The Press Council considered a complaint from Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia (SSAA) about an article published in the Herald Sun on 20 June 2017, headed “Gun trolls target charity: Members distraught” in print and online the previous evening, headed “Gun lobby trolls trying to shut down Alannah & Madeline Foundation [AMF] over anti-firearm stance”.
The first paragraph of the article reported that the AMF “has had to offer counselling support for staff distressed by ‘aggressive’ trolling from the firearms lobby”. The remainder of the article comprised statements attributed to the Chief Executive of the AMF who said that “gun-lobby bullies have tried to ‘intimidate, shout down and abuse’ the foundation”, that it was “a tactic the (US gun lobby group) NRA does all the time” and that each time someone made a positive comment on its social pages about its work, “the gun lobby piles on to them and abuses them”. The article also included comments by the Chief Executive saying that “the gun industry worked to increase demand by telling disenfranchised men they were being victimised if their right to own better weapons was denied”, and that this “is what the gun lobby tells them, that if they had these guns, they wouldn’t feel disempowered anymore”.
The complainant said the article’s sweeping references to “the gun lobby”, “firearms lobby” and “gun industry” misleadingly and unfairly implicated individuals and organisations that promote the sensible and lawful use of firearms. The complainant said the sweeping terms of the article imply its involvement in or encouragement of the alleged behaviour despite the fact that it condemns the conduct of trolls. The complainant also said the article implies that it and other reputable organisations that are part of the “gun industry” campaign to recruit “disenfranchised young men as gun owners”.
The complainant said it was the state’s largest gun industry body but no balancing comment was sought from it or from any other body that is part of the gun industry such as retailers, suppliers and member organisations. It said that members of the gun industry were given no opportunity to respond to the article’s implication that they were involved in the online “trolling” and that they campaign to recruit “disenfranchised young men as gun owners”.
In response, the publication said the article did not name the complainant or state that it was involved in any of the activities reported on in the article. It said the use of the word “lobby” referred only to a group of like-minded people seeking to lobby for an outcome. The publication said the clear implication from the interview given by the AMF’s chief executive was that those involved in the abuse were fringe elements of the gun industry.
The publication said that given the article did not identify any single group—including the complainant—and that the online abuse was perpetrated by anonymous individuals using social media accounts, it did not require balancing comment from the complainant or any other responsible group within the gun industry.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or refers adversely to a person, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council considers that the article claims that there was “aggressive trolling” from the firearms industry and drew no distinction between reputable orgainstions in the firearms industry and online trolls, and that the criticism in the article applied to all parts of the industry. Accordingly, the Council considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid the misleading implication that reputable members of the firearms lobby may have been involved in the abuse.
The Council also considers that the article implicates reputable organisations within the “gun lobby”, “firearms lobby” and “gun industry” as being involved in the online abuse of AMF staff and appealing to “disenfranchised young men”. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 1. As the misleading aspects of the article were not addressed by a correction or other adequate remedial action, the publication breached General Principle 2.
The Council also considers that the failure to seek a response or comment from any organisation or body in the gun lobby, firearms lobby or the gun industry amounted to a failure to take reasonable steps to ensure the article was presented with reasonable fairness and balance. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 3.
As the complainant did not seek the publication of a reply in response to the article, the Council concludes that the publication did not breach General Principle 4.
A complaint was made that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure an alleged conflict of interest was avoided or adequately disclosed, but this complaint was not pursued.
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.