The Press Council considered a complaint about an article published in The Daily Telegraph online on 28 February 2019, headed “Young men ‘at risk’ from new university policies for adjudicating rape”.
The article reported that universities were introducing regulations to adjudicate rape allegations on campus. It reported that social commentator Bettina Arndt said that an Australian Human Rights Commission survey “shows that 0.8 per cent of students surveyed said they’d had some sort of sexual incident; which Ms Arndt says means that 99.2 per cent of students have not experienced sexual assault.”
The Council received a complaint noting that the AHRC Survey referred to in the article said that “Around half of all university students (51%) were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016, and 6.9% of students were sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016. A significant proportion of the sexual harassment experienced by students in 2015 and 2016 occurred in university settings.” It also said that “1.6% of students were sexually assaulted in a university setting, including travel to and from university on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016.”
The Council, in noting the statements in the AHRC survey, asked the publication to comment on whether reasonable steps were taken to ensure that the article was accurate and not misleading, presented factual material with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers expressions of opinion were not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
The publication said the survey result that “6.9% of students were sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016” refers to sexual assault of students in any setting. This would include for example a student from a regional city who was assaulted by someone in visiting their hometown and should not be regarded as “campus rape”. The publication also said that the reference in the report to sexual harassment is a very different issue from the serious criminal offence of sexual assault. The publication said most sexual harassment referred to in the survey is unwanted staring, jokes or comments and most recipients do not feel it was significant enough to report. The writer’s concern was the campaign about campus rape and harassment was not relevant to that. The publication said that the figure of 1.6% provided by AHRC was for a two-year period 2015-16, which equates to an average annual figure of 0.8%. This figure includes sexual assault “during travel to and from university”, meaning that it could involve a stranger on the train.
The publication also noted that the writer had a professor of statistics and numerous other experts check her interpretation of the AHRC survey results and was confident she was correct.
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 and opinions not be based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts (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 notes that the article is a discussion of the opinions of Ms Arndt and her criticisms of the proposed policies of the universities, and in particular covers Ms Arndt’s opinion on the appropriate interpretation of the AHRC survey and what it shows.
The Council notes the AHRC survey does clearly distinguish between assault and harassment. However, given the context of the article and the clear contrast between “incident” and “sexual assault” in the summary of Ms Arndt’s opinion, the Council considers that reasonable steps were taken to ensure accuracy and fairness and balance. The Council also considers that reasonable steps were taken to ensure the writer’s opinions were not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts. As General Principles 1 and 3 were complied with, there was no breach of General Principles 2 and 4.
Accordingly, the Council considers that the publication complied with its General Principles.
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.