The Press Council considered a complaint by Margaret Masters about two articles in The Sunday Times headed "Swan Homes hired killer" on 13 September 2015 and "Church calls cops over Swan Homes" on 20 September. The articles were also published online by PerthNow with different headlines. The articles reported on allegations by former child residents of the Swan Homes orphanage of abuse by a former house master, Leonard Darcey, and Mrs Master’s father, children’s home director Angus Peterkin.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principles 1 and 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading or not reasonably fair and balanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
Mrs Masters complained that statements about her father in the articles were inaccurate and misleading and not presented with reasonable fairness and balance. She said the statement in the first article that “the Anglican Archdiocese… confirmed at least four children were abused…” was inaccurate and misleading because the Archdiocese’s 4 September statement acknowledged receiving four complaints and compensating three but did not confirm that abuse had occurred.
Mrs Masters said statements in the first article that two brothers “were physically and sexually abused by Peterkin and Darcey” and in the second article, that Mr Peterkin and Mr Darcey had “physically and sexually abused boys in the 1950s”, reported allegations of physical and sexual abuse against her father as fact. She said no such claims had been made previously nor had they been established as fact.
Mrs Masters said the statement in the first article that Mr Darcey “served 22 months before he was released and employed at the orphanage after receiving favourable character evidence from Angus Peterkin”, implied that her father had facilitated Mr Darcey’s release to employ him when in fact the evidence was given earlier at his trial.
Mrs Masters also said the publication had not contacted her or other members of her family prior to publishing to provide balancing comments and it had not published any of the subsequent letters by former residents containing positive comments about her father.
The publication said the articles were based on the recollections of seven former residents which included allegations of sexual and physical abuse by Mr Peterkin, that it reported the experiences of the two brothers on the basis of compelling and believable first-hand accounts, and also took into account the statement made by the Anglican Archdiocese of Perth confirming it had assessed four cases of abuse. The publication said that on considering the complaint from Mrs Masters it had changed the online article to refer to confirmation of complaints instead of confirmation of abuse.
The publication said it was a fact that Mr Peterkin gave favourable character evidence for Mr Darcey and that after his release he was employed by Mr Peterkin at Swan Homes, and there was no other implication in what was reported.
The publication said the journalist had made several unsuccessful attempts to locate and contact Mr Peterkin’s family members prior to publication and the journalist’s email address was contained in the online stories in a further effort to make contact.
The publication said it chose not to publish the letters it received as these were not specific to the abuse allegations raised in the articles, and it offered to incorporate the family’s views and recollections of their father in a follow-up article or letter to the editor and to include Mrs Master’s comments in any future articles.
The Press Council considers the Archdiocese’s statement acknowledged only that “[f]our complaints have been made… and three of these persons have accessed the pastoral care and support scheme of the Diocese which includes counselling, pastoral care, an apology and financial redress”. The Council does not consider that this is a definitive finding that abuse had occurred, nor that it provided a factual basis for reporting four former residents had been abused.
The Press Council also considers the first article reported the allegations of physical and sexual abuse by Mr Peterkin as a fact. Given the serious nature of the allegations, in the absence of a conviction or further proof, reasonable steps to ensure accuracy required that the allegations be qualified by use of a word such as “alleged”.
As to the report that Mr Darcey was released from gaol early “after receiving favourable character evidence” from Mr Peterkin, Council concludes Mr Peterkin provided evidence in mitigation at Mr Darcey’s trial before he was sentenced, and that on his subsequent release from gaol he was employed at Swan Homes. The sequence of these facts as set out in the first article misleadingly suggests that the giving of the favourable character evidence caused his early release from gaol.
As a result, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the articles were accurate and not misleading, in breach of General Principle 1. Accordingly, these aspects of the complaint are upheld.
The Council accepts the publication made attempts to contact Mr Peterkin’s family prior to the first article and that the family had elected not to contact it between the first and second articles. However, the publication received correspondence from ex-residents of Swan Homes responding to the first article that, contrary to the allegations of abuse, contained positive recollections. The Council considers that in not publishing any of this correspondence the publication failed to take reasonable steps to present the material with fairness and balance in breach of General Principle 3. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is also upheld.
The Council acknowledges the publication’s steps to subsequently correct the articles, and its offer to publish a follow-up article or letter or include comments by the family in subsequent articles. The Council considers the publication took reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action and a right of reply. Accordingly, it complied with General Principles 2 and 4 and these aspects of the complaint are not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.”
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.”