The Australian Press Council considered a complaint by John Stansfield about an article in the Newcastle Herald, headed “A Waratah family complains about unwanted visits from an ‘aggressive’ autistic group home resident” on 11 December 2015 online and “WHO CARES: The group home, the screaming resident, the neighbourhood nightmare” on 12 December 2015 in print. The article reported disturbances experienced by a “neighbour” of the group home in which the complainant’s grandson was resident, and a named family living “two blocks away” who expressed concerns about the security and management of the group home.
The photo caption in the print article said the family “live near” the group home and that “[a]n autistic resident screams through the night and bangs on their windows”.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading, and is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principles 1 and 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or unfair or unbalanced, 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 Standards also require that publications take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, and to avoid causing or materially contributing to substantial offence or distress – unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principles 5 and 6). Being in the public interest does not refer to being of interest to members of the public but to the interests of society.
The complainant said the information reported about his grandson was inaccurate, misleading and unfair. He said the photo caption in the print version of the article misleadingly implied the family were living near enough to the home to hear a resident screaming through the night though they lived two blocks away, which presented the situation unfairly.
The complainant also said the article breached his grandson’s privacy and caused considerable distress to his family and incited prejudice against people with intellectual disabilities. He said despite the publication’s use of a pseudonym, his grandson’s identity was “thinly veiled” as the pseudonym used was very close to his grandson’s real name, and references to his age, disability and family would have made him recognisable, particularly among the local readership where he had grown up. The complainant said the article had “demonised” his vulnerable grandson in an article about the potential closure of state-run institutions under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). He also said the paper had not sought the appropriate consent to feature his grandson in the article.
The publication responded that the article was well-informed, fair and balanced, and was an account of the experience of a family living two blocks from the group home as well as that of a closer neighbour. It said the article accompanying the caption made it clear these were separate sources.
The publication said the article arose from a matter of “public concern” and the complainant’s grandson was not its focus. Rather, the article was one of several reports it had published on the NDIS and its impact on local disability services. The publication also referred to its editorial “When things go wrong with disability care”, which accompanied the original article and lent further context to its reporting.
The publication said it had consulted the group home’s management and had sought permission to speak with the resident concerned, but the contact person had declined to comment or give permission. It said care was taken to anonymise the resident concerned, and that including this material was justified given the significant public interest in the issue. The publication also said substantial space was given to the responses of the group home’s management.
The Council concludes that the publication took reasonable steps to ensure the article was not inaccurate or misleading and was fair and balanced. Although the caption to the photograph in the print article said the family “live near” the group home and that “[a]n autistic resident screams through the night and bangs on their windows”, the article went on to qualify that the group home is “two blocks away from their house”, and the comment about the resident “screaming all night” is clearly attributed to a second source described as “a neighbour”. As a result, any ambiguity in the caption was clarified. In addition the accompanying editorial contextualised the article, using the personal experience of the named family to shed light on the wider debate on local disability services. The Council concludes there was no failure to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy, fairness or balance. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
As there was no breach of General Principles 1 and 3, the Council considers there was no requirement for the publication to address General Principles 2 and 4. Accordingly, these aspects of the complaint are not upheld.
The Council acknowledges a degree of intrusion on the group home resident’s privacy, but this is outweighed by the significant public interest in an article concerning vulnerable people in care. The publication took steps to conceal the young man’s identity and did not reference him gratuitously. Despite this, he may have been recognisable in the report to those in the local community who already knew him. The Council also considers that the apparent public nature of the reported behaviour reduced the reasonable expectation of privacy under General Principle 5. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
The Council appreciates that the depiction of the group home resident’s behaviour resulted in a degree of offence and distress for family members and friends. However, the Council also recognises the reported behaviour was essential in describing the experience of the local family, presented in the context of the wider community debate on disability services. In this respect, the publication has taken reasonable steps to sufficiently balance any likely offence with the overall public interest as required by General Principle 6. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is also not upheld.