The Press Council considered a complaint by Rita Timbery-Curtin, great-granddaughter of La Perouse Aboriginal figure Emma Timbery, also known as “Queen Emma”, about two articles published on 16 February 2016 in the Southern Courier. The first article was headed “IT STARTS HERE” on page 1, which continued on page 11 headed “Gravesite oversight”, published next to a second article headed “COMMENT: Time we stood up”. On the cover, and in both the articles on page 11, the publication stated that Emma Timbery still remains in an unmarked grave 100 years after her death. The material was also published online.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principles 1 and 3), if inaccurate or unfair, to provide adequate remedial action or a balancing response (General Principles 2 and 4), and to avoid contributing to substantial offence or distress, unless justified in the public interest (General Principle 6).
Ms Timbery-Curtin said the articles inaccurately stated that her great-grandmother remained in an “unmarked grave”. She said a tombstone with Emma Timbery’s name and other details had marked her grave since 2013 and this was something the publication could easily have checked by visiting the gravesite or asking a family member. She said the articles were prominent and widely read in her community and inaccurately suggested her family and community did not care about honouring her legacy, which caused substantial distress.
The complainant acknowledged the publication subsequently removed the online material, but said considering the prominence of the printed version and the distress caused, this was not sufficient redress. She said after she complained the editor telephoned her, apologised and placed an “Editor’s Note” in the following edition, but this did not contain any reference to a correction or clarification, nor was any apology published.
The publication said the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Part Trust, where the grave is located, had informed it the grave was unmarked. In a meeting with the Trust in November 2015, the publication discussed advice from former Trust staff that Emma Timbery was in an unmarked grave and that the Trust was working with the local community to have a headstone installed. The publication said it checked again with the Trust prior to publication and was told the grave still had no headstone.
The publication said it had previously spoken with the members of the family in 2012 when the headstone issue had first arisen, and the subsequent conversations with the Trust led the publication to believe the grave was still unmarked. The publication said prior to publication it contacted La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, but was unable to reach the contact it recommended. The publication had not conducted its own site check prior to publication.
The publication said the articles were not intended to criticise or imply that descendants or the La Perouse Aboriginal community did not care about Emma Timbery’s legacy. Rather, with the centenary of her death approaching, the newspaper wanted to ensure her legacy was honoured appropriately.
The publication said when the error was recognised on the day of publication, it amended the online material, removed it the following morning and took steps to remove the material from aggregator sites. It then conducted telephone discussions with the complainant’s niece and the editor apologised personally to the complainant and the family. The editor also offered to rectify the error by inviting the family to contribute to a follow-up story to appear among a package of articles commemorating Emma Timbery and, in an attempt to achieve this, visited community members.
The publication said it did not secure the family’s cooperation in an interview and instead relied on alternative sources, including the local mayor and relatives of another figure from the La Perouse Aboriginal community, who cooperated for some articles published in the following edition. The publication said these provided the context for the Editor’s Note in that edition, which noted the previous report about the grave was incorrect and expressed regret. The publication said it remained prepared to write a personal apology to the complainant, to work with the family on a follow-up article and to publish a second correction in a more prominent location if the family were amenable to this as a way of resolving the issue. During the Council’s complaint process the publication published a “Correction” on page 7 in a later edition which included an apology.
The Council considers the articles inaccurately stated that Emma Timbery’s grave was unmarked. As the discussions with the Trust took place months before publication, the Council considers the publication had sufficient time to conduct its own site inspection or otherwise check the accuracy of the assertion, and there was no urgency to publish without doing so. The Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy in breach of General Principles 1 and 3. Accordingly, these aspects of the complaint are upheld.
The Council considers that the factual inaccuracy was not adequately addressed by the Editor’s Note because it was not headed “Correction” and lacked due prominence. Given the nature of the inaccuracy, a published apology would have been appropriate. The later Correction included an apology but the Council considers it was provided late and also lacked due prominence. The Council concludes the publication failed to take reasonable steps to provide an adequate remedy, in breach of General Principle 2. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
The publication made a number of attempts after publication to provide an opportunity for the family to reply to the articles. The Council considers it took reasonable steps to provide a fair opportunity for a reply in accordance with General Principle 4. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
The Council also considers that given the nature, prominence and repetition of the error, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence and distress to the family and others in the community. The Council concludes the publication breached General Principle 6, and this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
Relevant Council Standards:
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.
6. 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.