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Press Council finds in favour of Herald Sun over ‘Q&A sob story star’ expose

The Press Council has ruled that News Corp’s Herald Sun did not breach its the Standards of Practice in an article which “exposed” Q&A audience participant Duncan Storrar as a “thug”.

duncan-storrar-on-abc-tvs-qa
The article titled “ABC HERO A VILLAIN: Q&A sob story star exposed as a thug as public donate $60,000” was published on the front page of the paper on May 13 last year, after having first appeared online with a similar headline the day before.

The story resulted from Storrar’s appearance on ABC’s Q&A Budget special program on May 9 where he commented to panelists: “I’ve got a disability and a low education – that means I’ve spent my whole life working off a minimum wage. You’re gonna lift the tax-free threshold for rich people. If you lift my tax-free threshold, that changes my life. That means that I get to say to my little girls, ‘Daddy’s not broke this weekend, we can go to the pictures.’ Rich people don’t even notice their tax-free threshold lift…. Low-income earners lose more money, because every penny we pay in tax, is, just, that’s money we don’t have to spend at the bottom end. People who make $80,000 a year, don’t know who they are, well, they don’t even notice it, love. We notice that sort of stuff, eh?”

He subsequently found himself at the centre of a social media storm with numerous viewers and commentators pegging him as the face of Australia’s Budget crisis and financial inequality – with some going so far as to call him a “national hero”.

A GoFundMe campaign was launched on the back of Storrar’s appearance on the show, with the aim of raising funds for him to buy a toaster: “Hey – Duncan seems like a good bloke and every little bit of cash goes a long way. We reckon he deserves a bit of a helping hand so we’ve decided to buy him a new toaster.  6 grand oughtta cover it. And if he has a little bit left over, maybe he can take his kids to the movies or something. Would you like to kick in a few dollars?” the campaign page explained.

$60,051 was raised, smashing the original $6,000 goal – a reference to federal cabinet minister Kelly O’Dwyer’s claim that the government’s tax policies would enable cafe owners to purchase the $6,000 appliances for their businesses.

The subsequent Herald Sun article opened with: “Duncan Storrar, the Geelong man the ABC presented as a “new national hero”, has an extensive criminal record over two decades, including threats to kill and unlawful assault.”

The online version of the Herald Sun's Duncan Storrar expose

The online version of the Herald Sun’s Duncan Storrar expose

The Press Council, the industry’s self regulation body, conceded that Storrar did not necessarily court the level of national attention he received, or ask for the financial rewards, but contended “it was not a breach of the General Principle 3 for the publication to report frankly about his background and use epithets that reflect his criminal record”.

In addition: “The council considered that reporting the man’s background resulted from the entirety of the circumstances in which he had: become part of the public debate about taxation fairness during an election campaign; been described a national hero; made multiple media statements himself; and, especially, become the subject of a significant public fundraising campaign”.

Storrar’s social media rise and fall from grace was not indicative of a problematic culture around those who dare to speak out, The Press Council said, noting however that it “may have caused” distress to the subject.

“Publication of some aspects of the man’s criminal record and family background may have been an intrusion on the man’s privacy and may have caused some level of offence, distress, prejudice, and risk to health and safety.

“The Council might have been concerned if such exposure was the consequence for anyone daring to ask a challenging question, so producing a chilling effect on free speech. However, given the man’s previous convictions, his appearance on Q&A, his subsequent interviews, the GoFundMe campaign and the reporting leading up to the article, the Council is not satisfied the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on his reasonable expectation of privacy or causing substantial offence, distress, prejudice or risk to health or safety.”

The Press Council appears to have placed significant emphasis on the GoFundMe campaign which resulted from Storrar’s appearance on Q&A, in finding in favour of the Herald Sun, with the adjudication concluding:

“The Council concluded that it was justified in the public interest to report his background, especially given the GoFundMe campaign. There is a public interest in all Australians – including those who have committed offences in the past or otherwise behaved in ways which might rightly be criticised – having a fair opportunity to participate in public debate, especially in the context of an election campaign. However, in this situation there was a greater public interest in informing the public about the man’s background. Accordingly, the Council concluded that General Principles 5 and 6 were not breached.”  

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