The Press Council considered a complaint about material published as a letter to the editor in the Inner West Courier in print on 29 November 2016, headed “Apartment problems”.
An earlier article in the publication concerning development in the inner west of Sydney concluded: “Have you been affected by development in your area?” followed by the journalist’s email address.
The complainant said a week later her mother emailed the journalist, noting that a developer was to release a final plan that day and drawing the journalist’s attention to a report. The journalist responded five days later with a request for an opinion on a particular issue. Three days later the complainant’s mother responded to the journalist, referring to the developer’s final plan, noting possible effects of the plan on the complainant’s home, and expressing concerns about her grandchildren’s ready access to a high school, including identifying the primary school they currently attended. The publication then published the material in this email as a letter to the editor.
The complainant said that when her mother first became aware of this, her mother emailed the publication objecting to its publication. The complainant herself telephoned the publication but said she did not receive a helpful hearing. She then emailed the publication seeking removal of the letter from the digital print version within two hours, but this was not done until the next day. The complainant said it is still possible to access the full text of the letter, despite its first appearing as “suppressed for editorial and/or legal reasons”.
The complainant said the email was published as a letter to the editor without permission or notice, with her mother’s first and last name. She said the email was not set out as a letter to the editor, not addressed to the editor, and did not meet the publication’s requirement for letters to the editor to include a full address and telephone number. The complainant said it is not fair or reasonable to expect members of the general public to mark everything ‘not for publication’ unless there is a reasonable expectation that the material might be published.
The complainant said there was intense observation and activity in her area by developers and, given the letter’s details about her family’s distinctive surname and the development area, enough information was published to allow her family to be identified and receive unwanted attention from developers, real estate agents, and others interested in development activities. The complainant also expressed concern that the letter identified her children’s primary school and enabled identification of her children.
The publication said the email was sent to the journalist in response to an open invitation for information from those affected by development. The publication said the email sent to the journalist was not marked ‘not for publication’, ‘just for background’ or ‘private and confidential’ and no ‘off the record’ agreement was made. It said the complainant’s mother voluntarily wrote to someone she knew to be a journalist in response to a request for comment. The email was from a person writing about her daughter and grandchildren, who did not raise concerns regarding sensitivities about the information being shared. As such, the journalist conveyed the content of the email to the editor as a letter for publication and it was published in good faith, with the editor believing at the time that it was a genuine letter to the editor.
The publication said its initial telephone contact with the complainant was not ideally handled though this may have related to the way the issue was raised (as a potential legal matter). The publication said once the editor became aware of the matter, it then addressed the issue immediately, apologised to the complainant, and took immediate steps to remove the letter from the publication’s digital edition. The publication conceded that the full text remained accessible if the otherwise suppressed article was clicked on, however, it undertook to continue its efforts to remove all access to the letter and subsequently did so. The publication said it had now put in place a system of checks to ensure those responding to calls for information were comfortable having their contribution published, so that a similar situation would not occur again.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy (General Principle 5), causing or contributing materially to substantial distress or risk to health or safety (General Principle 6), or publishing material gathered by unfair means (General Principle 7)—unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The Council considers that there was a reasonable expectation that personal and identifying information in the email relating to the complainant, her mother, and her children, would not be published without the complainant’s mother’s prior approval. The publication could have checked with the complainant’s mother that the email was submitted as a letter to the editor for publication but did not do so. The Council considers there was no public interest in publishing the personal and identifying information. The Council concludes that the publication did not take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on the complainant’s reasonable expectations of privacy, and that such intrusion was not justified by any public interest. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 5.
While the Council accepts the complainant’s undoubted feelings of distress arising from publication of the letter, the Council notes the complainant was already, in common with other residents, the subject of unwanted attention from developers and real estate agents. The publication acted to remove the letter, and the Council notes that the undertaking given to the Council during the complaint process to complete that process was eventually fulfilled. The Council is satisfied the publication took reasonable steps to avoid substantial distress and accordingly, the publication did not breach General Principle 6.
Although the publication could have contacted the complainant’s mother before publication, the Council accepts that the email was published under a genuine belief that it was submitted for publication in response to an invitation for comment. Accordingly, the Council concludes the publication took reasonable steps to avoid publishing material gathered by deceptive or unfair means and as such, General Principle 7 was
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
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.
7. Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.