The Press Council has considered a complaint by Kylie Keel about material on The Moorabool News Facebook page relating to a collision between a car and a tree on 9 October 2014. The driver, who was the only occupant, later died in hospital.
Ms Keel is a member of the driver’s family. She said the images of the accident scene and some readers’ comments on the page caused great offence to the family and breached its privacy. She said some images, including of responders kneeling over what might have been the driver’s body, were posted within about 30 minutes of the collision when most of the family had not been informed.
Ms Keel also complained about some offensive and distressing comments by readers on the page. These included: “20 year old kid… deserves what he got not the poor old tree”, “thankfully the idiot travelling at 150km per hour is not on our roads tonight”, and “he did it deliberately”. She said the publication refused family members’ requests to remove these comments, even though it had removed one comment that included a coarse word, and another about a member of the editor’s family.
The publication said the incident was of significant public interest because the local community was greatly concerned about the high rate of serious accidents on the highway in question. It said the images were also justified to graphically emphasise the possible consequences of unsafe driving.
The publication said the limited control provided to people who set up a Facebook page meant it was a contributor to the page, not a publisher. It said readers’ comments on Facebook were very difficult for such a small publication to monitor. It said users of social media choose what to contribute or see, and in some ways the medium was “self-adjudicating”. It pointed out that several comments were sympathetic to the family and some directly criticised disparaging comments about the driver.
The publication said police at the scene told it the driver’s father had been informed. It also said that it could not reasonably wait until it knew all members had been formally advised of the collision, especially as the family in this case was extensive and complex. However, it said it did not name the driver or show images that would enable the car to be identified as belonging to him, and it had withheld other information about the driver and collision that might have invaded privacy or caused offence or distress.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require reasonable steps to avoid publishing material that could reasonably be expected to cause or contribute to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or risks to public health or safety, unless it is sufficiently justifiable to do so in the public interest. They also require reasonable steps to avoid intruding on reasonable expectations of privacy, again subject to the public interest exemption.
In relation to the publication of images, the Council appreciates they would have been distressing to family members in particular. But it considers they were not so graphic – especially as they did not show the driver – that they overrode the public interest justification of trying to deter dangerous driving in an area where it is common. Also, taking account of the relative lack of identifying features in the images, the police statement about the father’s knowledge and the complexity of the family in question, the Council does not consider the images were published so rapidly as to breach its Standards. Accordingly, those aspects of the complaint are not upheld.
In relation to the readers’ comments, the Council emphasises that its Standards of Practice apply to its members’ Facebook and other social media platforms, not only to their print and other online publications. If a publication establishes a Facebook page, it is a publisher of that page even if Facebook may also be regarded as a publisher. Accordingly, it must take reasonable steps to monitor readers’ comments and delete them if they breach the Council’s Standards, especially if particular material is reasonably likely to lead to readers’ comments that constitute a breach.
In this case, the publication noticed and deleted some comments, but not those that the driver’s family understandably found to be very offensive. Indeed, it did not delete them even when asked to do so by the family. The fact that by then the report and comments may already have been read widely does not justify failing to delete them. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
“Publications must take reasonable steps to...
Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest;
Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest."