The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by a front page article published in The Daily Telegraph on 1 April 2017, headed “SECRET LIVES OF BRUTAL KILLERS - Mental health justice system puts monsters on the streets". The full report headed “KILLERS AND RAPISTS ARE BEING FREED IN SECRECY” was on pages six and seven. The article was also published online on 31 March 2017, headed “Mental Act review demand: Telegraph calls for changes to law that allows details suppression”.
The article began: “HUNDREDS of the state’s most vile and vicious criminals are being secretly protected by the state with their fate and whereabouts unknown. Under secretive laws designed to protect criminals deemed to be mentally ill—many of them killers and rapists—all details about their treatment and incarceration are suppressed, including the identity of their victims”. It commented on decisions made by the Mental Health Review Tribunal to release into the community some of the 460 forensic patients for which it is responsible. It provided what was described as “sickening examples” of the acts committed by those deemed to be mentally ill.
Following a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether its reporting complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice—particularly in referring to “hundreds” of forensic patients who had committed the acts alleged but were not convicted of a crime due to mental illness, as “criminals” and whose whereabouts were “unknown”.
The publication said the article concerned patients who have killed and raped adults and sexually assaulted children, and in each person’s trial, the jury found that the person committed the act they were charged with, but of which they were found to be not guilty by reason of mental illness. The publication said that the verdict of not guilty by reason of mental illness does not mean the person is innocent; it simply means that the person did not meet the justice system’s threshold for a conviction.
It said the information available to the publication before the article appeared was that there were more than 100 such people who had been found to have committed serious crimes but released into the community. It said the Mental Health Tribunal’s Annual Report for 2016–17, which was issued after the article appeared, reported that there were 149 such persons. It said that this number met the dictionary definition of “hundreds”.
The publication also said it was appropriate to say that their whereabouts were unknown because legislation prohibits release of information about whether a person has been released and what suburb they live in on release. Also, some patients can be released without any supervision or with supervision that does not involve monitoring their whereabouts.
The publication pointed out that in an editorial in the same edition it noted that mental illness is in no way synonymous with violent tendencies.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure published material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1), presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3) and if the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or not reasonably fair and balanced, to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The article reported on concerns about the treatment of people whose actions would have constituted a criminal offence if not for the defence of mental illness, and who were released into the community. The Council notes such persons were found to have committed the act alleged but were found not guilty. While the Mental Health Review Tribunal would have been aware of a range of information about such persons, the Council notes that they were released into the community and their release was not made public by the Tribunal at the time. Accordingly the Council considers that in describing them as criminals whose whereabouts were unknown, the publication took reasonable steps to ensure the material published was accurate and not misleading, and reasonably fair and balanced.
The Council notes that the Mental Health Tribunal’s Annual Report for 2016–17, which was issued after the article appeared, reported that there were 149 such forensic patients released into the community. The Council considers that referring to “hundreds” was an accurate description, not misleading and reasonably fair and balanced.
Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication did not breach General Principles 1 or 3. Given its conclusions regarding General Principles 1 and 3, the publication also did not breach General Principles 2 and 4.
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.