The Australian Press Council has upheld compaints against the Herald Sun newspaper over its portrayal of Craig Thomson.
The complaints related the Herald Sun edition of May 22, 2012. The News Limited Melbourne tabloid portayed Thomson on its front page with a Pinocchio nose.
Four pages inside the paper attacked Thomson over his statement to the House of Representatives on May 21 about the investigation into his behaviour as an official of the Health Services Union.
The Press Council concluded: “… that the overall impact of the front page and page 7 was highly unfair to Mr Thomson by seeking to convey too close an analogy with a courtroom conviction on criminal charges, especially at a time when the laying of such charges was being widely demanded and anticipated. Accordingly, the complaints against the newspaper’s coverage are upheld on that ground.”
Text of Australian Press Council Adjudication No. 1556. Available on the APC website.
Adjudication No. 1556: Debra Creevy and others/Herald Sun (November 2012)
28 Nov 2012
The Australian Press Council has considered complaints by a number of people about the coverage in the Herald Sun on 22 May 2012 of the speech by Craig Thomson MP to Federal Parliament on the previous day. The coverage featured a very large photograph of Mr Thomson, digitally altered to have a Pinocchio-like nose, over which was a headline reading “Teary Thomson claims he’s a victim of bizarre conspiracy”. A headline lower on the page read “But reader’s jury says his story is full of holes:” under which was a further headline reading “We don’t believe you”.
Pages 4 to 7 of the newspaper comprised a series of reports and comments about the speech (each of which had a banner headline running across the top which read “We don’t believe you”). Pages 4 and 5 were headed “Cops doubt Thomson phone clone claim” and quoted “law enforcement experts” to that effect. Page 5 consisted largely of a section headed “Reasons we know Craig is lying” which listed a number of his claims and reported evidence from court documents and the report of a Fair Work Australia investigator which appeared to conflict with those claims.
Page 7 consisted mainly of a section with the principal heading “The Reader Verdict”, above which was a heading “We asked our own jury if they believed Craig Thomson’s claims”. The names and photographs of each of twelve people were shown, together in each case with the heading “Don’t believe” (or, in two cases, “Can’t decide”) and a few sentences were shown as quotes of their views. The page also reported, under a heading, “What you said”, that of the 12,082 readers who replied to a poll on the newspaper’s website asking “Do you believe Craig Thomson was set up and did nothing wrong?” some 89% had answered in the negative.
Some complainants concentrated on the front page, but others were concerned about the overall coverage. The principal criticism was that the material unfairly pre-judged Mr Thomson and constituted “trial by media”. Some complainants thought the coverage did not provide adequate balance or was unreasonably offensive. It was also complained that the quoted comments accompanying some of the “verdicts” headed “Don’t believe” were not as unequivocal as that summary suggested.
The newspaper responded that the trustworthiness of parliamentarians was of crucial importance in a democracy and therefore required very close scrutiny by the media, especially when there were such strong grounds for concern. It said the coverage should be assessed as an overall package and had been accurate, fair and balanced. It said that the coverage accurately represented its readers’ opinions, as shown by its jury and poll, as well as those of many parliamentarians and press gallery members.
The newspaper said the coverage did not imply a jury verdict in a court of law, as the term jury was also used in many other, non-legal contexts. It said each juror had been shown the full speech by Mr Thomson and then chosen whether his or her views should be summarised as “Don’t believe” or “Can’t decide”. It also pointed out that the digital alteration of Mr Thomson’s photograph had been acknowledged on the front page.
The Press Council considers that detailed and forthright description and analysis of the issues in this case was not only acceptable but a matter of considerable public importance. It was reasonable to include extensive reference to the views of the newspaper’s readership and other members of the public, as well as the kind of trenchant criticism of Mr Thomson’s claims which was provided in the articles on pages 4 and 5.
The Council has concluded, however, that the overall impact of the front page and page 7 was highly unfair to Mr Thomson by seeking to convey too close an analogy with a courtroom conviction on criminal charges, especially at a time when the laying of such charges was being widely demanded and anticipated. Accordingly, the complaints against the newspaper’s coverage are upheld on that ground.
Supplementary Note (not required for publication by the newspaper):
Although many of the complaints focused especially on the altered image of Mr Thomson, the adjudication does not mean that the image in itself constituted a breach of the Council’s principles. It also does not imply any change in the Council’s principles relating to depictions of people in cartoons.
Relevant Council Standard (not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies part of the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.”