Australia/Oceania: Australia

Australian Press Council Guidelines for Reporting

Current Status: outdated

There have been a number of reporting guidelines issued (usually in the form of General Press Releases) by the Council which are, in essence, amplifications on particular issues arising from the Statement of Principles. The guidelines apply the Principles to the practice of reporting certain matters. These guidelines are intended to be a series of advisories on the application of the Principles. In July 2001, the Council reviewed these guidelines and reissued some of them in a revised form.AdvertorialsThe Australian Press Council has been asked by the Advertising Standards Council to make a statement on the use of "advertorials". "Advertorials" are defined as stories providing direct support for particular advertisements, conditional on the paid advertising appearing.  

The Press Council believes "advertorials" presented in the guise of news reports are misleading. Readers of a newspaper are entitled to expect that news will be presented in good faith. It is a breach of good faith when news is contrived so that stories appear that are conditional on paid advertising and are an integral part of such advertising. 

Such practices must result in a lowering of public confidence in the integrity and independence of newspapers. They are also an affront to proper standards of journalism. 

The Press Council believes where such advertisements occur, the entire material should be regarded as an advertisement and clearly identified as such, by the use of such labels as Advertisement and Supercar Supplement. 

However, the Council recognises there are many occasions when products or services are the proper subject of news reports. This applies particularly where the products or services are of direct relevance to the publication's readership, such as news about home improvement or gardening products or services in publications directed to readers interested in these subjects.

The Council also believes there are legitimate regular features and supplements which attract related advertising content. Such features, sections and supplements should, to avoid any possible confusion, be labelled with such words as Computer Supplement, Motoring Section, Real Estate News.

The dividing line is crossed where direct editorial support for a specific product or service is provided conditional upon paid advertising space. The Council believes that readers are entitled to expect on all occasions that journalists are free to write objectively without pressure or influence because of advertising considerations. 

Ambit Claims

The Western Australian Director of the Australian Trade Union Training Authority has asked the Australian Press Council to define for the general information of the press its attitude to the reporting, often in derisory terms, of the making of ambit claims in the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. 

The function of a union claim for wages and conditions is not generally understood. An award in the federal sphere cannot be obtained unless there exists an industrial dispute extending beyond the limits of any one State. It is established that a "paper" dispute will suffice, that is to say a dispute created by the serving of a log of claims by a union and its non-acceptance by the employers upon whom it is served. It is also established that an award cannot be made, nor can it be varied, save in final or temporary settlement, and therefore, within the ambit, of the dispute which has been proved as the foundation of jurisdiction. Consequently, the practice has grown up for a union which looks ahead, beyond the award it hopes for initially to the advantage of being able to seek future variations without going through the formalities of creating a new dispute, to make the claims in its initial log so wide as to give scope for all foreseeable, or perhaps unforeseeable, applications for variation; and the result is that logs of claims are frequently expressed as seeking much higher wages and much more favourable conditions of work than the union has any intention of seeking immediately. A log of this kind is known as an ambit log because it sets the ambit within which future variations may be sought. Sometimes, though not always, the product is a log of what appear at the time quite extravagant claims, and in extreme cases their extravagance may fairly be regarded as ludicrous. 

The difficulty a union is in is that if it sets its sights too low it may be faced with the necessity on a future occasion, when circumstances may be very different, of having to go through the costly procedure of creating a new dispute. For example, the Press Council has been informed that for charter pilots, service of a new log would involve a distribution of claims to 2700 employers at a cost exceeding $3000. 

All that the Press Council can do in general terms is to urge the Press to respect the real purpose of ambit claims, and not to hold a union up to ridicule simply because its ambit claims may appear excessive in existing circumstances. 

On the other hand, however, if a union chooses to serve a log which looks absurd, even to a mind which appreciated its real purpose, it must in fairness accept the risk of being ridiculed. 

Ambit Claims - 2

The President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Mr Martin Ferguson, has asked the Australian Press Council to re-issue and widely publicise its statement of 27 July 1978 on press reporting of ambit claims. In that statement, the Council urged the press to respect the real purpose of ambit claims, and not hold a union up to ridicule simply because its ambit claims may appear excessive in existing circumstances. At the same time, the Council observed that where a union chooses to serve a log which looks absurd, even to a mind which appreciated its real purpose, it must in fairness accept the risk of being ridiculed. 

It may well be that the answer to this difficulty lies in a reform of industrial relations law and practice. The pursuit of that reform is a matter for forums other than the Press Council. 

It is worth recalling the background of ambit claims. The function of a union claim for wages and conditions is not generally understood. An award in the federal sphere cannot be obtained unless there exists an industrial dispute extending beyond the limits of any one state. It is established that a "paper" dispute will suffice, that is to say a dispute created by the serving of a log of claims by a union and its non-acceptance by the employers upon whom it is served. Awards can be neither made nor varied otherwise than within the ambit of the dispute. Consequently, the practice has grown up for a union which looks ahead, beyond the award it hopes for initially, to the advantage of being able to seek future variations without going through the formalities of creating a new dispute. Claims in its initial log are therefore made so wide as to give scope for all foreseeable applications for variation. The result is that logs of claims are frequently expressed as seeking much higher wages and much more favourable conditions of work than the union has any intention of seeking immediately. 

The difficulty a union could experience is that if it sets its sights too low it may be faced with the necessity on a future occasion, when circumstances may be very different, of having to go through the costly procedure of creating a new dispute.

It is only fair, therefore, that in reporting ambit claims the press conveys an understanding to readers of the reasons for making those claims. 

Accusations of Bias

Some misconception has arisen as to the implications of a recent decision of the Australian Press Council in a case from Western Australia on the question of political bias in a newspaper. 

Other charges of bias have come before the Council and from the whole of its consideration of the subject the following points may be made:

a newspaper which claims to provide a general news service has full freedom of editorial comment, but it has a public duty to provide fair news reports of matters of public controversy; and 

a newspaper has a right to take sides on any issue, but it does not have the right to resort to distortion or dishonesty to advocate a cause. 

These principles do not exclude a newspaper from being partisan, although they exclude it from presenting a false picture. Within these bounds there is wide scope for the exercise of legitimate editorial judgment. 

To police the exercise of this wide editorial discretion is an impossible task for a supervisory body to undertake. Even to attempt it would require a constant supervision of the performance of a paper. This would be beyond the capacity or intentions of the Press Council. Fairness in relation to the kind and amount of publicity that should be given by a paper to a particular point of view is not a matter that can be measured by column-centimetres or by other objective criterion. While the Press Council may be called on to deal with blatant and specific acts of unfairness in reporting, it believes that attempts to dictate in the field of legitimate editorial discretion would be inimical to the freedom of the press which the Council exists to uphold. 

The Council commends to all editors of general newspapers the scrupulous fairness which has long been an ideal of their calling; but the responsibility of applying it must rest upon them. It is all the heavier because the detailed requirements of fairness, in the present context, cannot be laid down in any formula. 

The Mentally Handicapped

The Australian Press Council stresses the undesirability of the identification in newspapers of persons as mentally handicapped unless such identification is relevant to the matter published. 

The Council's statement follows a request from the Australian Association for the Mentally Retarded. The Association said in a letter to the Council that unnecessary labelling of a person because of his handicap was detrimental to his progress and acceptance in society. 

The Council accepts this point of view and commends it to the press generally. 

Disability - Identification

The Australian Press Council has been asked to issue guidelines on the publishing of the names or otherwise identifying wards of the State or those suffering disability or mental illness impairing their ability to speak for themselves. 

The question was raised by a Victorian child and family organisation and a newspaper following the publishing of the names of two girls who were or had been wards of the State. The publication of the names was, in fact, at the request of some of their relatives; although this identification did not add significantly to the thrust of the report. 

The Press Council believes that normally the identification of young people as mentally disabled or wards of the State is undesirable, but hard and fast rules in such matters are extremely difficult to lay down. 

There may be circumstances which justify the identification of the mentally disabled or wards of the State, but newspapers should consider carefully the reasons for publication and the possible consequences; every consideration should be given to the privacy of the wards themselves, their parents and relatives, and those who look after them. 

Drugs and Drug Addiction

The Press Council supports the efforts being made by governments and other bodies to combat both the supply of, and the demand for illicit drugs. It notes however, that these efforts have so far been only partly successful, and that the toll of addiction continues to rise.

Various authorities periodically urge the Council to advocate limitations on the reporting of drug addiction through, for example, the avoidance of stories that might excite the interest of young people in drug experimentation, including the naming of dangerous drugs. The dilemma for the press in responding to such exhortations is a common one of whether to report the world as it is, or whether to play a deliberate part in influencing social change.

Against this background, the Press Council offers the following broad guidelines for newspapers' consideration when reporting drug-related issues:

  • Responsibly report public debate about drug use and addiction; 
  • The harmful effects of any particular drug should not be exaggerated or minimised; 
  • Avoid detailed accounts of consumption methods, even though many young people are generally familiar with them; 
  • Outlining the chemical composition of a drug may be justified in some reports, but avoid providing any details which could assist its manufacture; 
  • Do not quote the lethal dose of any particular drug; 
  • Guard against any reporting which might encourage readers' experimentation with a drug, for example highlighting the 'glamour' of the dangers involved; 
  • Highlight elements of a story which convey the message that preventive measures against drug abuse do exist, and that people can be protected from the harmful consequences of their addictive behaviours; 
  • Bear in mind the arguments of those who point out that tobacco and alcohol use and addiction are another major aspect of the drug story.

Government Order to Publish

The Australian Press Council has received a request for its views on any attempt by a government in Australia to order the press to publish any matter. 

This Council affirms that no government in Australia can order that newspapers publish any information, either by way of advertisements or through news columns. It would oppose strenuously any change in this position. 

Any government may, of course, place advertisements or release news to papers, seeking to convey information to the public. Newspapers in either case retain the right of refusal - legal and other constraints cover even governmental material. The council feels that a decision to publish is a matter for the discretion of the editor of the newspaper concerned and that discretion should remain with editors. 

Health Warning

The Australian Press Council has issued the following general guideline for the print media on the ways in which newspapers and magazines should approach the reporting of medical matters, particularly reputed treatments.

The Press Council views with concern inadequately researched reports on health and medical matters appearing in the press and in the media as whole. The dangers of exciting unreasonable fears or hopes are far too great for anything but the most careful treatment. 

The reporter/writer concerned may not be equipped to judge the value or otherwise of the reported treatments, from pills, potions, vaccines, and low-tech things like herbal remedies to high-tech wonders like MRI and dialysis machines. Thus statements on efficacy should be treated with extreme care.

They should always be sourced, even if made by the most eminent authority; on any lesser authority, they should be cross-checked with some other source.

Claims of cures, wonder cures, near-miracles and the like should be clearly identified as just that, claims.

The standing and the disinterest, or lack of it, of those making the claims should be made clear, be they researchers, pharmaceutical companies or just hard-selling snake-oil salesmen. In cases where the writer is qualified to make judgment on the subject being reported, the qualification should be identified for the reader.

Personal experience or anecdotal evidence, too, should be clearly identified as such. The reader clearly has the right to ask: "Who says so?" The reports should provide the answer. 

The Council recognises the undoubted public interest in health and medical matters, and the difficulties faced by the media in these areas.

The Council, of course, makes no pretence of any ability to judge for itself the value of the hundreds, if not thousands, of health-related claims made around the world each year.

Except in the case of learned journals, the media outlets that report them are generally ill-equipped to judge the soundness of reported cures. Claims are just claims, extravagant claims are worse, and the media have a responsibility to consider the impact they may make on vulnerable, sick people. 

Patients with serious illnesses understandably tend to grasp at any straw; the media should not present straws of doubtful value. A conservative, careful approach to health and medical reports is essential.

Opinion Polls

Opinion testing and polls have become an increasingly important source of news stories in all the media. The Press Council has long provided guidelines on such reporting to help both the press and the public get the maximum information from any published poll.

Many papers and magazines do provide the sort of information about poll-taking that the Council advocates, often in the form of a panel alongside the main report. The Council appreciates that tabloid papers and others may find space considerations restricting the amount of background information that can be given, but clearly a bedrock of who conducted the poll among whom is essential. In case of polls with a marked political content, more information is needed.

The public needs to be able to judge properly the value of the poll being reported.

The Press Council believes that reports should as far as possible include the following details:

  • The identity of the sponsor (if any) of the survey. 
  • The exact wording of the question(s) asked. 
  • A definition of the population from which sample was drawn. 
  • The sample size and method of sampling. 
  • Which results were based on only part of the sample: e.g. men or women; adherents of particular political parties; and the base number from which percentages were derived. 
  • Name of the organisation that carried out the survey. 

Additionally, the following information may also be included:

  • How and where the interviews were carried out: in person, in homes, by telephone, by mail, in the street, or whatever. 
  • Date when the interviews were carried out. 
  • Who carried out the poll, e.g. trained interviewers, telephonists, reporters etc. 

When reporting ring-in or internet polls (ie., those where readers are given a number or address to register a vote), it should be made clear that, as the results have been generated by self-selected respondents, and not by proper statistical sampling, they are not necessarily representative of the whole population. In reporting the results of such polls, expressions such as "most people" and "the public" should be avoided if likely to give a misleading opinion that the poll results are representative of public opinion.

Well-organised statistically related polls should clearly be more reliable, and the conclusions drawn likely to be more accurate. The methodology may well need to be explained to convince the readership.

From time to time the question of opinion poll reporting on political outcomes is brought up, with disappointed political advocates calling for some limitation on media reporting at politically sensitive times. The Press Council is firmly against any such limitations; the public has a right to known and a right to speak and comment freely. 

Alteration of Pictures

The Australian Press Council occasionally receives complaints that pictures accompanying news or feature articles have been altered in some way. This practice is not new but changes in technology have made it easier to carry out. These techniques have also made recognition of alterations more difficult. 

The Council believes that a publication that uses a significantly altered picture that purports to illustrate the news (whether it be on the cover or in the body of the publication) should disclose in the picture caption or in a prominent position the fact of that alteration. The form of the disclosure can be left to the editor of the publication to determine but it should be sufficient to bring the fact of the alteration to the notice of readers. If this is done properly, the Council would not normally entertain a complaint about the alteration. 

In adjudicating a complaint (Adjudication No. 679) some years ago, the Council, in ruling on the use of file photographs to illustrate a story, made the comment, "Readers' rights to be informed accurately could be served by greater care in the wording of captions to such photos taken from library files or, at the very least, by a notation, such as 'file photo', to describe their nature more accurately." 

The Council believes a notation of similar wording which accurately describes the significant alteration of a picture or the creation of a montage of different images would normally be sufficient for a newspaper to meet its ethical requirements. 

Politicians restricting newspapers from reasonable access

The Australian Press Council believes that restrictions on the reasonable access of newspapers by those in political and public life are generally not acceptable and can be rarely, if ever, justified. 

The Council has had drawn to its attention in recent times a number of examples where particular newspapers have been barred from reasonable access to politicians, even being banned from general press conferences. Sometimes the ban is quite public; at other times a newspaper alleges that a ban is in place. 

The Council emphasises that freedom of the press to publish is not so much a freedom for journalists, editors and proprietors. It is the freedom of the people to be informed. This is the justification for upholding press freedom as an essential feature of a democratic society. While the Council makes no criticism of exclusive and selective interviews, it believes that a boycott of a particular newspaper can be a sanction against its readers, who could be deprived of information which they are entitled to receive, indeed, entitled to receive at the same time as other citizens. 

Because the likely effect is to restrict or deprive the free flow of information on matters of public interest and importance, such bans give rise to concerns. 

Accordingly, whenever the Council receives complaints about such restrictions on reasonable access, it will use its "good offices" to mediate a solution acceptable to both parties so that the readers of the newspaper continue to be informed. If such a solution is not reached, the matter may be referred to a hearing, after which the Council will come to its own considered opinion and make this public. 

One Nation Newspaper Ban Condemned

The Australian Press Council has condemned the action of Queensland MHR, Pauline Hanson, and the One Nation Party in banning representatives of The Queensland Times, Ipswich, from attending a Party press conference this month. 

Australian Protective Service staff were used to evict a Queensland Times journalist and a photographer from a press conference that Ms Hanson had called on 6 July 1998. The newspaper complained to the Press Council that such action resulted in a serious limitation on the freedom of the press. The Council referred the matter to Ms Hanson for comment and offered to mediate between the parties to endeavour to reach an outcome satisfactory to both parties. 

A representative of Ms Hanson rejected this offer and said that Ms Hanson had made it clear to The Queensland Times on a number of occasions that she no longer wished to speak to them because of perceived bias during the recent Queensland elections. The Council notes that it has not received a complaint to that effect. The newspaper has stated that it is willing to defend its coverage or any particular article in that coverage. 

The Australian Press Council believes that restrictions on the reasonable access of newspapers to those in political and public life are generally not acceptable and can rarely, if ever, be justified. The Council does not believe that it is sufficient justification on Ms Hanson's part that she believes that a particular newspaper has been biased in its reporting. If she calls a press conference she should be prepared for representatives of all shades of opinion to report what she says. To act otherwise means that the public will only obtain their information from newspapers which she perceives will accept her views uncritically. While the Council makes no criticism of exclusive and selective interviews, it holds that a press conference, by its very nature, is open to the media in general and should not be subject to selective bans. 

The Council emphasises that freedom of the press to publish is not so much a freedom for journalists, editors and proprietors. It is the freedom of the people to be informed. This is the justification for upholding press freedom as an essential feature of a democratic society. The Council believes that boycotting a particular newspaper is a sanction against its readers, who are deprived of information which they are entitled to receive at the same time as other citizens. The actions of Ms Hanson deprives readers of The Queensland Times of these rights. 

Reporting of "race"

The Australian Press Council has recently reviewed a number of its reporting guidelines, some of them now decade or more old, and has been re-issuing them in an amended form. General Press Release 245 looked at the reporting of health matters and GPR 246 covered matters such as reporting of suicide, drugs, opinion polls and recall notices.

The attached is intended as a general guideline for the print media on the ways in which newspapers and magazines should approach the reporting of matters related to race, nationality, ethnicity etc.

The Australian Press Council often receives complaints about the reporting of the race, colour, ethnicity and nationality of individuals or groups, and these raise important questions about the responsibility of the press in our multicultural society.

In the broadest terms, the Council has found that the tone and context of such reporting are usually the crucial elements in deciding whether its principles have been breached. 

The Council's principles state: "Publications should not place gratuitous emphasis on the race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness, or age of an individual or group. Nevertheless, where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report or express opinions in these areas".

An obvious case where reference to a person's physical characteristics or ethnic background is relevant, or in the public interest, is when they are part of police descriptions of wanted suspects. Thus is particularly so when the suspects are regarded as violent and dangerous. When a person's physical characteristics or ethnic background are tendered as relevant evidence in court, they are then matters of public record. 

The question of race and ethnicity is a difficult one. In the strict biological sense, "race" is the subject of complex scientific debate and particular care should be taken when describing somebody as being of "mixed race", unless it is reporting direct quotes or self-description. However, there is no doubt that people are often perceived, and perceive themselves to be, members of a race in a broadly cultural sense. Ethnic identity, too, is sometimes difficult to define.

There is also the danger of using the term "race" where no such race exists; there is no 'Jewish race', equally there is no 'British race' nor 'French race'. Another danger is to accept too readily the race labels used by racist groups in hate campaigns; such labels should be examined carefully and critically.

The Council is principally concerned about references to race, colour, ethnicity or nationality which promote negative stereotypes in the community. It acknowledges that the question of stereotypes is not cut and dried, and much depends on the context.

The Council in principle condemns gratuitous use of offensive slang terms for minority groups. However, if someone controversially used such expressions, a publication may well be justified in reporting them in direct quotes. The Council also generally believes that the use of such terms is permissible in opinion articles, when it is to make a serious point, and sometimes in humorous articles and satire. But here again the boundaries are usually determined by tone and context.

The Council also accepts that some international situations are extremely difficult to report or comment on without causing offence to different groups in the community. For example, referring to the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" might offend some readers. But referring to it simply as "Macedonia" might offend others. The Israeli-Palestinian and Northern Ireland conflicts are other obvious examples where deep-rooted passions among readers from various backgrounds are easily inflamed, even by impartial reporting. 

In the Council's view, in general, the press needs to show more sensitivity in reporting issues when minority groups are perceived in the community to be more "different" or when they are the subject of particular public debate.

The Australian Press Council and reader-based lifestyle publications (revised September 2002)

The Australian Press Council has received several complaints about magazines that use material supplied by readers and often ghost-written and published under the readers' name. The complaints came from readers whose stories were published in this way, and who believed that there were inaccuracies or misrepresentations made about their work.

After meeting with the editors of the most successful of these lifestyle publications, the Press Council suggests the following guidelines:

The magazine that runs a story based on written material supplied by a reader should clearly explain what it intends to do with any subsequent article. Often, the material is supplied by filling in relevant facts on a coupon. If so, it would be appropriate for the coupon to state how the material is to be treated and where it is to be placed.

  

The magazine also should seek corroboration of the facts. If anything is contentious about the story, or likely to be libellous, the magazine should seek an affidavit from the reader and independent legal advice.

  

When an article runs under the reader's name, a final draft should be supplied to the reader and its contents checked before publication. 

The Press Council has found that, in most cases, a reader's submitted material is handled by a trained journalist who interviews the reader and writes a story according to the known facts. In such instances, running the article under the reporter's name should overcome most concerns.

Recall of Goods

With fair regularity goods, from cars to toys and medicines, are recalled by manufacturers and retailers. Normally publicity is provided through advertising and editorial matter, often in all the media. 

Care is needed in treating such recalls in news stories, particularly when the subjects of recall are medicines or therapeutical goods. 

The Press Council has suggested these guidelines:

  • Include the full identity of the product (name, strength, batch number, serial number etc). 
  • Give reasons for the recall. 
  • Give a careful explanation of any hazard to the user so as not to raise undue alarm. 
  • Use a pointer to any advertisement concerning the recall (including page number where possible). 
  • Publish an information hotline phone number if available. 

Religious terms in headlines

The Press Council has urged newspapers and magazines to be careful about using in their headlines terms for religious or ethnic groups that could imply that the group as a whole was responsible for the actions of a minority among that group.

Currently, the use of the words "Islam", "Islamic" and "Muslim" in headlines on reports of terrorist attacks is causing problems both for the Muslim community in Australia and the Australian media. It is important for newspapers to identify as clearly as possible the sources of terror; casting the net of suspicion and accusation too widely can be harmful.

The Council is also aware of instances beyond the Australian Muslim community, and the current concern with terrorism, where the use of overly general terms has caused concern for the Indigenous people and the Australian Jewish community, among many others.

The Press Council acknowledges that, in some cases, the linking of words with religious connotations to terrorist groups may be, in the strictest sense, accurate - but it is often unfair. Terrorists may be Muslims, but Muslims are not necessarily terrorists, as some headlines have implied.

The Press Council urges publications to be aware of the sensitivities of groups about whom they are reporting. Headlines are a particular problem, given the need to capture the essence of a story within a limited compass, and require particular care.

In a September 2001 press release, the Council expressed its concern "about references to race, colour, ethnicity or nationality which promote negative stereotypes in the community". Similarly, the Council considers that the use of wide, too-general terms for religious or ethnic groups in headlines could contribute to the promotion of a negative stereotype of that group.

Even, the use of headlines of the style "Muslim terror" and "Islamic bomb attack" would be best avoided as they can be seen to link religious belief and its adherents to deliberate acts of terror. The Muslim community has told the Press Council that it has already experienced the cumulative effect of the frequent use of the religious terms, which has led to increased divisions in Australian society and ostracising of citizens simply because they belong to a recognisable minority. 

The Council appreciates that the problem extends to other religions, and to other groups whose standing may be tarnished by actions emanating from a minority of members, and therefore urges publications to be as narrow and focused as possible in their description of those responsible.

