The Press Council considered a complaint from Stephen Caldwell about an article published in The Border Mail on 13 June 2018 headed “Nude snap an agenda item” in print and “Towong councillors to discuss mayor's exposed bottom picture sent as Christmas greeting” online, a day earlier.
The article reported that the Mayor of the Towong Shire Council had sent a text message to the complainant with an image of two naked men decorating a Christmas tree and the accompanying message: “Here’s a new Christmas wish for you” and that the Mayor had announced he would write a formal apology to the complainant for sending it. It also reported the Shire Council would “formally address” the Mayor at an upcoming meeting about the message which was referred to as “bare-bummed Christmas photo greeting to a ratepayer”. The article further said the complainant would not be accepting the apology and said “The homosexual rejected (the Mayor’s) explanation that he had sent the text as a joke after receiving it from a female friend.” The complainant was quoted saying “If (the Mayor) thinks it’s a laugh, what’s he laughing at, is he laughing at my sexuality?”
The complainant said he spoke with a journalist from the publication before the article appeared. The complainant said he had a long history of contact and trust with the publication and he believed the article would be about the Mayor’s alleged misconduct and the conduct of the Shire Council. The complainant said that while he spoke openly to the publication about his sexuality, he never gave the publication permission to refer to his sexuality in the article nor to describe him as “The homosexual”. The complainant said that this reference to him caused him significant distress, including fear of being harmed. The complainant said it caused substantial embarrassment to his family and harm to his reputation in the community. He also said that after suffering abuse as a result of the article, he closed his business in fear of further repercussions.
The publication said it was important to include the description “The homosexual” because it was relevant to the context of the article. The publication said it used the words to clarify the quote from the complainant in which the complainant himself pointed to his sexuality as a possible reason why the Mayor sent the image to him. The publication said the complainant repeatedly referred to himself as a “homosexual man” in conversations and correspondence with it and in correspondence with others, and told the journalist that he preferred being referred to as a “homosexual” rather than “gay”. The publication said the complainant was an active participant in the story after he approached it about the Mayor’s conduct and never suggested he was unhappy with the description, even after publication of the article, although he had contacted the publication to complain about other aspects of published material.
The Council’s Standards of Practice relevant in this matter require the publication to take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, without sufficient justification in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The Council accepts that the complainant told the publication about his sexuality and indeed pointed to his sexuality as a possible reason why the text was sent to him. However, the Council considers that in referring to the complainant as “The homosexual” the publication gave a strong and unnecessary emphasis to his sexuality. The Council considers that neither participating in the story or nor telling the journalist he preferred to describe himself as “homosexual” rather than “gay” was a consent by the complainant to his sexuality being emphasized in this manner. The Council considers that given the concerns expressed by the complainant about the Mayor possibly ridiculing his sexuality by sending the text message, the obligation to take reasonable steps to avoid causing distress or prejudice required the publication to ensure that the complainant agreed to his sexuality being explicitly referred to in the story, and being referred to in a way that gave such strong emphasis to it. Accordingly the publication breached General Principle 6.