The issue of public interest in naming offenders

Australian Press Council re: Council for Civil Liberties vs. Townsville Bulletin

ADJUDICATION No. 918 (April 1997)

Objecting to The Townsville Bulletin's publication of the names of convicted child offenders, the Australian Council for Civil Liberties (supported by the NSW Council for Civil Liberties) argued that the publication could not be justified by any "legitimate public interest".

The newspaper justified publication on the grounds of considerable public interest.

After deliberating on an important example of whether its principle protecting the right to privacy was breached, the Australian Press Council determined that the publication was a matter of public record and sufficiently significant public interest to override whatever privacy rights existed, and has dismissed the complaint.

In its issue of 20 February 1997, The Townsville Bulletin published a page one article about the publication by New Zealand author, Deborah Coddington, of the book "Australian Paedophile and Sex Offender Index", a compilation of convictions published in Australian newspapers and court records.

It quoted Ms Coddington's justifications for publishing the book, as well as reservations about such publication by Townsville police superintendent John Howell.

On page two, it listed the names of eight men who lived or had lived in the Townsville areas and details of the child sex offences for which they had been convicted, all in the 1990s.

The President of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties (Brisbane), T P O'Gorman, wrote to the Press Council expressing "our deep concern at the irresponsibility of The Townsville Bulletin in printing the names as we contend that there is no legitimate public interest which can possibly justify the newspaper's publication of the names". He also argued that "there is absolutely no public benefit at all which can be argued in support of the publication of the names".

The Australian Press Council does not agree.

One of its most important principles, designed to protect the liberties and human rights of individuals, states that readers are entitled to have news and comment presented fairly "and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest".

There are two grounds for the Press Council's adjudication on this matter.

First, the details were all on the public record, being the decisions and evidence in open courts in Australia.

It is fundamental to the workings of the criminal law system in a democracy that they be open to public scrutiny which, to most citizens, means accurate and balanced reporting in the media.

Second, the publication of the details relating to the eight men with Townsville connections was a legitimate way for Townsville people to be informed about the criminal activities of men in their community, especially as some of the convictions were in courts a far distant from the North Queensland city.

The Council for Civil Liberties argues that any "public interest factor can be served by the publication of details minus the identity of names".

The problem with this argument is that lack of clear identification, and precise names are central to that identification, creates the serious risk that innocent people can be wrongly identified by the community, gravely damaging their civil rights.

"We are concerned", the Council for Civil Liberties also says, "at the hugely destructive effect of the publication of names on the families of offenders, both the immediate family and the family of origin".

It is a legitimate concern and one the Press Council urges editors always to consider when reporting on crime.

However, taken to its logical conclusion it would oblige newspapers to mask the names of virtually everybody convicted of serious crimes, which would be intolerable restriction on freedom of speech and the right of people to be informed.

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