The Council also notes that full reports do not constitute as great a problem as headlines, since more accuracy can be achieved outside the limitations of headline space. However, both aspects of presentation need care.

Selection of newsworthy stories

The Australian Press Council has had before it, from time to time, complaints from various groups and organisations, including political parties, that their press releases were not receiving adequate mention in the columns of a newspaper.

That publicity should be given was urged for a number of reasons, including: 

  • the inherent importance of the issues; 
  • the support, including in the case of political groups electoral support, accorded to the authors of those statements; 
  • the limited media, particularly daily press access available in the given community; and 
  • the Council's own proposition that the freedom of the press is the freedom of the people to be informed. 

The Council is sympathetic to the frustrations of community groups who feel their views are not receiving the coverage they deserve. In a pluralistic society it is important that citizens know of the views and opinions of significant community groups. 

At the same time the Council notes that the daily press is not the only source of information in society. With technological developments, a proliferation of sources is available. 

In addition, the Council is a strong supporter of editorial discretion to determine what, from a proliferation of material, is in fact newsworthy. This discretion, provided it is bona fide, must remain that of the newspapers, and it would be improper for the Council to seek to substitute its views for that of the editor. The Council would only intervene on evidence that the discretion was improperly exercised, for example for political or commercial advantage. The Council cannot of course presume impropriety; it is for those who allege this to show its existence on the balance of probabilities, at least to raise a presumption which would create an obligation on the newspaper to rebut. 

The Council strongly supports the freedom of newspapers as entities freely to determine the selection of news, provided that this is bona fide and in accordance with the principles. 

Where a community group is aggrieved by the exercise of that freedom in a particular case, or series of cases, the Council would expect that the newspaper would treat both seriously and promptly any complaint properly made. 

Reporting of Suicide

The Press Council is in sympathy with attempts by governmental and other bodies to curb the rate of suicide in Australia, particularly amongst young people. It calls upon the press to continue exercising care and responsibility in reporting matters of suicide and mental illness.

The Council notes that relatively little Australian research has been conducted on suicide. Most reviews reported so far are based on overseas experience, but the findings are inconclusive. 

Some researchers claim that an association exists between media portrayal of suicide and actual suicide, and that in some cases the link is causal. Others, on the other hand, suggest that increased reporting of suicide can act as a deterrent to people at risk, and can draw attention to the social problems that may lead to the contemplation of suicide.

The Council believes that most papers are aware of the desirability of treating suicide with restraint, and of avoiding:

  • Adding to the pain of relatives and friends of the deceased; 
  • Any reporting which might encourage copy-cat suicides or self harm; 
  • Unnecessary reference to details of method or place of a suicide: 
  • Language or presentation which trivialises, romanticises, or glorifies suicide, particularly in papers which target a youth readership; 
  • Loose or slang use of terms to describe various forms of mental illness, and the risk of stigmatising vulnerable people that may accompany such labels. 

The Council also strongly commends to editors the suggestion that articles dealing with suicide, when they are deemed necessary, should include reference to the counselling services available to people in emotional distress and to their families, with contact addresses and phone numbers.

The Council recognises there are exceptions where these desirable aims may be outweighed by the pressure of news and public interest. 

Suicides are generally not reported in newspapers, but mass suicides, suicides by public figures, bizarre cases, the continuing debate around voluntary euthanasia, research and statistical analysis, and other aspects of suicide and mental illness are all legitimate matters of public interest and concern.

Precise rules or guidelines, as advocated by some groups, cannot take adequate account of such exceptions. Instead, the Press Council prefers to encourage responsible approaches in the industry to the reporting of suicide and mental illness, and consultation with reputable associations, research centres, counselling services and health authorities when seeking comment for articles on these issues.

Suppression of Names

The attention of the Press Council has recently been drawn to instances involving the suppression of the names of persons involved in court proceedings. 

