “bully”, it was not disputed that Mr Lake has used the quoted abusive words about her. Mr Lake’s apologies were not reported but the publication sufficiently reported his acknowledgment to her that his actions had been inappropriate. Although the incident was not recent, most previous public references to it had been in suburban media and as Mr Lake was now a Federal election candidate it was reasonable to present the information more broadly.
Accordingly, the Council has decided that, in general, the complaints about reporting of Mr Lake’s behaviour towards Ms Magee did not constitute a breach of its Principle relating to fairness and are not upheld.
Allegations of stalking
Mr Lake complained the allegation of “stalking” another councillor unfairly failed to mention the claim was specifically rejected by a magistrate, especially as the rejection was brought to the journalist’s attention. The publication responded that the word “stalking” had been used by the councillor in question, and his complaint had been withdrawn only when Mr Lake agreed to apologise for any distress caused to him.
The Council considers that the publication unfairly failed to mention the magistrate’s rejection of the stalking allegation. Accordingly, these aspects of the complaints are upheld on the grounds of inaccuracy and unfairness.
Mr Lake said it was unfair to allege unlawful use of printing entitlements without giving him a prior opportunity to deny it. He added it was inaccurate and unfair to report that he resigned as a candidate after the ALP was told of this allegation. In fact, he had already been dis-endorsed by that time. The publication said Mr Lake was given an opportunity to respond about the printing entitlements issue in a later article published on 12 August. However, it acknowledged the allegation about resignation was incorrect.
The Council agrees with Mr Lake that the incorrect report of his resignation in the second article unfairly conveyed an impression that by doing so he had acknowledged fault. Accordingly, this complaint is upheld.
Note (not required for publication):
In addition to the matters outlined above, Mr Lake complained about a reference in the first article to another incident involving Ms Magee, but the Council has not upheld that aspect of the complaint because Mr Lake’s rejection of her claims was clearly recorded in the article by way of quotes from him.
Mr Lake also complained the publication included information he provided to it “off the record”. The publication rejected this assertion. The Council decided there was insufficient evidence to decide whether comments made “off the record” had been included, noting that Mr Lake’s email describing information as “background” was not sufficiently clear for that purpose. Accordingly, this complaint is not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”; 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.”