Chair’s statement on the disposition of complaints about cartoon in The Australian
The Australian published a cartoon by Bill Leak on 4 August 2016, apparently in response to the revelations about the horrific treatment of children in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Correctional Centre. The cartoon portrayed an Aboriginal police officer holding a young man by his shirt collar, saying “You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility” to an Aboriginal man holding a beer can, who replies “Yeah, righto – what’s his name then”.
This provoked extremely strong reactions in the general community and in the media, including condemnations of the cartoon and online petitions describing it as “disgraceful”, “insulting”, and “discriminatory”, among other things. A social media meme under the hashtag #IndigenousDads went viral, with Indigenous people sharing photos and stories about their families and the positive influence of their fathers on their lives.
The publication was also strongly defended by others, citing the overriding importance of free speech and freedom of the press. The Australian released a statement saying “Bill Leak’s confronting and insightful cartoons force people to examine the core issues in a way that sometimes reporting and analysis can fail to do”. Many journalists, media commentators and other political cartoonists expressed their considerable unease with the particular cartoon, yet ultimately concluded that, in the interests of free speech, it should not be formally censured.
The Australian Press Council—the body responsible for establishing Standards of Practice for print and online publications and for handling complaints in this area—received over 700 complaints about the cartoon, mainly from individuals but also from leading Indigenous groups and peak associations.
Under the Council’s Standards of Practice (General Principle 6), the key question is whether the publication “took reasonable steps” to “avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”.
It is relatively straightforward for the Council to determine whether a publication has taken reasonable steps to ensure accuracy. It is much more fraught to determine whether an expression of opinion that has palpably caused offence to some members of the community is nevertheless sufficiently in the public interest.
The Press Council understands and actively champions the notion that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are the essential underpinnings of a liberal democracy, ensuring that citizens are able to hold powerful individuals and interests accountable, and to promote the contest of ideas that best enables sound policymaking, good government and a strong and open society.
In light of the powerful public interest in a free and vigorous press, great deference is given to expressions of political opinion. Longstanding tradition dictates that satire and cartooning should be afforded even greater latitude, which is why the “Je suis Charlie” campaign, which started after a terrorist attack in Paris killed a number of journalists and cartoonists, resonated so powerfully around the world.
When the Press Council receives a complaint, its processes are geared towards providing an appropriate remedy. This may involve a correction or an apology; the publication of a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece, or in a small proportion of cases a formal adjudication determining whether a publication has breached the Standards of Practice.
Balancing all of these considerations, and after consulting with key complainants, the Press Council considers that the best outcome in the public interest is to promote free speech and the contest of ideas through the publication of two major op-ed pieces in The Australian, providing Indigenous perspectives on the cartoon and shedding light on the underlying issues.
With the agreement by The Australian to publish these items prominently, we believe that the complaints have been effectively resolved through an appropriate remedy, and no further action will be taken by the Press Council.
We thank all of the complainants for their interest in maintaining media standards, and the editors of The Australian for their cooperative and constructive approach in this matter.
Professor David Weisbrot AM
Chair, Australian Press Council
Read the two op-ed items here