The Press Council recognises that in any given case there may exist exceptional circumstances where the interests of an individual or a class of individuals may be such that it far outweighs the right of the public to be informed. Without wishing to limit those exceptional circumstances, the Press Council supports the tradition in newspaper circles not to name the victim of a rape in her lifetime. Again, the legislative restrictions on the publication of the names of children involved in lower and family court proceedings, whether as parties or witnesses, would seem to be supported by prevailing community standards. In the view of the Press Council, the interpretation of the present New South Wales law to the effect that it would absolutely forbid the publication of the name of a deceased child, the victim of a notorious crime, would be difficult to justify. The public there would presumably be rightly interested in the trial of any person charged with the commission of that crime.

 

The Council believes that, in the absence of exceptional circumstances, the public has the right to be informed as to the names of persons appearing before the courts, especially in criminal matters. This is, generally speaking, in the interest of the parties as well as the proper administration of justice. In the view of the Council, membership of a particular calling or profession does not in itself constitute an exceptional circumstance which would justify suppression of the name of a person appearing before a court. To accept such a proposition would be tantamount to declaring that such a person belongs to a privileged elite enjoying special rights not generally available to other members of the public. The Press Council must therefore express its serious concern in respect of a submission from a most responsible source to the effect that professional persons in South Australia "appear to have decreasing difficulty in having their names suppressed in lower court hearings". The Press Council is obviously not in a position to test the veracity of this proposition; that it has been made and has also been the subject of public comment in the State constitute sufficient grounds for disquiet. 

The Press Council believes that the powers and procedures concerning the suppression of names in court hearings should be the matter of precise statutory provisions. Where a discretion to suppress exists, there should always be a presumption that publication would be in the public interest. The onus should be on those seeking suppression to show there is an overriding interest which would justify suppression. Moreover, the press, and indeed other media, should have the right to make submissions, and even to appeal, in respect of an application to suppress the publication of a name. The justification for such a role for the press is that it should be seen as a trustee of the public interest in these matters. 

As with other areas of the law touching upon the press and the media generally, the Press Council sees considerable merit in the law on this subject being made uniform throughout Australia. It therefore suggests that the Attorneys-General of the Commonwealth, the States and the Northern Territory could usefully investigate this question. Indeed it might be appropriate that this be the subject of a reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission. 

Finally, the Press Council and its Freedom of the Press committee would welcome submissions on this question, whether of a general nature or, from time to time, on specific instances involving the suppression of names. 

Suppression orders

The Australian Press Council is concerned about an increasing number of instances of decisions being taken by courts in Australia to suppress the names of persons appearing before the court, or certain or even all evidence in a given case. 

As a general principle, all aspects of court proceedings should be available for public dissemination. This is consistent with the important principle of the freedom of the press. This is not a privilege intended to benefit the press as such, but is the freedom of the people themselves to be informed on all matters of public interest. 

Of course, this general principle must admit of exceptions. Those, in the view of the Press Council, should be under narrow and precise legislative provisions so that only where public or private interests substantially outweigh the general principle should suppression be permitted. The Press Council has already expressed the opinion to one state government that a provision permitting suppression on the grounds of "public decency and morality" was unacceptable because it was vague and involved intensely disputed concepts. 

Further, the Press Council believes that in any application for suppression, reasonable opportunity to intervene should be made available to the press, and indeed the media generally. Such intervention occurs in some cases in Western Australia, and arrangements permitting it are found in some jurisdictions overseas. This is of especial importance when the application for suppression is by consent. Even in other instances, such intervention would permit the court to have the benefit of arguments presenting a wider community interest. 

In this context the Press Council must record its regret concerning the refusal of a recent application by West Australian Newspapers Pty Ltd to review an order suppressing certain evidence in the preliminary hearing of charges against two Perth company directors. WA Newspapers Pty Ltd had not previously had the opportunity to express its viewpoint. On the other hand, the South Australian Attorney-General's intervention in a case, where the magistrate had previously ordered the court closed to the press, is a welcome development. That the enabling legislation is apparently to be reviewed is even more welcome.

 

The Press Council is most concerned in relation to this question and is monitoring a number of instances where such orders have been made. It will therefore shortly make appropriate representations to all Australian Attorneys-General and the Australian Law Reform Commission.