The Press Council has considered whether a recent article in the Port Macquarie News breached the Council’s Standards of Practice. The article concerned a trial of a man for an alleged offence against a girl who was a minor at the time. The man pleaded guilty to a charge of indecently assaulting her, but denied the more serious allegation of sexual intercourse.
The article quoted the prosecutor’s words detailing the alleged act of digital penetration. It explained the prosecution argument depended on whether it could be established beyond reasonable doubt that the man acted as described (which would amount to the offence of sexual intercourse) or whether he touched the girl outside her genitals. It also reported the prosecutor’s quotation from a bugged telephone conversation between them which referred in colloquial detail to what the man had allegedly done. The article included two other detailed references to the alleged penetration.
The Council’s relevant General Principle states that publications have a wide discretion in publishing material but should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material could reasonably be expected to cause offence.
The publication said to the Council it was in the public interest to warn readers about the kind of behaviour in question and to assist in providing justice. It acknowledged the detailed descriptions of his alleged actions were graphic and therefore were deliberately placed on page five rather than the front page. But they were crucial to understand the dispute at the heart of the case and that the allegation of “sexual intercourse” did not have the meaning in this case which most readers might give it. However, it also told the Council that after receiving complaints it now believed the article was perhaps too graphic in some respects.
The Council recognises the publication’s reasons and the thought given to the matter before publication. However, the Council considers the frequency of reference to details of the digital penetration was more than necessary to achieve the publication’s understandable aims and was very likely to disturb many of the publication’s readers. In particular, the relevant quote from the telephone call could have been omitted or paraphrased, especially as the significance of the graphic word in it was debatable. The age of the girl added to the Council’s concerns.
Accordingly, the complaint is upheld on these grounds. The Council welcomes, however, the publication’s constructive engagement with it and the editor’s intention to ensure his staff become fully aware of this adjudication.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies General Principle 7: “Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence.”