The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by a front-page photograph in The Weekend Australian on 19-20 July 2014 of part of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17. The colour image was about 9x10cm in size, in the bottom left-hand corner of the page, and accompanied by an article headed “Brackets, seats and bodies… it’s 100 per cent civilian”.
In the foreground of the image were two or three clothed figures, one of which was apparently female and lying on her side with an elbow raised in the air. Another figure appeared to be partially covered by plane wreckage, but the nature and colour of their clothing was distinct.
After receiving a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether publishing the image in this manner breached the Standards of Practice about privacy and the sensibilities of individuals, especially those who may have had connections with victims of the crash. It also asked whether the image could reasonably have been expected to cause greater offence than was justified by any countervailing benefits in the broader public interest.
The publication said the image was confronting but conveyed the truth of a tragic event which was a “horror”, and of significant public interest with far-reaching political consequences. It emphasised the significance of the fact that a substantial number of Australians died in the crash.
The publication said the decision to publish the image was made after careful consideration by its senior staff. It said the image was much less graphic than many that were widely available, some of which had been published in print and online around the world. It also said the image had been cropped to ensure particular bodies were not identifiable, and had been deliberately placed “below the fold” of the page in order to reduce the likelihood of being seen by incidental readers or passers-by. On the following day an editorial explained its reasons for publishing the image, and they were also explained in a letter to people who had complained directly to the publication.
The Council considers that the graphic depiction of bodies was confronting. It was likely to cause substantial offence and distress to a significant number of people, especially as the full impact of the tragedy was still unfolding and many of the victims were Australian.
The Council considers that the nature and scale of the disaster, including the death of many Australians and the controversy about its cause, provided a very strong justification in the public interest for powerfully conveying the tragic consequences. It was also important, however, to avoid causing undue distress and especially to avoid the risk of victims’ relatives or friends being able to identify the bodies.
The Council notes the steps taken by the publication to reduce these risks. It also notes, however, that the risks could have been further reduced by placing the image on an inside page or pixilating parts of the image which might enable identification of victims or unduly exacerbate distress in some other way. These kinds of steps were taken by a number of other publications.
On balance, however, the Council does not consider that a clear breach of its Standards of Practice has occurred. This is due mainly to the steps taken by the publication to reduce the risk of severe offence or breaches of privacy; the scale of the tragedy; the undoubted public importance of its alleged causes and implications; and the number of Australian victims. Where such factors do not apply, publishing images of this kind in this manner may well breach the Council’s Standards, especially if there is a significant risk of bodies being identifiable by some readers.
Note (not required for publication):
The image also appeared in the online version of the publication but it was not put on the homepage and therefore was not as likely to be seen unwittingly by readers or passers-by. The Council considers that there should have been a warning on the homepage link but, as with the print version, it considers that in the particular circumstances of this case there was no clear breach of the Standards of Practice.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council that were applicable at the time the article was published:
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….”
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.”