The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article in the Townsville Bulletin on 22 February 2014 headed "BRINGING HOME THE BACON".
The article reported a man’s guilty plea on the previous day to various counts of theft from large retail outlets and to minor drug charges. Each of the thefts involved attempts to conceal the merchandise down the front of his pants. On one occasion this consisted of three 3kg packets of bacon.
Under the main heading there was a smaller one reading: “Pigs fly as thief stuffs the full hog down his pants undiebelly style”. A heading at the end of the article read “...AND THAT’S NO PORKIES”, and a large photograph of the man was captioned “JOCKS TRAP: [name of man] leaves the court yesterday”. At the end of the article it was reported that the man’s solicitor told the court he was on daily medication for schizophrenia, and while in prison had been “assaulted so severely that his spleen had to be permanently removed”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article might have breached its Standards of Practice, requiring that reasonable steps are taken to ensure fairness and that headlines and captions fairly reflect the tenor of an article.
The publication said the man had pleaded guilty to all the offences, was a repeat offender and was well-known locally. It said retailers and the local community were greatly concerned about thefts and other law and order issues. It said the pig puns were “creative” but the circumstances of the case were extremely unusual, and they did not unfairly ridicule the man.
The publication also said the man’s schizophrenia was mentioned briefly on only one occasion during the court proceedings and no claim was made that his condition had contributed to the crimes. It said the prison assault on the man was unfortunate but did not outweigh the public interest in reporting on the crimes.
The Council considers the unusual nature of the man’s attempts to conceal the merchandise, and the solicitor’s reference to his schizophrenia, should have alerted the publication to the need for some sensitivity in covering the issue. However, it was also relevant that no particular emphasis was given to his condition at the hearing.
Accordingly, the Council considers that the publication should have exercised more sensitivity in the headings but, on balance, the failure to do so was not so serious as to constitute a breach of the Standards of Practice.
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 6: “Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article and readers should be advised of any manipulation of images and potential conflicts of interest.”